A LITTLE MANIFESTO
Conventional wisdom says that you grow more cynical with age: optimism is the realm of the rosy-cheeked youth. For some reason, I have Benjamin Buttoned. I grow increasingly optimistic and (annoyingly) increasingly rosy-cheeked. The more sadness I see in life, the less I indulge my cynical musings and the more optimism flares inside me. This is me theorising my optimism. If I write it down at 23, and commit to it on paper, hopefully it’ll persist.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST OPTIMISM
1. Optimism causes unhappiness
In their manifesto Engineering Happiness, economists Baucells and Sarin outline ‘the fundamental equation of happiness’:
Arguably, optimism then causes unhappiness by setting unrealistically high expectations. Nietzsche put his own cheery spin on it: hope is the worst of evils because it protracts torment.
But this is only true of false hope.
Any realist must accept bitter truths— you can’t fix all the world’s problems, humans are flawed, and there is rarely such thing as a simple solution. To be an optimist, you must simply refrain from translating these into— you can’t fix anything, humans are garbage, and solutions don’t exist. Pessimists bear very heavily on what are really quite mundane facts. It remains true that you – that anyone – can help one person and change the whole world for them.
The more I witness global bureaucracy at work, the more I doubt that change will come in the form of grand, sweeping solutions; not from governments or armies or international courts. Change will come from the small acts of individual compassion that spread tolerance and understanding between cultures. I am often challenged to explain how my very localised refugee work will ‘fix’ the problem; that is entirely not the point. There is probably no way to ‘fix’ it. But if lots of people did a little bit to ameliorate it, at a human level, mountains would be scaled.
2. Optimism isn’t pragmatic
Optimism isn’t pragmatic because if you expect the best, you don’t prepare for the worst. Leave the house without an umbrella and the sky will laugh down upon you.
Idealism, maybe. But optimism I have found to be the root of proactivity. Only by believing that change is possible will you ever strive for it. I strongly believe that optimism is a force, and in the power of positive thinking.
The great risk of pessimism is descent into defeatism. Or worse still, egoism: the idea that if you can’t change the world’s problems, you may as well perpetuate them. I try not to let myself indulge my cynicism. I see the intellectual (and righteous) fun of it, but I’m getting sick of today’s obsession with dystopias. It’s too easy.
THE POSSIBILITY/PROBABILITY OF CHANGE
A pessimist historian sees the past as cyclical and humans as incapable of learning. But if you cryonically revived your Arthurian ancestor they would totally freak out at the state of the world today. It has changed beyond recognition. And by many (quantitative) measures, it has changed for the better.
Look at poverty. According to the Bible, ‘there will always be poor people’. But among experts, this attitude is being left behind in the biblical era. There will always be relative poverty, but absolute poverty (the kind that puts human lives biologically at risk due to lack of food/shelter/medicine) is increasingly seen as a technical problem amenable to agronomic, economic, medical and sociological intervention. In more countries than ever before (many still not being enough), state-sponsored social security, worldwide relief efforts, and a plethora of independent NGOs have woven a safety survival net. Many people are in greater danger of dying from obesity than starvation, and every year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, human suffering will never end. Seas will flood, viruses will spread, cars will crash (even if they are programmed to kill only their passenger), and hearts will break. Some things are out of our control. But the suffering caused by deliberate human selfishness— that’s always in our power to fight. Burke famously stated that ‘all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’. It sounds awfully moralising, but it’s really not that damning. He is simply saying that we must not do nothing at all.
THE POWER OF THE INDIVIDUAL
Optimism can quickly falter if you look upon the world’s herculean problems from your teeny tiny puddle of land. So here’s a tale about the power of the individual, which is growing every day like a big, fat beanstalk from a little magic bean:
Print, digital technology and the democratisation of power
Once upon a time a medieval blacksmith called Johannes Gutenberg was busy doing whatever blacksmiths do when he decided to invent the European printing press (I’m abridging). Hereby, he single-handedly (abridging) enabled centuries of religious, political and intellectual revolutions from the Reformation through the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ to the knowledge-based economy of the modern world.
Jump forwards to 1989, and Tim Berners-Lee is tapping out three technologies— HTML, URL, and HTTP. Enter WorldWide Web. Digital technology turned out to be the second printing revolution: power was absolutely atomised. Easier than ever were exponential grassroots movements like BlackLivesMatter, LoveWins and MeToo; the viral circulation of little Alan Kurdi’s final photo; even the Arab Spring.
Now, your broadband provider does not hand you a megaphone to the world. When everyone has a voice, the racket is deafening. This blog is one drip in an ocean of blogs that 3 billion users will collectively never find the time to read. And more menacingly, while the internet split the locus of power, it simultaneously made possible the most extreme centralisation of power history has ever seen: the digital surveillance state.
Nevertheless, power has never been so indiscriminately accessible, and voices that have long been silenced are finally echoing far and wide.
‘Ordinary’ people who did extraordinary things
(A small sample from my never-ending mac notes:)
Kwame Nkrumah was born to a poor and illiterate family in rural Nzema. By seizing every opportunity for education that came his way, he developed a philosophy of socialist pan-Africanism and led the Gold Coast in the first African declaration of independence from European Imperialism.
The story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who survived a shot in the head from a Taliban gunman, sold 1.8 million copies and made her the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate; she celebrated her 16th birthday giving a speech at the United Nations.
J.K. Rowling went from living on state benefits to selling a jaw-dropping 500 million novels that pitch purist elitism against the power of love.
John Pemberton was a veteran/pharmacist who, hoping to cure his morphine addiction, mixed X and Y and made Coca-Cola. He may not be a moral paragon, but nevertheless changed the world. His legacy is 3.1% of every beverage globally consumed. If you tried one a day, it would take you nine years to sample every one of Coca-Cola’s products. His economy is larger than Costa Rica’s.
A nice Albanian nun named Teresa dedicated everything she had to ‘the poorest of the poor’. While her hardline ideologies were broadly dubious, her ‘Missionaries of Charity’ housed people so sick that most of the world refused to approach them. Compassion combined with undeniable entrepreneurialism enabled her to scale her work across 133 countries. She obtained global celebrity, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and ultimately sainthood in 2016.
Mother Teresa is a pretty unoriginal example on my part, but unfortunately, nice people like Teresa are not usually famous. We talk disproportionately about crap people. So I’m not going to cite a list of ‘white-hero’ celebrities; suffice it to say that in voluntary work I have met a handful of people who are saints in my eyes. They are not and will never be famous, but the good they have done needs no acclaim to be validated.
THE POWER OF KINDNESS
You don’t need a rocket IQ or a billion-fund backing to make a difference. Little things can be unforgettable.
Last year I moved abroad, and I was sad to miss the English spring because (don’t laugh) for the first year ever I wouldn’t see a daffodil. My friend picked one, pressed it, and posted it 8000 miles to me. When I was 7, I dropped my gloves off a chairlift in minus-20 degrees, leaving me frozen from more than just fear on top of a very big mountain. My brother told me to put his gloves on (because he was ‘hot’) and skied me down with red raw hands. When I was 22, he bought me a wooden carving from a poor, homeless vendor, just to pay him his average weekly earnings. When I was on my last warning at school, a classmate took the blame for my graffiti. I used to waitress at the Wimbledon Tennis where Compass FMC’s (cough) food waste is abominable: my co-workers smuggled out illegal bento boxes and distributed them to homeless people. My last housemate Megan sacrificed her bedroom so we could house a homeless girl for a week. Yesterday, my mum said that if I knew a refugee who made it from Calais to the UK and had nowhere to go, I could send him our address and she would open her door for a stranger.
A remarkable thing about humans is that our happiness grows as we share it – ‘Happiness multiplies as we divide it with others’. It’s to do with that distinctive feeling of gratification/guilt that some call ‘conscience’. In Friends, Joey argues that ‘no good deed is selfless’, because it makes us feel good to do it. But who then cares about ‘selflessness’? Feeling good by doing good is evidence that people are naturally empathetic. Which is possibly our greatest virtue.
EVER HEARD OF THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT?
In 1907, a stockbroker wrote a novel called Friday the Thirteenth. Now, every year, the US economy loses $900 million on that day. This is what we call ‘the butterfly effect’.
Kindness, like superstition, has a butterfly effect. A single act of kindness ripples through a social network, setting off chains of generosity that reach far beyond the original act.
One morning in December 2012, at a drive-through in Manitoba, a customer paid for a stranger’s order. That stranger then paid for the following car, and so on and so forth for the next 226 customers over a three-hour sequence of spontaneous generosity. Social psychologists have verified this phenomenon, which was popularised in Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, Pay It Forward (later silver-screened with Kevin Spacey).
So don’t underestimate the reach you have in a single act of kindness (and don’t be the one to break the chain)!
The world has insurmountable issues, but individually we have power to make our own worlds. Live by your values; surround yourself with wonderful people; don’t be part of something that makes you sick; do what you can. It’s not about glorious heroism or grand, sweeping solutions. It’s about the flit of the butterfly.