One of my colleagues at work asked me the other day, “Are you an optimist or a pessimist? I can’t really tell.” And therein lies my problem. I want to be an optimist, but pessimism clings to me like a sticky fog.
Richard Rorty, one of my favorite philosophers, refers to “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” In an interview with the Believer magazine he said, “If I had to lay bets, my bet would be that everything is going to go to hell, but, you know, what else have we got except hope?”
So when I’m asked by Jimmy Greenfield, community manager of ChicagoNow, to "Pick any point of time in the future and write about what you hope/think/fear/expect your life will be like then” for our 18th Blogapalooz-Hour tonight, I find that I can only turn to Rorty.
My head is pessimistic. I know too many people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I’ve lost too many friends to cancer. And the bitch of it is that I’m going to lose more of them.
My guru, Leonard Cohen, wrote these lyrics in his song, “The Future”
“I've seen the future, brother
It is murder
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold and it has overturned
The order of the soul”
The future, let’s say 20 years from now, is going to be full of loss and suffering. Some people will die slowly and in pain as their cancer metastasizes to bone and blocks organs. Some will fade, slipping away five pounds at a time as even their favorite foods lose taste.
I’ve seen the future. Things are going to slide in all directions. Cancer is going to overturn the order of the soul.
But then the optimist of the will, born into my cells by my father’s genes, just says, “No. No in thunder.”
What else have we got except hope?
Hope isn’t the essence of the universe and it isn’t the truth. It’s just a choice. We must have the will to make that choice.
You see, I can’t be a teacher without choosing hope. I can’t wake up in the morning to teach writing with the pessimism of my intellect. I can’t teach if I’ve given up.
Teaching is my way of cutting through that pessimistic fog. Teaching is my statement to the world that I have optimism of the will.
Optimism of the will gives me the eyes to see the possibility that we will treat cancer completely differently in 20 years or in five. Instead of breast cancer or bladder cancer, we’ll treat cancers by their genetic makeup. We’ll target our therapies to individuals. We’ll find our way deep into the brain and figure out how to put boundaries around tumors to keep them from advancing.
We’ll learn to live with cancer, to make it small and inconvenient and tolerable without poisoning ourselves
My pessimistic intellect doesn’t know it, but my optimistic will believes it. What else have we got except hope?
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