Forgive my optimism

It’s not like I’ve not been to Czechoslovakia before. Back when I was serving in the US Cavalry (and despite what my kids think I did not ride a horse and rescue settlers) we would sometimes get out of our small fast cavalry tanks and patrol the Czech boarder on foot, following old snow-covered footpaths through cold, fog enshrouded forests. We would occasionally pass white stone boarder markers, in size about six inches square and standing a little less than knee high, which marked the boundary between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. At one of these markers while my sergeant wasn’t looking I stuck my foot inside the border. It was a thrill. I’d been to a new country. Well, a part of me had at least. My foot the world traveler.

Sometimes on patrol we would see our counterpart Czech guards across the way. Against our orders we would occasionally wave and they would wave back. Once one pulled out his rifle and started using it as an air-guitar to show he could rock like the best of us. We all laughed and he laughed back. Of course he was a communist and we weren’t supposed to talk to them, but no one really enforced the rules on smiling, waving, or using your weapon as an instrument of Heavy Metal play-acting. We had what fun we could. I hoped I would never have to shoot him. That was the rule though, if someone was trying to escape across the border we could not do anything until they hit West German soil, then if the Czech guards continued firing we were suppose to open up on them.

I was in Prague Monday. I visited the Communist Museum and everything about it made me want to go against the tide of sentiments I see back home among the American Saints. I’m sorry to say it, and you will likely find this offensive, but I think the world is becoming a better place. Jan Egeland, The former UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and former UN Emergency Relief Chief, in his book A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report form the Frontlines of Humanity thinks so too. He’s seen the worst of humanity. He was on the ground at Darfur. He’s negotiated with Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia. He’s been on the ground brokering peace in the Middle East. He was on-site organizing UN efforts at the Tsunami in Indonesia. But he writes:

    I am convinced that for the majority of people, the world is getting better. There is more peace, more people are fed an educated, and fewer are forced to become refugees than a generation ago—in spite of the halfhearted investment by rich and powerful nations.

Terrorism wins only when they create, well, terror. And they’ve done a great job of getting people to buy into their agenda, especially during the last eight years. But not me. No more. I’m drawing a line. I’m going to be happy, optimistic and joyful despite remaining problems. Yes, by all means, run around with ‘financial crisis’, ‘growing evil’, ‘everyone be afraid’ blah blah blah on you lips. But I’m not listening anymore. I’m not going to spin in circles, fearful of others, seeing evil everywhere I turn, stockpiling supplies, and guarding them with my gun. No I’m done with those of you giving terrorists what they want. I’ve had my fill of ‘be afraid’ and ‘please panic at this time’ and ‘this is an evil time’. I see a breathtaking world growing better and better all the time. Amazing things are happening everywhere. Forgive my optimism but there is too much good going on the world to give into fear. Sorry to disappoint.

I know we are supposed to be about doom and gloom. Fear is the message we give each other. It’s condition Orange (whatever that means) in the Chicago airport and they remind you about every 10 minutes. But I can’t help but see things improving and improving in important ways. Yes the message everywhere is to be afraid, be very afraid. The world is in crisis and you should be panicking right now. We are so distracted with trivialities and convinced this or that is a sign of evil and damnation we are forgetting what an amazing time we live, how much freedom we enjoy, how much has changed for the good despite persistent and evident setbacks. There is great cause to rejoice in this world! Things are just not just going down hill. There are as many reasons for hope as there are for fear and despair.

Prague is now a vibrant, happening place. Even more of me than my foot was able to visit this time. There was a lot going on that could have never happened back when I was guarding the border. So, there it is. Fear if you want. Panic and run around screaming at how bad things are and shake your clenched fist at the growing evil in the world. If you are determined to be afraid, carry on. I’m done. I’m seeing things from another perspective and the future looks so bright and shiny I feel like dancing. Maybe I’m just playing air-guitar on an impassible border, but, hey, it has to start somewhere.


  1. S.P. Bailey says:

    I completely agree with the message of gratitude, optimism and joyfulness. This is a good time to be alive in many, many ways. On the other hand, I don’t think gratitude, optimism, and joyfulness are the opposite of acknowledging all of the seriously evil and scary sh!* going on in the world right now.

    Intentional or not, this post seems to tap into the lame political/rhetorical posturing that one side is about “fear” and the other side is about “hope.” Regardless of what happens next week, here’s hoping for some real substantive solutions to the scary stuff. The squishy Pollyanna stuff isn’t going to cut it.

  2. (psst — Calvary / Cavalry)

  3. What a refreshing change from … well, I started to list all the places that have been trying to convince me to be fearful lately, but I’ll shorten it to “everything.” Thanks! Time to start living again.

  4. Thanks Ardis I fixed it!

  5. When were you stationed in Germany, Steven? I was there from 84-88 with the Army.

  6. Hi Tony, a little earlier 76-78, in Schweinfurt!

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m with you, Steven. (One of the things I loved about GBH was his unconquerable optimism.)

  8. Steven, yes that was before my time. I was in Heilbronn.

  9. Well said. Rock on!

  10. but I think the world is becoming a better place.

    But…but…but…that means the Second Coming will be delayed…no…no…no…the world must be at war!

  11. I’m all for realistic hope at all times. The world has never been as good a place to live, on aggregate, as it is right now. P.J. O’Rourke made that point very well in the introduction to “All the Trouble in the World.”

    At the same time, there are dangers in the world that it would be foolish to ignore. Getting some perspective on the damaged caused by terrorists would be good, but I don’t know how you tell people “Sorry that you lost your Mom/Dad/child/spouse/whatever,” but only losing a handful/dozen/hundred lives makes this a minor attack.” More Americans die in cars than die in war or terror attacks, but we’re still going to pay attention to the dozens-to-hundreds lost there over the thousands lost to people who drive dangerously.

  12. I think it’s interesting when people who are a hundred plus years old asked how they live so long, most of them are very optimistic and positive about life. They have the trials that we all have. Not to change the topic but there is so much negitive out there in the media, etc. that it’s so easy to get caught up in it. There is so much good out there but we have to force ourselves to look at the positve when it’s so much easier to look at the negitive.

  13. I know we are supposed to be about doom and gloom.

    Whatever my feelings about the ineptitudes of the US government, particularly DHS and its TSA subsidiary, I also lived in DC for eight years. My wife and I were living there, in DC itself, on 9/11 and for the years afterwards (the mail service to our house was shut down for a while due to real, honest anthrax found at our post office station). Our house was a mile equidistant from the Israeli embassy, the VP’s residence, and the temporary DHS HQ, and as a member of the ward bishopric, I had responsibility for preparing ward contingency and evacuation plans in the event of a terrorist attack within our ward boundaries (which extended down to the Mall and over to [but didn’t include] the White House). I take terrorism very seriously.

    But even so, I’m not sure where you get the “we are supposed to be about doom and gloom” or who “we” is. The acts of a particular terrorist group don’t counteract the improvements worldwide in freedoms, standards of living, and communications; perhaps ironically (depending upon whom you meant by “we”), the current administration has been criticized for being too optimistic about such improvements, either current or potential.

    At the same time, I have a certain cynicism about the efforts and effectiveness of the United Nations — not from any of the usual right-wing paranoia, but because of the rampant corruption in the upper reaches of the UN, not to mention among UN “peacekeeping” troops. You might also want to read Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, written by three former UN workers (who again have no particular political agenda other than to actually help people). [Warning, though: one of the authors spends far too much time talking about her personal sex life, in detail, than I think the book ever required.]

    Your mileage, as always, may vary. ..bruce..

  14. I loved this post. Mostly because your optimism reminds me of every talk spoken at General Conference three/four weeks ago. I never once heard them say “Be very afraid!” They might have said “Be prepared” but the overall message was “Love, hope, have faith, laugh, etc.”

    I’d rather be happy and have hope, too. It’s better on the heart and mind. :)

  15. I agree with the sentiments of this post, but it doesn’t quite address the tension that I often feel in having such optimism while believing in the gospel.

    While it’s true that GBH and other GA’s often set an optimistic tone, there’s a difference between approaching life positively and believing that the “world is getting better and better.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say quite the latter (though they do frequently marvel at our technological advancements and such).

    I’ve often felt that being a Christian of any sort kind of thwarts one optimism about the progression of the world. The gospel’s message is that the world will get worse and worse until the Second Coming, so how does one square that with evidence to the contrary?

  16. Terrorism is the tactic of the weak. They can hurt us but they cannot defeat us unless they can provoke us (into invading an oil rich Arab country, for example).

    When victory or defeat are in our hand, we are in a pretty good position and ought to be self-confident.

    It is unfortunate that we did so much damage to ourselves during the last six years. With better leadership, we can turn it around.

  17. By the way, I served in the 4th Infantry Division, your right neighbor in the line of battle and my father in the 12th Armor Division, your left neighbor.

    When I was born, my father was a company commander in Wildflecken. I am sure you have had to suffer there.

  18. I know we are supposed to be about doom and gloom. Fear is the message we give each other.

    I tend to think that we are about “doom and gloom” for a reason — that reason being that we must learn hard lessons in this existence.

    I also tend to think that we are about “fear” for a reason — there are things worthy of fear that exist.

    So those perspectives simply reflect good judgment.

    I would suggest that “doom and gloom” can and should coexist with optimism. And “fear” should coexist with other emotions.

    You know, I often hesitate to post since I feel I’m just stating the obvious. In this case, everyone surely knows that emotions coexist in a single person, and good judgment will recognize that. Sorry if I’m beating a dead horse…

  19. S.P. Bailey #1, I’m not trying to be political here (except in the sense that Marx said, everything is Politics), I see this fear in Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. In fact I see few differences between the candidates in this regard (save names of books and such). If there is an us vs. them in my post it’s the fear I’ve noticed in Americans and the hand wringing fear I see in so much of our conversation with each other and on the internet, compared with the Europeans I’m working with in Austria. America seems to have cast their eyes down, stooped their shoulders, and given in to their fears.

    #11 It’s also our response to terrorism I’m focusing on. Not our national response per se but our individual response that has played into their hands because we have taken upon us a victim’s fear. Yes there have been tragedies. In fact, Egeland who I mention lost several very close personal friends in the UN bombing in Bagdad. Yet he is still hopeful. I think we can be too.

    #12 It’s true! People who live a long long time are the most optimistic (and they were when they were young too).

    #13 I’ve been working in the UN for my sabbatical for a year now and holy cow, I didn’t know this level of bureaucracy was possible! Bloated. It’s unbelievable. And I know there are deep problems, but when you bring in hundreds of nations with different perspectives, where corruption is common in some of them, such things I suppose are unavoidable. But saying that, no one else is going to address the deep problems that takes multinational efforts in any other way. Problems like the one I’m working on Tsetse fly, other mosquitoes, the sex trade in humans, poverty and other problems there is no other organization even coming close. As bad as it is, unless you can come up with something better, it is still better than nothing. And I have to give a plug for the guys in the blue helmets. They’ve stood where no other country will go. They’ve stood between rage and massacre many times. The large countries intervene only when their economics or ideologies are threatened. Who stands for the poor?

    #14, #14. Yes Conference was hopeful! Maybe the most optimistic ever. And you know I must say that the person that most reflects the European hopefulness I’m talking about is Elder Uchtdorf! (Not that the others are not hopeful, mind you, but he seems to reflect this European kind of hopefulness I’ve noticed here).

    Also, I want to add that I don’t think the opposite of Faith is Doubt. I think it’s Fear. My message is that fear is our enemy. I think of the attitude our grandfathers and grandmothers displayed after WWII. They rolled up their sleeves with optimism. Not a Pollyannish ignoring of the problems, but a willingness to work with hope, facing the future. The financial crisis has a lot of causes, but the way out has to be faced with optimism. So do the many problems we face such as terrorism. Fear has produced some of the greatest harms we’ve seen. The 16th century witch hunts, the McCarthyism of the ‘50’s. Anytime we give into fear of others, evil triumphs. Fear is the opposite of faith. Again, give into if you want. I’m not anymore.

  20. AMEN, AMEN, AMEN, and AMEN. I have long been perplexed at the LDS culture (and often our leaders’ words) that insist that the world is more evil now than it has ever been before. The world has always been evil, and it has always been immoral (as a rule. I know there are exceptions in time and location).

    When I pose the question to my friends, “how is the world getting more evil?” they are usually at a loss for words, saying, “morally it’s getting more loose…” then I ask them what that means. They usually say something about pornography and explicit TV shows.

    I think the doom and gloom culture in our church (and Christianity in general) is counter-productive. If we look at the world, standards of living are rising, infant mortality is dropping, mass warfare is more contained (4000 US and 90,000 civilian deaths in Iraq? That’s a miracle. In Vietnam 60,000 Americans died and 3.5 million Vietnamese. Not to condone the Iraq War, just saying…). I mean, has anyone here had Polio? Does anyone here know anybody with Smallpox? How many modern nations today allow slavery? What about the establishment of international law? Better than it has ever been before. What about open, free-flowing communication and information? The information at my fingertips right now would have made me a king 500 years ago. What about the blessings of the internet and the transparency of government that has ensued? What about the state of the world’s economy? Despite the recent turmoil, we are still MANY folds more at ease today than even 50 years ago.

    Too many blessings to count in this age. The world’s getting better.

    Remember, as Brigham Young said, it is the Saints’ duty to bring about the Millenium! Let’s take honest stock of our progress and just get to work preparing this world for the Savior. Generations before us have broken their backs to give us what we have today. We must carry on, knowing that the state of the world today is not only redeemable, but also an improvement in so so so many ways.

  21. Great post!

    Whether you believe the world is getting better or worse there is one constant thing in my mind the can and hopefully will make it better, and that is optimism. If we are expecting bad things, and not looking for a brighter future then it will not come. If we look at the negative, (The war, the ‘terror’, the multiple Wal-Marts popping up like daises), then it will always seem to get worse. There is a lot to be done, but there is also a lot being done, by good people, and good society.

  22. Mark,

    I loved the comment and completely agree. I just want to add something.

    Apparently Vienna is the second safest city in the world. (Steve, correct me if I’m wrong). It’s at least up there. Anyway, they can drink at 15, smoke at a young age, and there is immodesty on many billboards, and signs. This is a lot more lenient than America, but still it’s one of the safest cities. Yes, morally things could be better, but what I am trying to say is that that does not mean the world is wicked, and getting worse. They are doing something right there.

    I feel that LDS culture needs the belief that things are going down hill to assure them that these are the last days. (That may be a generalization). However I will close by a good ol’ copy and paste…

    Generations before us have broken their backs to give us what we have today. We must carry on, knowing that the state of the world today is not only redeemable, but also an improvement in so so so many ways.

  23. I must see the world very different way from all the other posters here…

    I don’t consider safety, finances, or wars to be anywhere near as important as ego, humility, anger, greed, or personal improvement with respect to God.

    Look, over and over again in the Bible and BOM life and death are traded-off for lessons. That is, lessons are far more important than life or death.

    So, apparently, when we have a conversation about optimism and fear, I am just looking at a completely different world than you.

  24. TonyD, valid perspective to offer, and inevitable in a discussion like this.

    We could spend hours discussing this. We could spend days writing about it. We could spend a lifetime researching it. So I don’t think any points you or I could make will be final, all-inclusive, or whatever.

    That said, I will respond briefly to what I perceive as your point: that all these accomplishments of humanity mean very little if we simply aren’t good, humble, kind people. Maybe your point is, more specifically, that all these accomplishments of humanity mean very little BECAUSE the world is simply not full of good, humble, kind people. Either way, my response would be similar:

    I agree! These accomplishments mean little if we’re not collectively getting closer to God. However, I think we ARE collectively closer to God than some in our culture seem to believe. The way I see it, the kind of progress the world has seen over the past 200 years is not possible without some sort of collective adherence to foundational truths. Ie, you can’t separate these accomplishments as meaningless because they are the result of our world collectively adopting the lessons that, as you said, are far more important than life or death.

    For example, in Cambodia and Thailand this summer I realized that Americans take for granted the system of honesty that is so established, expected and enforced in our nation and most other developed nations. Without honesty, the business world would be crushed under the burden of widespread mistrust and betrayal. In my engineering profession trust between companies is HUGE.

    For another example, respecting the rights of others as human beings worthy of love, although you rarely hear such words in the political realm, is at the core of international law and international agreements that are being developed to deal with acts of genocide, human trafficking, etc.

    Honesty is tied to respect, which is tied to love, which is tied to not hurting others, which is tied to not hurting self, which is tied to hope, which is tied to God, which is tied to everything which is good and wholesome! You can’t separate the good and call some of it meaningless – it all comes from God.

    I could go on, but I should get back to work. Are there areas we’ve slid back on? Yes. We can work on those. But again, the way I see it all these accomplishments of humanity have only been possible because we are doing something right.

    I’ve enjoyed the comments, guys. I love good discussions like these.

  25. I’ll have what Steve P’s having. :-)

  26. Mark #24: I think we agree at a conceptual level. Thanks.

  27. Carlos U. says:

    Really? I have never been so afraid for our nation. I have become convinced in the last year that America as a nation will be destroyed. Why? The ever-increasing wickedness of the people. Within 20-40 years I expect it will be almost impossible for a non-member (and possibly for many members also) to raise normal (forget righteous) children. When it becomes impossible for a society to raise righteous children because evil is so all-encompasing, it is ripe to be destroyed. There are forces conspiring to advance their agenda and in the process riping up the Constitution to shreads. People are becoming more inmoral, blasphemus, hatters of the good… we are raising a generations soaked in and shaped by porn, accepting of homosexuality and hostile to those who call a sin a sin. Maybe things are getting better in other parts of the world, I expect that sooner or later they must, so we can preach everywhere, but shortly after that, the end indeed must come. As the Earth becomes as in the days of Noah, the Second commming will follow soon. Before that Second Coming, this nation will implode, with the Saints being the only part that will have peace, as the build Zion.

  28. cahkaylahlee says:

    “At no other time in history perhaps, has there been such a clear gap between how much we are capable of doing to improve people’s lives and how little we have actually done.” That was a quote from my high school English textbook in the introduction to modern literature. (I really don’t usually save quotes from my textbooks.)

    I think that quote it is still an accurate statement of our times. The ratio of our improvement of the human condition to our total capability is going down. However, I also think that we have done more to improve people’s lives than, perhaps, any other generation. Our capabilities to do good have expanded exponentially due to the amazing advances in technology and communication in the last 100 years or so, but I don’t think our efforts have kept up with the pace. It is one thing to say that the quality of life has improved for millions of people. It certainly has over the last few decades. But improving the quality of life does not necessarily improve the morals, or lack there of, of a people.

  29. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I spent a few days in Prague about four years ago, and I had the same reaction. The people were so hopeful, it was contagious. And it was so amazing to me to just be able to go there–to a place I had long thought I would never be allowed to go. I cried as our train crossed the border, to know what these people had been through and how far they had come.