Unflinching Optimism

OR…
Why I Write the Things I Write the Way I Write Them and Why I Generally Act Like This…

high five

I’ve written before about how being an optimist and generally positive person has actually hindered me socially, and today’s post in a way expands on that. In my experience, being positive gets me into arguments on a fairly regular basis. I know that sentence makes no sense on its surface. It’s weird to me too. It was a weird thing to type, but it’s true.
To boil down how several varied confrontations have started between me and some random other person in my life about wildly differing social topics, I’m generalizing with this postulate (which is not my philosophy…I’m on the other side of this coin, and some form of this assertion is usually what catalyzes me to offer a rebuttal):

We shouldn’t praise/reward/celebrate people for things they should be doing/things that should be expected, ‘normal’ behavior.

I get it. I really do. I understand this point of view. I even adhere to it…sort of. Sometimes. Situationally. Okay, enough with the qualifiers.
I agree to a degree that praise and rewards and celebrations should be reserved for the extraordinarily good; the Herculean effort; the sacrificial generosity. And in an ideal world, that means that praise and reward and celebration would only be granted to those people who went WAY out of their way and overboard with kindness and consideration and accommodation and personal sacrifice. Because everyone else is just ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary.’ But the thing is? We don’t live in an ideal world.

The world I live in actually OFTEN rewards cruelty and greed and corruption. Cheaters do prosper. Crime does pay. There is rest for the wicked. And it seems to me like no good deed goes unpunished…really. I read this article a few years ago and saw red.  

Know what’s a good idea?! Let’s teach compassionate young people that compassion gets you punished. That way, they’ll learn to disregard their own natural impulses for compassion. SURELY, that will make the world a better place. Great plan! <please get the heavy dose of sarcasm>
Good for this young man, despite this ridiculous application of ‘the rules’ by officials. He did the right thing. I’d want my son to behave like him, and if my son were having trouble during a race, I sure hope someone else’s son would rush to his aid, regardless of the competitive consequences. Zach Hougland still won the race and LIFE in my book.
So I make very deliberate decisions now to openly praise ‘routine’ kindness and efforts to help people and protect people and other living things.
I posted this article with similar commentary on another social media site when I initially read it, right after the actual event happened, and I immediately got baited into further dialog about it by a ‘friend’:

“They don’t keep score these days, so it didn’t matter. We’re all winners. Here’s a ribbon!”

I understand the argument that giving everyone a ‘participation trophy’ is diluting the meaning of excellence. Hell, I have a not insignificant number of friends who were raised in ‘participation trophy’ culture who say that very thing. That they didn’t ever really know when they’d done well at something because they’d receive the same praise and reward and celebration for failing that they did for succeeding. I’m not refuting that. BUT…there are a lot of kids (and adults) who just don’t try anything new or difficult because they feel reasonably assured they won’t ‘win’ at it, and they’ve been sufficiently conditioned to believe that if it’s not something they can win at, it’s not something they should even try. Or put any effort into. I don’t think participation trophies are the answer, but punishing compassion and good sportsmanship and effort expended for another person certainly aren’t the answers either. This carries over to more than sport or ‘friendly’ competition of any kind (chess…music…art…college entrance…career placement…). It carries over to human relationships which are NOT a competition. At least they shouldn’t be. But many folks seem to make them adversarial and gradated. You can’t celebrate this because someone else did better. You can’t be sad about this because someone else has it worse. You can’t care about this, because this other thing is more important. If someone else gets this opportunity, that automatically means it costs ME this opportunity, like love and justice and connection and kindness are finite resources (they aren’t!). I’m still going to praise people when they do good things even if I know they’ve made previous mistakes and will make future mistakes. I’m still going to reward the kindness and goodness I see with whatever I have to give, even when it’s ‘expected’ or ‘ordinary.’ I’m still going to celebrate sacrificial generosity when the sacrifice is less than everything the person owns or their entire life. Because NOW, in the world I currently live in, ANY kindness and goodness and generosity seems unexpected and extraordinary and sacrificial and a move toward perfection.

So when I hear or read those baiting comments like the one above ^^^^ when I openly praise my kid’s kindness and positive behavior in life in general, or when I celebrate my healthy, supportive relationship with J…

“He’s supposed to be nice to other kids. What does he want, a cookie?”

“J’s supposed to comfort you when you’re sad and anxious. He’s supposed to help you do housework when you’re sick. He’s supposed to…he’s supposed to…he’s supposed to…so why are you making a big deal about it?”

First, The Boy doesn’t even like cookies (I know, right? Whose kid even is he?).
But seriously, I KNOW, in an IDEAL world, kindness and thoughtfulness and care and compassion for other people should be rote, expected behavior. Something we don’t even really think about…like breathing. Who gets praised for breathing, right? But in the world *I* live in? The opposite things get rewarded and praised and celebrated much more often. Callous cruelty. Unrelenting greed. Willful ignorance and indifference. In the world I live in, it often gets pretty hard to breathe.
The behavior I see in The Boy and J is SCARCE. Whether it should be or not is irrelevant. It IS. And I want to see more of it. So yeah…I make a big deal out of it. I’m grateful for it and vocal about it. With them. With my friends. With strangers and public figures I read about. Generosity and compassion and kindness and nurturing and protectiveness SHOULD be the norm. I agree. But now the opposing behavior is getting all the good press and I hate that. So based on the basic principles of positive reinforcement, I’m creating positive feedback loops wherever I can to replicate and hopefully achieve some exponential growth in the endangered thoughtfulness and compassion. I’m gonna high five The Boy every time he waits for other kids to get on the school bus safely before he boards. I’m gonna talk about what a good man J is on social media every time he holds me when I cry.

One of the writers I most admire, John Steinbeck, said a couple of things that have informed the way I am…

“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

All due respect to Mr. Steinbeck in his book, Cannery Row, from where that quote is lifted, I don’t like the produce of the second. In fact I have a real detestable distaste for it. That’s why I make such a fuss over the quality of the first. I personally love the produce of the first. And also, I like writing, and I do sort of feel ‘called’ to write, but I don’t think I ever truly considered myself a writer until writing this piece right here, right now, and reading this second quote from John Steinbeck, given in his 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement…Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat – for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

I do passionately believe in the perfectibility of mankind. I have a stubborn, unruly optimism about it. And possibly the greatest compliment about the fiction I write came to me on a whim from a reader the other day, so I’m going to anonymously quote her here (I know she’s a ‘her,’ but that’s all I know, hence, anonymous attribution)…
“The world is a generally scary place these days, and I can honestly say that making my way through Jenlyn Thawsley’s reading list this past few months has helped me feel better…her writing is a perfect example that things don’t have to be dark to be thought-provoking, and I love that about her writing.”

I’m gonna keep on being Sunshiny Me. That doesn’t mean I don’t take social issues seriously, or afford hardship and strife the gravity it warrants, and it doesn’t mean I’m handing out participation trophies. It means I’m promoting the goodness I’d like to see more of, because I’m a writer who passionately believes in the perfectibility of human beings.

My fictional work can be purchased here.

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