As the story goes, John Lennon first met Yoko Ono at one of her art exhibits in, I think, Berkeley, California. As he entered the gallary he noticed a ladder in the center of the room, leading up to a place in the ceiling where he saw a blank flap of paper. Curious, he decided to climb the ladder and look beneath the flap. When he did so he saw the word “YES” printed there. That was it for him. He later said that he fell in love with her optimism. Several years later a lunatic assassinated him.
Before his assassination, though, he had spearheaded a group of individuals that filled with the world with positive energy, that created a seismic shift into peace and love and out of war, with songs that ignited artists in all genres to reach for something higher. The group, the Beatles, only lasted for six years before disbanding in personal discord.
The members of the Beatles pointed to Elvis Presley as their great inspiration. Of Elvis’ music, Bob Dylan said that listening to Elvis for the first time felt like busting out of jail. He sparked the youth to believe in themselves, to believe in their individuality, to not permit themselves to be mired down by regulations, expectations and the rule of conformity. He lit a positive spark that made kids go wild and that made a lot of people a lot of money. And Elvis died a sick, overweight, depressed drug addict.
We could talk about Michael Jackson in this vein. We could talk about Robin Williams. But let’s talk about Muhammad Ali, my hero. He was able to turn brutal and deadly hand-to-hand combat into a beautiful art, something the Greek Bard Homer had done in the Iliad thousand of years earlier. Ali displayed the charisma of an Olympian God, and was the most famous and probably beloved human being in the world at his peak. And he to stood for peace and love, even as he beat the daylights out of someone, and exposed himself to the same brutal punishment. He was adored by the highest of society and the lowliest street kid. And look at the slow death he died, imprisoned by a once near perfect body that lost all of its abilities by slow and torturous degrees. Ali told the world that optimism, positive thinking, what how he became the greatest.
Speaking of mythology we can recall the myth of Icarus, who demonstrated hubris and its cost when he flew too high, and his waxen wings melted in the sun. He displayed optimism, and then he fell to his death.
We can look at JFK who inspired so much optimism that it thrust us to the moon, and he was brutally murdered, breaking the hearts of millions of us.
We can look at reverse stories of optimism. There is the mythic phoenix that rose from the ashes, the Gospel recounting Christ’s resurrection, and the Old Testament’s account of the Jews finally reaching the Promised Land.
But what are we to make of the sad endings of the optimist? Those seem to invalidate the optimistic stance. And yet, if we choose to view even those examples optimistically, we find that they take into a higher dimension of optimism than happier endings. For those sad endings give us the opportunity to develop what I call “Radical Optimism”, which can be understood to mean unconditional optimism.
Radical Optimism is a choice that we make to use what happens to gain strength and grow stronger. It is as if Ali was saying, “Look, I showed you what optimism can do. Now its your turn to turn things into their positive potential.” Ali didn’t always win every step of the way. He faced plenty of adversity, but he maintained the optimistic perspective that he could overcome it, that he could prevail, that good will triumph and that he was going to remain on the side of good.
We can look at the sad endings of these optimistic souls with a pessimistic perspective, but let’s not presume that is how they viewed their endings. Perhaps they viewed them as just one more great hurdle to overcome, one more opportunity to experience even more belief in themselves than they had ever known. Perhaps their endings were their opportunity to develop super-human optimism.
Maybe they did succumb to negativity in the end. None of us can know for sure. But what we can know is that we can relate to their example selectively. Just because an optimist gets disappointed doesn’t mean that he has to abandon optimism. Maybe it means he has the opportunity to be optimistic even in the face of this. Even when you are facing impossible odds, you can be sure of one thing. You will enjoy your life more when you face what comes optimistically, with faith, than if you face it pessimistically. Optimism is your joy-source, so don’t abandon it, even if it seems that everyone around you does, including your heroes. When one of our heroes falls it is time to become our own hero. It is up to us to carry the torch from here.
As long as human beings remain optimistic there is no problem that we cannot solve, including the problem of deep depression that we may face. That’s right, you can maintain an optimistic attitude toward depression by persevering through it, in search of a turn around, doggedly believing in your ability to find joy. I did that. I suffered deep depression for years and then one day I found a process that freed me from it. Waves of depression still return from time to time, but I understand their cause now, and I know what I need to do to gain freedom, and I do it, and it works.
Radical Optimism is best expressed by the simple decision to be optimistic, to not give up. We have to give up on dreams at times. We have to give up on our power to control, on our power to possess and keep things and people as we want them. We all have to give up on that. But we don’t have to give up on life, on truth, on reality. Whatever we must let go of, whomever we must let go of, we can do so optimistically, trusting that all will be well, that a greater power takes care of what is beyond our power, and all is and always will be well.
Radical Optimism doesn’t mean a passive approach to life, letting anything happen because you know that it’s all ok. It means digging deep inside of yourself to know what it is that you are really here on this earth to do, and to do with your full potential, believing all the way that your best is always good enough, and that whatever happens will always be for the best.
When you engage in any sort of negotiation in life, your ability to walk away from the deal gives you all the leverage. No one can take advantage of you when you are free to walk away. It is only the person emotionally attached to the outcome that is willing to bend and yield and accept an inferior deal just to get that one thing he or she feels too attached to and dependent upon.
Radical Optimism empowers us to walk away from every bad deal, because we are not afraid to go it alone. We know that making the right choice will work out, so we don’t have to make the wrong choice out of the fear that things won’t work out. It is a belief in false dependency that keeps people in abusive relationships and situations. When have Radical Optimism you can walk away from abuse without fear that you cannot make it on your own. Radical Optimism empowers us to do the right thing and expect the right results.
When you feel entirely self-sufficient, that is when opportunities come looking for you. When you feel needy, dependent and insecure, you find opportunities running away and slipping through your fingers. Radical Optimism is the power to believe in your sufficiency, and thus to find yourself being chased down by the opportunities that you would otherwise be chasing in vain.
It is true that every optimistic human being ends up in the same place as pessimists end up: without a heartbeat. But what is that ending to the one with Radical Optimism but another wonderful adventure, another opportunity for encountering spectacular possibilities?
I travel the world bringing Radical Optimism to schools, businesses and other organizations. Would you like to bring more optimism to your schools faculty or support staff? Contact me to discuss my Keynote and / or Breakout Sessins: Radical Optimism: The Power To Exceed Expectaions