About a month ago, I sat down in a university auditorium with several hundred thirty-something year old women including my own teenage bestie to listen to my favorite childhood author, Judy Blume, speak about her new novel and writing process.
I might as well have been a eleven-year-old girl at a One Direction concert.
I took surreptitious pictures from the audience, choked back tears as she spoke, refrained myself from jumping out of my seat when she answered the question I had submitted, and could barely contain the shaking in my hands as I waited in line to meet her afterward.
It’s not every day you get to personally thank someone whose work meant so much to you as a child. While I devoured every book Judy Blume wrote in my elementary to teen years, the one that found me at the exact right moment was a lesser known novel called Just As Long As We're Together, the story of a girl named Stephanie navigating the waters of middle school friendship and her parents’ separation. In the book, Stephanie writes an essay for school entitled “I Used To Be An Optimist, But I’m Not Anymore.” Blume’s words in that essay gave me the language I needed to rebuild my own lost optimism during those years as I processed my parents’ divorce and our new normal. While this novel will never take the place of Margaret or Fudge in the wider memory of children’s literature, it will always hold a special place in my heart because it helped me understand the difference between the innocent optimism of childhood and the type of gritty optimism that becomes a daily choice every day thereafter.
Optimism as a concept begins to unravel itself for me in its very definition. It is defined as a “disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions” (choice) AND “a doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds” (belief).
We don’t have to believe that second definition in order to choose to act on the first. But we do have to acknowledge that this world, and our very beings, contain multitudes. We do have to accept that while we cannot control most of this world, we can choose our response to it. We can choose daily to look towards and call out by name the beauty and the wonder and the things that leave us whispering “thank you” to the night sky. This is optimism.
We can also choose to look squarely at injustice and suffering and say “not on my watch” all the while knowing that the scope of our watch and lifetime is but a drop in a an ocean, and that we serve best from a place of gratitude, with our hands linked with one another. We do not have to hide our heads in the sand or turn a blind eye to grief in this world in order to maintain optimism. We can instead look for the helpers and join them. We can call injustice by its name without letting it swallow us whole, adding us to its list of victims. This is also optimism.
We can look at our own lives, a collection of best laid plans, some beautifully achieved or received and others gone so far off the path that they are no longer recognizable from our childhood diaries and girlhood dreams. We can choose to see growth in our trials and failure as an inevitable part of the human experience. We can paint a new picture of ourselves on the other side of a broken dream without denying that it hurt when it happened. This is also optimism.
The optimism of childhood is a beautiful thing. It lays the foundation for the solid ground we’ll seek the rest of our lives in the moments our feet are swept out from under us. But I remain thankful to Judy Blume for teaching my child heart about the kind of optimism that requires me to make a daily choice in its direction. It’s messier and harder but infinitely beautiful, and it looks a lot like life.