An Optimist Challenges Uncertain Times
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor Frankl
What is it that keeps some people going in the worst possible situations? What keeps us optimistic when faced with ongoing, seemingly never-ending crises or uncertainty?
Austrian Viktor Frankl answered the first question. In 1942, Frankl and his parents, wife, and brother were sent to concentration camps; his wife, father, mother, and brother died in them. Working as a psychiatrist to inmates in Auschwitz, Frankl found that the single most important factor in an individual’s survival was optimism: the ability to hold to a future goal. In his 1946 memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Optimism, the New York Times told us recently, will remain critical to help us all make it through the COVID-19 pandemic, because “optimism … is about being hopeful about the future, even when the present seems wholly negative.” Good advice, but where does optimism come from? How do we, in other words, “discover” the why we need to survive this crisis? How will we be able to recognize that why when we need it most?
The short answer is, if we wait until we feel in crisis to search for our own core sense of meaning, we likely won’t find it. Pre-crisis, it’s human nature to avoid thinking about bad possible outcomes and assume we could handle whatever happens, because we don’t know what we don’t know and are apt to miscalculate our abilities.
As Professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger describe it:
“Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. When we think we are at our best is sometimes when we are at our objective worst.”
Searching for meaning takes accepting that there is much we cannot know or prevent in advance, that failure is likely, and that suffering and loss are part of life. Humility helps. And it takes practice. Difficult times are not for novices. Regularly identify the why, and it will be ready to hand when an unusual or extreme crisis hits. Choose to find that meaning in one’s day-to-day actions, and that source of strength becomes built in.
Frankl defines this notion of everyday choice as the key to survival in a crisis, the essence of optimism in action: “Every day, every hour, offer[s] the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determine[s] whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threaten to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”
Remaining an optimist is a daily choice to think, and act, beyond oneself. As the philosopher Dan Dennett puts it, “Find something more important than you are, and dedicate your daily life to it.”