Here is Deborah Sharp's first-place winning entry in the Happy News "Why I'm Optimistic About the Future" essay contest. Congratulations, Deb!
Until recently, I’d always been a glass-half-empty person. I hoped for the best, but feared the worst. My outlook was like a dark cloud over the American landscape of sunny optimism.
Then someone managed to convince me that all is not lost. Far from it, in fact. For the first time ever, I’m feeling almost giddy about the future.
So how come so many of my fellow Americans are rushing to take the seat that I abandoned on the naysayer train?
You don’t believe me? Take a look at recent national surveys. When pollsters ask whether our country is headed down the wrong track, almost two-thirds of us say yes. The percentage is more than double what it was just three years ago. That escalating sense that things have gone wrong doesn’t bode well for the optimism that’s a crucial part of our national character.
The litany of good-mood crushers is long: Economic uncertainty. Fear of terrorism. Anxiety over the war in Iraq. But even beyond those serious concerns, many suffer from the pessimistic belief that everything—from manners, to music, to morals—was simply better in the good old days.
And I thought so, too. Until I posed a simple question to my ninety-one-year old mother, Marion.
“Are you optimistic about the future?’’ I asked her.
I thought I knew exactly what she’d say. Surely, she’d feel nostalgic for decades past, for a simpler, less-stressful time. She’d be fearful about where the world is headed today. With nearly a century of wisdom behind her, my mother hesitated only a moment before replying. I anticipated an emphatic shake of her head and an answer in the negative.
I was wrong.
“Of course I’m optimistic,’’ she said. “Look at all the wonderful things history has already brought us.’’
I peered at her closely, wondering whether she was beginning to lose touch with reality. Oh sure, I thought. History has delivered some real doozies: Wars. Disasters. People yammering on cell phones in public.
And then my mother, as sharp as ever, explained why she sees the glass of the future as half full.
When she was a child, her brother contracted polio. Unlike so many other infants, he survived. But he never walked without crutches. Her best girlfriend in elementary school died of tuberculosis. Medical breakthroughs in her lifetime, and in mine, have made children and others in the developed world safe from such once-fatal diseases.
In 1915, a year after my mother’s birth, one-hundred babies died for every one-thousand born. Today, the U.S. infant mortality rate is well less than one-tenth what it was back then. In my mother’s day, average life expectancy hovered around forty-seven years. Today, the average American can expect to blow out at least seventy-seven candles on his or her last birthday cake.
There’s every reason to believe that more medical miracles lie ahead. Some day, our grandchildren or their children will marvel that people at the turn of the 21st Century still died of cancer and AIDS.
Given what she’s experienced, my mother is optimistic—as now, so am I—that the future will bring advances comparable to medicine’s in science and technology, and in society itself.
On the Chicago block of my mother’s youth, a lamplighter lit gas streetlights each night. Now, she zaps water for her hot tea in a microwave. She reads emails from friends on the Internet.
She remembers the excitement of gazing up to spot a passing plane. Whenever one of those then-magical contraptions flew by, everyone rushed into the street. They pointed skyward, shouting, “Aeroplane! Aeroplane!’’ Since then, she’s seen man walk on the moon. Scientists at NASA are designing the next phase of space exploration, when a liquid-methane powered capsule will zoom astronauts to Mars. My mother may not live long enough to see it. But I have no doubt that I will.
She’s survived the hardship and the tragedies of war. Japanese-American citizens locked up during WW II. The explosion of the atom bomb. Our country ripped apart by differences over Vietnam. And she’s seen the resilience of nations and their citizens after such painful conflicts.
What about those sepia-toned memories I thought she’d have of being a young mother, raising children in southern Florida? She remembers that those good old days had a very bad side. Water fountains with signs saying “White’’ and “Colored.’’ Lynchings. A whole segment of society kept down because of skin color.
She’s currently rooting for Condoleezza Rice to make a rumored run for the office of president. Though not technically a Republican, my mother finds the prospect of a candidate who’s both an African-American and a woman too enticing to ignore. Someone who has lived to see both the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and the struggle for civil rights, some forty years later, might naturally feel that way.
When I view the incredible achievements made in the span of one lifetime, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about what’s yet to come. The can-do engine that drove America through the last century may need a tweak here and there, but it still has lots of power left in its pistons. I’m confident that hard work, brilliant minds, and a bit of luck will bring about the same sort of “wonderful things’’ my mother recalls from her personal American history. I hope my own recollections will one day include new energy alternatives, better disaster preparation, and maybe even peace.
Now, if we could just do something about all those obnoxious cell phone yakety-yakkers, my transformation from pessimist to optimist would be complete.
Fort Lauderdale native Deborah Sharp worked for USA Today for 20 years. She found her optimism when she stopped chasing news and started writing stories. She's working on her second novel.