My professor was going around the room, asking each of us what we thought the near future might look like in the United State. It was the late 1990s, the economy was good and we were just beginning to look at people who pulled out cellphones as an example of the height of rudeness.
When it got to me, I laid out a vision of the country operating under the rough ideas of what would become the Citizens United decision about 15 years later — corporations acting as people, those interests overriding government for the people and a larger wealth gap (although my version might have had a bit of “Blade Runner” splashed in there).
This particular professor, who envisioned himself as a poor man’s Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society,” — he was not — looked at me with pity.
“Oh, Ben,” he said in a low, mournful voice. “Are you really that cynical?”
“Yes?” I replied slowly, a bit surprised by my own grimness.
Here’s the thing: I’m actually an optimist. But my optimism was not typically grounded. I always hoped for much more than the best, when that hope had no basis in reality. It was, in fact, hopeless. And each time you extend that hope — especially when you’re young — it hardens you a bit when it gets dashed.
That’s not reality’s fault, though. I had to learn to find an even keel between an almost romantic, naive optimism and likely real outcomes. Almost all of us do this in addressing some manner of our personal characteristics. Some of us are well-adjusted in some areas, and some of us aren’t. Some of us think we’re one or the other, and we’re not. Finding balance is tricky, and it lasts a lifetime. Or it should, anyway.
Every six years, I hope Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gets defeated. I actively participated in this by voting when I was a Kentucky resident. It never happened. I didn’t want Donald Trump to become president, but it happened, and, unlike some of my other fellow optimists, I could see it coming.
So you didn’t get what you want. So what? You shrug it off and keep going, hoping to make a difference where and when you can.
Here’s what I didn’t do: form an alternate reality where McConnell and Trump, against all objective evidence, had stolen their positions and would soon be exposed by some “deep state” online hero. I didn’t buy a rifle and parade it around Walmart with my cellphone (still rude) camera rolling. While never espousing Trump’s views, I also never said “not my president.”
So what’s the problem, here? Well, you’ve got an outgoing president who is a delusional optimist (a polite term for deranged narcissist) at the top of the chain, refusing to buckle to reality, because he’s never had to before. You’ve also got a cult of personality around him that has fully invested and been successfully suckered. Hard to admit to any other reality than the one you’ve created once you’ve gone so far down that road. Guess what, though? Reality is still reality. A womb of blissful lies is still false.
Just to be clear, a Democrat-controlled House, Senate and White House is not my wildest dream coming true. It’s going three, four, maybe even five days without seeing a headline that the most powerful man in the country continues to ignore a deadly pandemic until it’s too late, has started a social media war with a professional athlete, tried to overturn the most valued tenets of democracy or declared the sky red when it is blue, and watching his masses fall in line.
The fact that this is my most hopefully optimistic wish these days makes me a bit sad. It should be cash, right? Or at least a paid-off mortgage, maybe? Perhaps a new iPhone (terribly, terribly rude).