In his book The Art of Possibility, conductor Benjamin Zander tells the story of two shoe salesmen who were sent to a developing nation to investigate the possibility of expanding their business. One sends back a message saying, SITUATION HOPELESS-NO ONE WEARS SHOES, while the other writes with a different perspective: GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY-THEY HAVE NO SHOES.
(Listen to Zander’s TED Talk if you have 20 minutes to spare. It is well worth your time.)
Optimism changes the story. It opens doors and quells fears and creates possibilities. Psychologists write about the difference between optimism and hope, and though we often use these words interchangeably, they each make unique contributions to our well-being which should be cultivated. The Czech leader Vaclav Havel had something to say about this: Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Hope is an emotion which expresses our desire for something we want – happiness, success, world peace, freedom. It is closely bound up with our experiences of reality, but for that very reason hopes can be dashed, as the cliche says. We hope for peace and reconciliation and love because those things are right and good, but we don’t assume they will happen.
Optimism, on the other hand, prompts us to adapt to challenges, helping us believe that an answer will emerge, causing us to persist in the face of the unknown and to believe in the possibility of a positive outcome. There is something muscular about optimism – it can be practiced and strengthened in our daily lives. It implies “doing” rather than “being.”
Once again, going to pianist Glenn Gould for wisdom, I find that he was contemptuous of today’s music, the 17th of the Goldberg Variations. He found it to be ” one of those rather skittish, slightly empty-headed collections of scales and arpeggios which Bach indulged when he wasn’t writing sober and proper things like fugues and canons.”
Oh dear, I’m afraid I have to agree. There is indeed something empty-headed about this particular variation. I’m not sure now why I chose optimism as my intention for Variation 17 in January when I was planning out this series. But sometimes it does feel nonsensical to me when we engage in any kind of speculation about how things will turn out. We really can’t ever KNOW what the future holds. Less rooted in reality than hope, optimism can seem as foolish as this “collection of scales and arpeggios.”
Perhaps, however, being optimistic is akin to aging. The alternatives of pessimism and death are neither good for our health, nor particularly attractive as personal traits!
I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.