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Barn-raisers and old coots

Sid Roberts asks "Has our optimism evaporated?"

by Dr Sid Roberts

I love springtime. Early mornings when I walk my two German shepherds — Zeus and Zoë — the air is still crisp and the sun is just starting to creep up, bathing the quiet neighborhood in shades of yellow and blue. The birds are chirping more. Easter — next weekend — is the ultimate annual marker of renewal (specifically resurrection), and of optimistic hope.

Our word for Easter carries a connotation of new birth or dawn. Even the more secular aspects of Easter, like bunnies, eggs and new clothes, signal the hope of spring. I’m ready!

Read More: The Optimism of Easter

But I am tired of pessimistic, contrarian people.

Pessimism just seems both un-American and not Christian. Americans of all stripes are known for being hopeful, industrious people. Ronald Reagan famously described his vision of America as a shining “city upon a hill” — “a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … ”

Martin Luther King Jr, in a motivational address at Spellman College in 1960, said, “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”

By moving, MLK was talking about moving toward the Promised Land. Hope and optimism are not the same, but they are related.

Neither Reagan nor MLK were calling for blind optimism.

Read More: Optimism is Realism

In Reagan’s farewell speech, when talking about his dealings with the Soviet Union and Gorbachev, he also said, “It’s still trust — but verify. It’s still play — but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely — and don’t be afraid to see what you see.” Sounds pretty rational to me. And MLK’s vision of the Promised Land endured despite his assassination.

Has our optimism evaporated?

Writing an obituary for optimism in the New York Times, Frank Bruni noted 71% of Americans believe the United States is on the wrong track. This “profound pessimism” and “negative mindset” was present during the Obama and Trump administrations alike, reflecting a deep well of anxiety and worry. What a downer.

I think our negativity may reflect less a loss of optimism than a pernicious and growing contrarianism.

Optimists are by nature not contrary people. They find common ground and work toward the collective good rather than basking in selfishness. They are what I would describe as barn-raisers. Contrarians, on the other hand, are not team players. They would never show up at a barn raising with its community first, service-above-self spirit.

Now, as a fourth-generation Texan, I am well aware that an independent, pioneer spirit is part of our collective Texas heritage. But going it alone — ignoring the larger community — can lead to unnecessarily tragic decisions (Remember the Alamo!).

Uber-contrarian people are, by definition, difficult people. (We used to say (s)he’s just an old coot, but that person was probably crotchety their entire life.) In my medical practice, I have learned not to argue with old coots. I will never convince them to change their thinking or behavior. (What do I know about medicine anyway?) Old coots are set in their ways. Facts are inconvenient.

Barn-raisers understood the need to wear masks for the benefit of the community. Heck, they may not have had complete faith in them, and very well may have objected to broad mandates. But the contrarian’s attitude was, “Hell, no! Your safety, our full hospitals, none of that matters — only my selfish right to do whatever the hell I please!” Same with vaccines.

I was foreman of a jury many years ago. It was — or should have been — an open-and-shut case. The law dictated the defendant was guilty by association and the prosecution proved their case beyond a shadow of a doubt. One juror — an old coot — would not budge. Any logical argument from the rest of the jury pool was angrily rebuffed with, “You are just trying to trick me.” He was irrational. He did not have facts on his side, only opinion and emotion. He was wrong, and his stubbornness in not following the judge’s instructions and the facts of the case resulted in a hung jury.

Old coots remind me of Evillene, the wicked witch in the musical ‘‘The Wiz.’’ A quintessential autocrat, she surrounded herself by sycophants who feared her and wouldn’t tell her what was really happening in the outside world. (Sound familiar?) Evillene sings a song titled “No Bad News” that could be a contrarian’s anthem: “‘Cause I wake up already negative / And I’ve wired up my fuse / So don’t nobody bring me no bad news”

Writing for The Atlantic, David French warns, “Don’t for a moment mistake contrarianism for critical thinking.” “The contrarian (is) both excessively cynical and excessively credulous. He’s too quick to disbelieve one side and too quick to believe the opposite … even when the reality and the morality of the moment could not be more clear.”

French’s comment on critical thinking and contrarianism reminds me of one of my favorite verses in the Bible, Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

I read that verse this way: Don’t follow the selfish, contrarian spirit of talking heads on television, but improve yourself by using your brain to dig deeper and learn more. Only then will you be able to tell what is real and what is fake, what is true and what is a lie. God’s will is clear: Love God and love your neighbor.

Newscasts today are all about the latest “crisis” caused by evil opponents on the other side of the aisle, with nary a barn-raiser in sight. Old coots, all of them. We need to love God and love our neighbor — together. We have a barn to raise!

Dr. Sid Roberts is a radiation oncologist at the Temple Cancer Center in Lufkin. He can be reached at sidney.roberts@commonspirit.org. Previous columns may be found at drsidroberts.substack.com.


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