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When The World Can’t Hold You Up: A Reflection On Optimism

“The trick is not how much pain you feel — but how much joy you feel. Any idiot can feel pain. Life is full of excuses to feel pain, excuses not to live, excuses, excuses, excuses.” (Erica Jong)

by John Kolm

Sometimes it's tempting to go down with the ship. Under enough provocation, all of us become miserable, and the only thing worse than being miserable is being miserable and lonely. So we want company. 

Right now the world is going through a trying time, as it has a thousand times before, and as it will a thousand times in the future. Every writer since Pliny has claimed that they were living in the worst and most turbulent of times. 

There's always a voice seeking company in despair. If you choose to use this time to write a book, or to reinvent yourself, or just to spend time with your family, there's always someone urging you to feel guilty because “this is a crisis, not a holiday”. You should listen to despairing voices with the heart, and with empathy, but you are under no obligation to drown - even when the ship sinks right beneath your feet. Swimming toward the shore is not an act of self-indulgence, but an act of life. 

Sir Isaac Newton did his greatest work when Cambridge University was shut down for the bubonic plague. Mother Julian of Norwich wrote her calming words “All shall be Well”  during the black plague.

We needn’t feel the same obligation to produce a work of genius, yet some love of life, energy and passion is essential to keep the spirit elevated. 

Giving up is an easy task, requiring no skills, and the price for that choice is outrageously high when the bill comes due. 

In the end, and after all the psychoanalytic theory has been rehearsed and unpacked, your appetite for life is just a decision you make. 

I know people whose lives were full of hardship and who are positive, energetic and infectiously optimistic.

And I know some others who had backgrounds of wealth and comfort, and who are despondent and apathetic.   Overall, and within reason, I'd say that a life of excessive comfort is probably worse for the spirit than a life of unreasonable hardship. 

So if you want to despair, go ahead and despair. Just don't despair completely. 

The lesson of history and of all those who have led difficult lives is that you can simply decide, regardless of circumstance and evidence, that you’ll be positive, optimistic and energetic no matter how formidable the waves. 

And if you do decide to jump the despair ship, you'll have good company. There are plenty of us already in the ocean, paddling around and telling bad jokes, determinedly headed for the shore.  

John Kolm is a best-selling author who has published around a million words in books, newspapers and magazines.  John lives in the United States with his family and is also a company CEO there.  You can find him at .

John Kolm: "How to create optimism in the reality of most workplaces, where the great majority of people are working for someone else and don't get to set the direction, is the great challenge of the post-industrial age"

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