reflections of a pragmatic optimist, lover of freedom

Month: April 2015


Twice so far in my life, I’ve needed to rescue myself from situations of dire gloom. Once after high school — when lost love, the departure of my college-bound friends, and a badly broken relationship to formal education left me to find my bearings entirely alone. And again after the 9/11 jihadist attacks on the United States — when I found myself stranded, dependent, and despondent, with resources nearly depleted, in deeply ideologically hostile territory.

Others have been through far, far worse, and appreciation of that fact has left me with both a profound sense of gratitude and no grudge or complaint about what comparatively little I have endured. But we each have our own pivotal trials that define our journeys here, that at the time seem cataclysmic and world-upending to us. Those were mine. And in the end, the person who rescued me from permanent shipwreck on those shoals and sandbars, from succumbing to the treacherous undercurrents that can drag one down into a whirlpool of despair, was me.

Many people, including addicts who have been through de-tox, will tell you that there is something transformative about hitting bottom — whatever “bottom” may mean to you. You are forced to confront your failings with unflinching honesty, but you also discover with great clarity what you are capable of, in the process of repairing and rebuilding and lifting yourself out. Sometimes you have help. Other times you are left to go it alone. In the latter case in particular, you find out in no uncertain terms what you are made of. You are introduced firsthand to the depth of your own resilience.

Ever since I first learned about the Pioneer, Mariner, Voyager, and Viking missions as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of unmanned space probes, and the mind-bogglingly meticulous engineering that has to go into them. Imagine for a moment that you are designing and building a machine that you’re going to send to one of our neighbor planets, or to the far reaches of our solar system and beyond. This craft will need to operate reliably, on its own, for years, far from any possibility of repair or human intervention. Once it’s left Earth, you’ll have only radio communication and whatever autonomous smarts and remotely-controllable capabilities and redundancies you’ve built into it, to give you any hope of restoring the craft to proper operation when things go wrong (as Murphy guarantees they almost certainly will). You spend years and large sums of money planning, designing, constructing, and finally launching the craft, and possibly months or years more before it arrives at its first object of interest and can begin gathering information and fulfilling the mission for which it was designed. You may get ample time for preparation, but it’s ultimately followed by one shot at making it all work. An even seemingly small failure in your design or execution can result in curtailment of the mission or potentially catastrophic failure.

Knowing this, you and your team stretch yourselves to do your best thinking. You try to plan for every possible contingency, and allow as best you can for the unexpected. You build redundancies into all critical systems — power, propulsion, communications, shielding — without necessarily being able to foresee all of the circumstances in which those redundancies might need to be called upon. And ultimately, after years of labor, you call the project done and send your creation skyward, assured only that you’ve invested the sum of your knowledge and your highest efforts in its prospects for success.

At the risk of stretching a man-machine analogy, I’ve long thought that this space-age endeavor sheds a remarkably instructive light on our own journeys. Your worst-case scenario in life is that you’re on your own in a crisis, with nothing to ultimately count on beyond your own abilities, resourcefulness, and resilience. If such a scenario should come to pass, you’ll face the most important test of your life: How will you respond? Will it mean the end of the proverbial mission? Or will you regroup, self-repair, and carry on? Oftentimes, with human beings, the obstacles we must overcome lie deep in the complex corridors of our own minds, and the introspective journeys necessary to overcome them are ones that each of us must ultimately make alone. The need for those odysseys never seems like much of a “gift” at the time. But once you’ve made it through to the other side, it’s not uncommon to speak of the challenge from which you just emerged as exactly that. For the “gift” the ordeal left you with is a hard-won distillation of self-knowledge, of a kind that may well see you through still greater challenges in the future. Its result — the capacity for self-rescue — is probably the most valuable ability you’ll ever need to tap into. Quite possibly more than once.

I hope I’ll never again find myself in a place so dark — one that leaves me no choice but to call upon the reserves of inner strength that self-rescue requires. But I now know without any doubt that if I have to, I’m able. What I once might have feared or dreaded, I now look on with calm and steady determination. Because I know that, come what may, I don’t give up — I pause, take a clear-eyed look around, and get to work rebuilding and putting myself back on course.

I suspect that many who look around them today and worry over the same looming storm clouds that trouble me either have been, or are perhaps now, in such a place. Being able to draw upon your deep reserves of resilience — to tap into that diamond-hard core of your sense of self that you know from experience can survive the sound and fury and weather all storms — may well prove essential to navigating a way out of the gloom that sometimes seems poised to envelop all we hold dear.

Leverage that precious ability if you need to. We’ve got places to go, and a future to build.


A great deal of what I wrote in my introductory post hinges on finding your bearings and adopting a usable outlook. I mentioned that I’ve found a more optimistic perspective on things over the past year or so, but I probably haven’t explained that in enough detail for it to make sense or serve as useful, practical advice. How can anyone maintain a positive outlook when it feels like everything that matters most is collapsing around him? Let me try to break it down into actionable parts:

  • Take the long view. Zoom out to the big picture. Unplug a bit from the 24/7 news cycle. You don’t have to disengage completely; just get a limiting handle on your compulsion to continually check whether the sky is falling. Try to think less of the day-to-day outrages that push your buttons, and more of the course of civilizations and humanity over the centuries. Think how rare it is, and how lucky we are, to get to live in a culture devoted to Liberty — even if during said culture’s self-inflicted decline. We get to carry that torch, and fight for what happens next. How amazing is that?
  • Appreciate the absurdity of what’s happening, and do your best to laugh it off. Anything that can’t go on forever, won’t. (Unfortunately, this applies to the good as well as the bad, which is why the fight we’re in is eternal.) The culture is getting more ridiculous by the day. Our opponents continue to demonstrate that they are all about force and intimidation and shutting you up. It is a philosophy by and for terrified control freaks, that is deeply and unsustainably anti-liberal in its wish to dictate what you are permitted to do, say, and think, and seems poised to crumble from its own contradictions and factional infighting. This nonsense cannot possibly go on forever.
  • Embrace a sense of purpose. Love the challenge you’ve been given, and look at it as a gift. Life’s trials offer us the opportunity to rise to the occasion and show what we’re made of. How will you respond?
  • Appreciate the beauty of what you’re working toward. If you’re here, I suspect you may feel it as I do, and if you don’t, I’m not sure I can motivate it for you. There is little in this world so precious as a life that is truly one’s own, as a life lived in a culture that’s devoted to minimizing coercion and leaving people free to fulfill their greatest potentials unhindered. That’s where I want to live. And it’s not a “nice to have” for me. It’s an imperative. I will work as hard as I have to to get there. Don’t let others drag you down with their perpetual bitterness, anger, and cries for attention. Your love of what you cherish and live for has to be stronger than their small, joyless contempt.
  • Be kind to yourself. If you find you’re surrounded by people who constantly remind you how much they despise your loathsome kind, consider moving! Leaving California for New Jersey, a place where I’m not immersed in an in-your-face, conservative-hating activist culture, has done wonders for my blood pressure and sense of well-being. Think of it as respecting yourself enough to go where you are wanted, and to waste no more time among people to whom you’re an evil cartoon caricature. Who can make real friendships in a place like that? It’s a shame in some ways to have to leave the place where I was born, grew up, and lived 30 years of my life, but I have no regrets and no interest in going back. The place seems to be self-destructing, and I don’t see a happy future there — so why tie my life to it? My future and its great potentials lie elsewhere.
  • Publish. Consider putting your thoughts out there in some form. Try to favor frequency over grand, ambitious scope, if pursuit of the latter would leave you hesitating too much. If you don’t have time for blog posts, tweet. You may find, as I do, that the simple act of doing something about what troubles you does more to lighten your mood and reduce stress than just about anything else. I’ve found that the longer I go between publishing, the more easily I get worked up about stuff I could otherwise weather with relative ease. I know to expect it now, but it still surprises me how much my load feels lifted after I write my thoughts down and publish them. Plus the bonus: What you’ve written may help others.

Ultimately, it’s your own inner strength and resilience that will see you through: You must make yourself indestructible in your heart and mind. But merely hunkering down and enduring the gloom isn’t the answer. Like I said, we’re going places, and building something far better. So pick up, dust off, and let’s move!…

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