Optimism Is a Choice We Make

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Congratulations to Chad Pregracke of Living Lands and Waters, a CNN Hero.

I used to like the story about 10-year old twin boys at Christmas-time. Their parents explained to a psychologist that one was always optimistic, expecting good things to happen and the other expected the worst, a pessimist. “What can we do to balance their attitudes about life,” they asked. The specialist suggested they disappoint the optimist on Christmas morning and surprise the pessimist with everything he wants. They tried that and the boys bounced downstairs Christmas morning. The pessimist had a dozen wonderful gifts he unwrapped quickly and then pushed aside just as quickly. “It’s not the color I wanted. It’s boring.” He wasn’t happy. The little optimist searched for a gift and finally found a bucket of horse manure with his name on it. He jumped up and down with delight. “This is great. There has got to be a pony around here somewhere.”

Some people believe that it is pre-determined we will be one or the other, destined to always look at the downside or upside of all that happens. I think we have some genetic and environmental influences about our attitude but we also make choices. We can choose to be optimists and work toward a greater good. There are some great examples around us of people who optimistically took on big challenges and succeeded.

Chad Pregracke of Living Lands and Waters just received the CNN Hero Award for his amazing work in organizing 70,000 volunteers to pull 7 million pounds of debris from American rivers. His optimism about our abilities to clean up our messes is powerful. He continually interprets for people what can be done through collaborative effort. As a young man he collected mussels from the muddy pools of the Mississippi River and was stunned to find car bodies, barrels and myriad waste materials in the river. Fifteen years ago he began personally cleaning up the river and then enlisted others through his very persuasive storytelling about why it matters. When he learned of his $250,000 “Hero” award, he immediately gave $10,000 each to the other nine candidates. He saw the award as a broad endorsement of effort that should be shared.

Americans enjoy clean water, clean air, diverse wildlife, wonderful parks, forests and beaches due to thoughtful policies and careful legal protection. Behind each of those laws and policies you will find stories of personal effort and sacrifice by individuals like Chad, and small groups of people who were optimistic about improving something that mattered to them. We should not only be thankful for the clean environment we enjoy, we must continue to inspire people to get involved in ways that make a difference.

I can be pessimistic about global climate change, HIV and many of the world’s challenges, but it simply does little good. Optimism is the fuel of change. “Yes we can,” always feels better to me than “Why bother?” Interpretation as a profession is a communication process that can inspire change and influence people’s attitudes, if planned and executed well.

Tomorrow we will enjoy a great meal at home with family and I am thankful for the wonderful wife and family with whom I share life’s challenges and rewards. And we will be mindful as a family of the many people and places that have less than they deserve. We will continue to work optimistically for a better world and life for all people. HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

–       Tim Merriman

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