The Case for Optimism

Opening Chapel Speech - January 9, 2019

Welcome to the New Year! 2019. Another Semester begins today…
New Opportunities…
New Horizons…
New Adventures are yours for the taking!

As the inception of any year signals a time fresh with hope, a sense of excitement, and a “clean slate”, this year is one in which we have much to celebrate, and much to do.
And while I know many of you have made your list of Resolutions, or are working on your Goals for this new year, I am going to ask you today to do just one thing as you go forward and begin 2019.
It’s a simple request, really, and one in which I firmly believe will help you in everything you do, each and every day.
And just what is this one thing?

My one wish and my one request for you is simply to:

Be an Optimist.
Be optimistic; that is, as defined, to be one “disposed to take a favorable view of happenings or possibilities.”

Be open to good things happening, and to the possibilities of what goodness brings.

In essence, be willing and courageous---yes, courageous enough---to take a positive view of the world, and all around you.
And while this may seem simple--a rather easy task, unfortunately, it’s not. For, as we all know, negativity seems to be the “ruling thought” for the day.
Take a look at your local newspaper. Go online, or just spend a few minutes with our daily news broadcasts, and you’ll get my point.
In fact, over our recent Winter Break, I caught these first four headlines on the December 21st edition of the ABC “Good Morning, America” broadcast, at 8 a.m.
The titles of the first four news stories for the day were:

“Holiday Havoc”
“Chaos in the Capital”
“Miss America Madness”
“Shutdown Showdown”

Wow! Really? Havoc? Chaos? Madness? Showdown?

Two weeks later, on that very same station, and program, once again, the following headlines made the top 3 news items:

“Shutdown Stalemate”
“Highway Horror”
“Weather Havoc”

These are strong words with threatening and scary possibilities...Words “charged” to cause an emotional reaction...Words that imply real danger.

And so, within the first early morning minutes, and my first cup of coffee for the day, mind you, I was already tempted to cast despair, give up, and, possibly move to another country!

These shocking “teasers” certainly caught my eye and got my attention (maybe that was the strategy of the American Broadcasting System), but, thankfully, after viewing each of the stories, I was able to calm myself down a bit, and not take any drastic action to begin packing bags and uprooting my family from Palmetto Bay. My calmer sense prevailed, and, well, here we are.

Granted, my research, so to speak, is not necessarily scientific. It is merely a random sampling of moments in which I took the time to check out the national headlines on ABC. However, I have a strong feeling that if you or I spent further time stayed home the next week or so, and watch more newscasts, the stories would be similar, and would dwell on more drama, shock value, and negativity. And, since this is our Opening Chapel of our New Year---a time to rejoice, come together, and begin 2019 with a fresh start and new hope, I believe the time for optimism is now.
In fact, there’s no better time than now, especially as we kick off a new year.
Let’s begin 2019 with a new outlook, and let’s do what we can to push past the negativity, and the craziness of the world around us. And, so, if you’ll allow me a few more minutes, I’d like to make my brief Case for Optimism.

Recently, I ran across an article in the Fall issue of Connections, the official magazine of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. Entitled “Optimism Through Gratitude”, the compelling case for optimism was made quite clear, and rather convincingly. In the article, Rabbi Judd Levingston claims that:

“Optimism is a Character Strength”.

In stating his case the Rabbi goes on to claim that,

“Optimism involves resilience, courage, and a readiness to take action…”.

In his field research at a variety of schools, Levingston noted the responses of students who shared their thoughts of gratitude, regularly, and in both formal and informal settings. In their responses, students noted how grateful they were for their friends, their school, and, according to Levingston, such recognition “fuels their feelings of agency”. Levingston furthers the idea that:

“Gratitude promotes Optimism...Gratitude involves thoughtful reflection about the past and present, an acceptance of what one has, and a selfless appreciation for others.”

In reading this article, I was reminded of my own childhood, and, in particular, of my father. For it was my father, who would frequently leave me notes of encouragement, scattered about the house...Not every day, mind you, but on those days when Dad thought I might just need an extra “pick me up”. Maybe I’d find one of those sticky, bright, yellow Post It notes on my bedroom door, after one of my “teenage crises”...Maybe I’d find one of those notes stuck on the bathroom mirror, after a particularly tough loss in a game...Or, maybe one would be stuck to the refrigerator door after I bombed one of my many failed Math tests...Or, maybe a simple message stuck on my rearview mirror, after a tough conversation…And while the location and timings of the notes varied through the years, the message was always the same:

“Keep the old P.A.”

P.A. stands for, simply enough, “Positive Attitude”.

“Keep the old P.A.”
A simple, short message, but a powerful and effective one.
I think of those notes often, and believe me, as someone who fails every day, I go back to the memory of those Post It Notes regularly, and remind myself to keep that old Positive Attitude, no matter what…
Perhaps, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Mr. Willie Nelson, makes the best case for optimism, for as the Texas Troubadour tells us:

“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”
It’s all in your attitude…
Or, at least, I think, in your choice of attitude.
You decide to be positive or negative.
You decide to view challenges as opportunities.
In short, you decide to be an Optimist or a Pessimist.

As the always eloquent and formidable author Maya Angelou advises:

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
And, so, dear students and my fellow colleagues, as we celebrate the advent of a new year, let’s make our “Case for Optimism” for 2019.
Let’s be grateful, for all the blessings bestowed upon us.
We are surrounded by natural beauty, and come together each day to learn, grow and develop in a magnificent setting.
We are loved, supported, and cared for, by countless individuals in our lives...Some we may know, and some yet to discover.
We have meaningful work to do---opportunities both known, and yet to come.
We have a clear Mission, and the chance to make a difference right here, and right now---both in the Palmer Trinity Community and in the greater world.
Yes, we are truly blessed.

In her beautiful poem, Mary Oliver writes:

“Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters.
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…
Which is mostly rejoicing since all ingredients are here.
Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and…
A mouth with which to give shouts of joy.”
Today, I shout for joy, and I give thanks.
I am most optimistic that we will do great things this year, and as the legendary and inspirational activist, Helen Keller reminds us,

“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land.”

Today we “set sail”---we “take off” for that “uncharted land”...Who knows what “secrets” we’ll discover?
It won’t always be “smooth sailing”...There will be rough seas at times, and we’ll make stops along the way...In short, things won’t always be perfect.
However, as we embark upon our wonderful adventure, I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity, and I am most eager to share in it with you.

Happy New Year, and all the best to you as you go forward inspiring others with your messages of hope and with your efforts to be of service.
And, let’s not forget to take a little advice from “Dear Old Dad”, too, and “keep that old Positive Attitude”!
Thank you for hearing me out with my “case” today, and I also say “thank you” in advance for hopefully sharing my sentiment, and being an Ambassador of Optimism…
I wish you much success, genuine happiness, and great prosperity in 2019.
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