Friday, December 28, 2007

Looking Up

An academic acquaintance e-mails that she is surprisingly devastated on a personal level by Bhutto's assassination, but her New Year's resolution for 2008 is to be more positive and she's trying to keep her chin up.

(She has her work cut out, as her field is Algeria.)

Her attitude, which is mine too, is quintessentially American. A couple summers ago, my family and I spent an afternoon coming up with representative American qualities, and "optimistic" was one of our top five.

The Economist this week doffs its hat to American optimism. A reporter illustrates it with a scene from the movie Dumb and Dumber:
The main character, the dumb guy, asks the popular girl he has a crush on what the chances are that a guy like him could be with a girl like her.
Very slim, she says.
Like one in a hundred? he asks.
More like one in a million, she replies.
So you're saying there is a chance? he says.

A person's level of optimism measures luck more than intelligence. You can even manipulate it in a lab.
Scientific studies show that animals denied any control over their environments will stop trying to escape painful shocks. These unlucky creatures learn to be pessimists.
Animals that could stop shocks by pressing a lever or some such action continued to try to find solutions to painful situations. These lucky dogs are optimists.

Some American kids grow up in the equivalent of a shock chamber with no levers; but our collective myth that, as the recent movie Ratatouille contends, even rodents can win glory is going strong.
It's a sign of strength that many of us believe this, even if it isn't strictly true.

A few posts back, I started collecting optimistic stories from 2007. A couple days ago, I heard my favorite yet:
Wendy, the middle-aged relative of a friend, has enrolled in community college.

I was shocked. Wendy lives up to her name: cute, feminine and lacking a grown-up version. She has used chemicals, marriages, and religion as alternatives, not very successfully. Further, she has denied her children a decent education by putting them in a feeble Christian-fundamentalist school.

What changed?
Well, Wendy recently went on vacation with her husband to Washington, D.C., for a week. They did the full tour: the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress--all the sites of our nation's capital. And Wendy realized she didn't know how any of it worked and, further, that she wasn't happy about that.

She came back home and right away called up her local community college.

Could she enroll as a student, to start in January?

Yes, they said, she just had to take an entrance test.

What if she couldn't pass the test, she asked.

No problem, they told her. She could study with one of their tutors and take it again.

What if she still couldn't pass it, Wendy asked.

No problem, they told her. She could enroll in Basic Skills classes, and eventually take the entrance test again.

Wendy took the test and passed everything but math, so she signed up for Basic Math as well as a regular English class.

Lucky girl.

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