MIND AND MATTER: A glass half-full world

Bryan Kerns

“Optimism always wins, my friend.” So said a good friend in a text message shortly after last week’s men’s basketball victory over Notre Dame. 

The topic may be something insignificant in the grand scheme of basketball, but it carries with it even more important implications – and let me tell you, my friend has a point.

Similarly, Conan O’Brien had this to say two weeks ago in his farewell on “The Tonight Show”: “And all I ask is one thing…and this is…I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch…please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality.  It doesn’t lead anywhere.  Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you. Amazing things will happen.” 

On one hand, you can place these things in the context of the recent death of J.D. Salinger, whose major literary creation, Holden Caulfield, yearned for days when no one was a phony and when everyone exhibited his or her true qualities as opposed to conforming to social norms or using metaphorical masks. Salinger himself may very well have been looking for the same thing if his decades as a recluse are any indication.

O’Brien, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly embrace naive optimism, but neither is he willing to go to the absurd lengths of Caulfield and retreat into a hardened, brutally cynical way of thinking tempered only by the back story that Salinger provides.

Assuming that O’Brien and the text message are right – that optimism always wins – how are we to explain why Caulfield and his struggles for an optimistic worldview resulted in a tragic acceptance of a phony world? Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in these things, especially given the way that things seem to be going in the world today?

Let the record reflect that I am not an optimist and have been described as a brutal realist – which is why it’s all the more surprising that I am so struck by the suggestion that optimism always wins.

Some may call it naive, but I think O’Brien’s experience and his forward-thinking attitude should serve as a wake-up call for those with an inherently non-optimistic way of thinking. 

Granted, O’Brien got a $45 million parachute to say those things, and he’s no great philosopher, but he can at least serve as something of a model to which we should all aspire in terms of leading an optimistic life.

A philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a book called “After Virtue” in which he discussed the narrative of one’s life framed in terms of a quest toward some end called the telos. 

O’Brien said: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.” 

There are a host of quotes that say something similar, but the point remains the same – things change and people have to adapt.

So, here we have teleology – the study of one’s end – and optimism. How are they linked? Going through life with an understanding that not all things will be all right all of the time requires something of a practiced optimism. It also demands that one not be pessimistic; lifelong pessimism or cynicism really isn’t productive, nor does it make any sense in the grand scheme. 

Why be cynical all your life?

Thus, what began as something about a basketball game, insignificant though it may be, proves a much larger and more important point: optimism, not naive optimism, but a practiced understanding of the long view of life that reflects a hopeful view while being attuned to reality, really does win. 

So, at the risk of being redundant, I’ll say it again: optimism, my friends, always wins.


Bryan Kerns is a junior honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa.  He can be reached at [email protected].