Bringing a Daughter Back From the Brink with Poems
February 28, 2015 7:31 AM   Subscribe

 
I can't even imagine how awful it must be to be an optimist. To look at the state of the world and perpetually be not only dismayed, but surprised...
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:47 AM on February 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


But then they are motivated by that perpetual disappointment to do something about it, to change the situation for the better, with the whole-hearted belief that doing so is possible.

The poor deluded fools...
posted by Sys Rq at 7:59 AM on February 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Taling to you all is what helps me cope with it, to be honest.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on February 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


"I came to the conclusion that the optimist thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself."
- Gilbert K Chesterton
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:46 AM on February 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


I'm extremely optimistic and I am not deluded, surprised, disappointed, or dismayed. (Well, sometimes dismayed, but I tend to rebound from that fairly quickly.) The idea that "optimism" and "naivite" are synonymous is rather obnoxious.

I really liked the linked article. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by jaguar at 8:54 AM on February 28, 2015 [28 favorites]


It suddenly struck me — I the one who loves science, data, facts and reason — that when push comes to shove, it was poetry I could count on. Poetry knew where hope lived and could elicit that lump in the throat that reminds me it’s all worth it. Science couldn’t do that.

All I could think of was Robert Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star," which has always been a comfort to me in times of trouble. Bolding mine, because I found it especially relevant to the quote above.

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.

And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:55 AM on February 28, 2015 [19 favorites]


This is lovely. Thanks for posting.

When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well.

Au contraire. When you don't dismiss your kid's pain as adolescent angst and instead try to engage with them on a deeper level, full of understanding, you're doing the best you possibly can.
posted by billiebee at 9:01 AM on February 28, 2015 [21 favorites]


From the article:
I the one who loves science, data, facts and reason — that when push comes to shove, it was poetry I could count on. Poetry knew where hope lived and could elicit that lump in the throat that reminds me it’s all worth it. Science couldn’t do that.
The physicalist scientism that dominates our society is creating a spiritual/intellectual void that is particularly harmful to children.
posted by No Robots at 9:29 AM on February 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Don't worry, people are rushing to fill that void with nonsensical woo.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:33 AM on February 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


nonsensical woo.

Like poetry?
posted by No Robots at 9:38 AM on February 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


I know the word "woo" is used differently than it was a hundred years ago, and nobody's talking about "pitching woo" anymore, but I can't help giggling and hearing it in Eddie Cantor's voice every time I read it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:48 AM on February 28, 2015




What a sweet story. I wish everyone with depression, especially every teenager, had that kind of unwavering, demonstrative love and support. It means so much when you are struggling: for better or worse, I think it is a huge factor as to which people are able to make it through that tunnel and which people are not.
posted by sevenofspades at 10:04 AM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


The idea that "optimism" and "naivite" are synonymous is rather obnoxious.


They certainly were for me.

Up until I was maybe twenty-one, I was pretty optimistic. And why wouldn't I be? I was white, male, educated etc, on my way to whatever future I wanted if I only applied myself etc.

And then some shit happened that shook me to the core and effectively killed my optimism. Because I suddenly had to admit that the basis for all my optimism was bullshit, and it always would be. Because optimism is a prediction. It says things will get better, the good guys will win, children will run free in fields and meadows. Pessimism is also a prediction by the way. It says the opposite. And both are wrong. Because nobody knows what's going to happen.

What I finally concluded was that I'd been confusing hope with optimism. Hope isn't a prediction. It's more of a commitment. It doesn't say things will get better. It says, the only way that things have a chance of getting better is if people like me (who are mostly healthy, mostly secure, mostly functional) invest their energies in that direction.

And so on.
posted by philip-random at 10:13 AM on February 28, 2015 [14 favorites]


There is nobody left for me to ask about why I saw the school psychologist once a week in third grade. I think I was scared of my dad and very angry and probably depressed. Ms. MacDougal gave me a big volume of Emerson and that was all we talked about for the rest of the year. It was the perfect antidote to what I was going to become.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:24 AM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


You know who else liked Emerson?
posted by thelonius at 10:45 AM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I know the word "woo" is used differently than it was a hundred years ago, and nobody's talking about "pitching woo" anymore, but I can't help giggling and hearing it in Eddie Cantor's voice every time I read it.

I picture Chow Yun Fat sliding down a banister with a toothpick in his mouth, twin pistols blazing away.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:49 AM on February 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


You know who else liked Emerson?

That is unfortunate. Most of what I got out of Emerson was the courage to be alone and a sense of the interconnectedness of everything. Woo!
posted by Mr. Yuck at 11:08 AM on February 28, 2015


Because optimism is a prediction. It says things will get better, the good guys will win, children will run free in fields and meadows.

That's not at all how I would define optimism (it's actually how I would define baseless hope). I believe that people have the strength and courage and ability to continue, and that bad things will continue to happen, but we will continue to be ok and maybe better. It's a belief that my efforts do make a difference in my life and other people's lives, and their efforts make a difference, etc., spreading out across the world. It's a belief that there are good things in the world and they shouldn't be dismissed.
posted by jaguar at 11:38 AM on February 28, 2015 [14 favorites]


Optimism may also be a personality factor which assists post traumatic growth and recovery.
posted by billiebee at 12:00 PM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I love this mom. I love the idea of a scientist treating adolescent despair with poetry to show a kid how others have dealt with depression and worry over the world. It's true, poetry can be such a hopeful art form.

Unfortunately all my poetic touchstones when I was a kid were Plath and Sexton and Snodgrass and T.S. Eliot, so my little Shoe Poem Mixtape might be the opposite of uplifting, but my horizons have since broadened out a bit in ways that could be helpful. Oh Auden and Strand, one day I will put you into my daughter's shoe, I promise! I hope we will get to share that together.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:02 PM on February 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Most of what I got out of Emerson was the courage to be alone and a sense of the interconnectedness of everything

It's hard to imagine a more Nietszchean theme than the courage to be alone.
posted by thelonius at 1:03 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Optimism drives me nuts. There's a "hope things go well" sort of it, which is fair, and then there is a version that denies reality. In the past I was attracted to guys who did the latter--I had one argue with me that a girl could transform into a horse if she really really wanted to...and y'know, a lot of scientific developments were made. This one also told me the chances of us getting back together was microscopically infinitesimal, which really pissed me off, but that tiny pretty much nonexistent bit of hope just had to be mentioned by him as important. Because hey, maybe if we were the last two left on earth he could stomach it.

Ugh. Honestly, that is headbanging behavior for me. I much prefer the prepare for the worst, hope for the best optimists instead.

As for this girl in the article, if I were her mom I would have been all, "Well, he's going to be president for at least four years. That's a long period of time to go without shoes and in the meantime you won't be allowed in a fair number of establishments, will get in trouble, and probably hurt your feet. Meanwhile, your lack of shoes won't hurt Bush at all. Why don't you find some more effective method of protest?"
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:33 PM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


You know Martin Seligman claims it is a proven scientific fact optimists are healthier, richer, live longer, and have better personal relationships.

Screw that guy.

Seligman is most famous for his work in the 1960s in which he was able to psychologically destroy caged dogs by subjecting them to repeated electric shocks with no hope of escape. The dogs broke down completely and ultimately would not attempt to escape through an open cage door when given the opportunity to avoid more pain. Seligman called the phenomenon “learned helplessness.”

Government documents say that the goal of Bush-era torture was to drive prisoners into the same psychologically devastated state through abuse. “The express goal of the CIA interrogation program was to induce a state of ‘learned helplessness,’” according to a July 2009 report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

posted by adept256 at 1:58 PM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's hard to imagine a more Nietszchean theme than the courage to be alone.

But I learned it from Emerson and I don't have boxes full of brown shirts in the basement.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:27 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


eh, sorry, this whole derail is my fault, starting with the Internet Hitler joke phrasing, but the man wrote against nationalism, against anti-semitism, and wasn't by any means a proto-Nazi, despite later use of his work as propaganda. I just think it's fascinating that he had read Emerson.
posted by thelonius at 2:42 PM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I knew my pessimism would pay off.
posted by RobotHero at 2:53 PM on February 28, 2015


Optimism drives me nuts. There's a "hope things go well" sort of it, which is fair, and then there is a version that denies reality.

I'd call that "delusion"rather than optimism, to be honest.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:58 PM on February 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem is that, as a parent, you have to practice optimism, even if it doesn't come natural. It's not fair to tell a 3 year old she's fucking doomed and the source of the next massive planetary die-off, for example.

But they learn. They see. If you give them the skills to see, for pity's sake, give them skills to cope with what they see.
posted by clvrmnky at 3:04 PM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


The poetry in the shoes strikes a biblical reference hard for me:

"Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against... the darkness of this world.. Stand therefore, having your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace." - Ephesians 6

I don't know if they'd see themselves that way, but Oliver and Berry sure seem to me like preachers of a gospel of peace with the world and within ourselves, born of reverence for the small miracles we are and awe for the larger wonders we all live in. Darned if a few lines of their work in the morning, placed where you can encounter and put them in mind when you're literally shoe-ing up for the day, isn't as poetic a manifestation of that passage as any I've seen. Particularly as a bookend for a girl who, when we're introduced to her, is facing the darkness in the world unshodden.

I think perhaps the author is being modest characterizing her poetry project as a "harmless sideline ," but then again maybe I'm an optimist about that sort of thing.
posted by weston at 3:11 PM on February 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


The poem that meant the most to me as a kid, before I got into Plath et al., was Houseman's Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff which pretty much convinced me to be prepared for the worst:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

posted by onlyconnect at 3:23 PM on February 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


eh, sorry, this whole derail is my fault, starting with the Internet Hitler joke phrasing, but the man wrote against nationalism, against anti-semitism, and wasn't by any means a proto-Nazi, despite later use of his work as propaganda. I just think it's fascinating that he had read Emerson.

My fault too. I wasn't sure where you were going with that and started baiting you to find out.

Back to our usual programming.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:27 PM on February 28, 2015


You know Martin Seligman claims it is a proven scientific fact optimists are healthier, richer, live longer, and have better personal relationships.

He also said pessimists tend to more accurately assess the world around them, so.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 3:54 PM on February 28, 2015


It makes sense if you sub "idealism" for "optimism". Optimism's fine, idealism can be dangerous.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:03 PM on February 28, 2015


That Wendell Berry quote is outstanding:
Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:29 PM on February 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


I was an optimist. Living life as a never ending series of disappointments, in seeing things constantly turn for the worst when I really thought things would be better, it got to me.

Life isn't any better now that life is a never ending series of grim predictions that end up coming true, and as an added bonus, things have a way of turning out so badly that they make my pessimism see naively optimistic by comparison.

Anything we can use to get through the day is a boon. Poetry helped me, and I'm glad to see it helping others.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:53 PM on February 28, 2015


In the past I was attracted to guys who did the latter--I had one argue with me that a girl could transform into a horse if she really really wanted to

oh dear god do not let a PUA overhear that this could work
posted by rorgy at 8:32 PM on February 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


As for this girl in the article, if I were her mom I would have been all, "Well, he's going to be president for at least four years. That's a long period of time to go without shoes and in the meantime you won't be allowed in a fair number of establishments, will get in trouble, and probably hurt your feet.

Sounds like the kid in the article figured that out for herself, since she started wearing shoes again without being told. I like that the mother didn't feel the need to lecture her on what she was bound to see for herself soon enough.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:41 PM on February 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Yeah I can't really look at Seligman's work on optimism (which I read with interest back in the early 2000s, WHILE HE WAS BUSY WITH THE BUSH TORTURE SQUAD) and be anything but horrified anymore. Learned Helplessness indeed. Screw that guy, as adept256 says.

The Wendell Berry poem was pretty wonderful. The lines:

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you.

seem pretty relevant in the age of Big Data too. :\

This whole piece was pretty gripping cause I have kids that age. I don't see them going in that direction, but I worry, and it's good to read a story of somebody who saw worse things than I have.
posted by edheil at 10:26 PM on February 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


As for this girl in the article, if I were her mom I would have been all, "Well, he's going to be president for at least four years. That's a long period of time to go without shoes and in the meantime you won't be allowed in a fair number of establishments, will get in trouble, and probably hurt your feet.

And the kid would have been like MO-OOOOOOM, you don't understand! And she would have gone shoeless for an extra 9 months out of pure adolescent spite.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:09 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


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