On Pessimism, Optimism and Legacy

James Baldwin famously said “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I’m forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.”

This quote has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about it in the context of professional success, the fulfilment we are expected to get from our work. The pessimist in me says that the situation in libraries — the conservatism, the unwillingness to make room for opinions from and the leadership of people who don’t toe the party line — will never change, and that speaks to the pessimist in me who looks at my work in libraries in a somewhat detached fashion, as if the circumstance I find myself in is immovable and hopeless.

But I’ve come to understand that nothing is truly hopeless, that progress is like an iceberg carving out a canyon in the landscape. You don’t see the iceberg move, but over eons, the after effect of those changes are clearly visible.

Optimism, as Baldwin frames it, is an active engagement with life and the issues. The act of struggle means that you are, whether you know it or not, striving for something better.

This willingness, this optimism is what pushes us forward when things seem most bleak. It’s a belief that even though I may not personally benefit from social or organizational changes that are more open and equitable, I believe that someone who comes behind me will, and that may well be enough to keep me motivated.

How can I begin to make and effect change for future generations? What is my legacy?