When I was a kid, something happened to me that left such a lasting impression on me that I wouldn’t feel its effects until long after becoming an adult. I could be sitting here telling you about the many toxic people that left this small child vulnerable to becoming a truly awful individual today, and boring you with unhelpful stories about all the bullies I had, but it is one moment that sent me on a different path.
It must have been when I was around nine or ten, getting lost while riding my bike around the foreign neighborhoods three towns over. It was something I did almost every day. I was an explorer, and it’s how I got good at being able to navigate territories that were unknown to me. I was learning to remember landmarks, follow the sun or moon, things of that sort.
There wasn’t a single place that I could explore out of which I could not eventually find my way. It just didn’t happen. The woods and streets of suburban New York were a comfortably wide sandbox for me, and I was never content without a challenge.
But one day, I guess you could say I flew a bit too close to the sun. I found myself lost in a place that was actually not that far from my home, and so I never expected to get lost. I stopped paying attention to my landmarks, and just sort of kept going. When the sun began to set, and I knew I had to start heading home, it hit me. I had no idea where I was.
I knew the street I needed to find, and how to get home from there, but I just could not find that street. For four hours, long after the sun had already set, I peddled past houses that all looked the same. There were no landmarks to see, and soon, panic began to set in. Actually, as crazy and out of character as it seems to me now, I felt the slowly creeping but surprisingly deep feeling of hopelessness and defeat.
I know how silly it sounds to attribute such powerful emotion to what seems like an easily resolvable situation. And it’s true, it is nothing compared to challenges others around me, then and now, have faced. It also pales in comparison to struggles that I would eventually face myself. But for me, at that time, it was terrifying.
I found myself sitting on a curb, crying, and more scared than I’d ever been in my life.
Whenever I tell this story to new friends and I get to the next part in the story, that is when my defiant optimism is revealed to them to be nothing more than the juvenile fantasy they always believed it to be.
But my optimism didn’t come merely from the fact that a kindly old man found me and asked me why I was crying at that precise moment. It’s also not just that he helped me at all. I was fortunate to have grown up with enough adults in my life that demonstrated often the incredible capacity for human compassion.
In reality, this moment was like divine revelation for me, because all this caring man had to do — what he did do, in fact — was walk with me twenty more feet.
From there, I could see the street that I had spent the last four hours looking for.
It was as if God himself set this whole lesson up for me, spoke directly to me, and made sure I wrote it down in my mental Rolodex of personal creeds to live by. It was like I was struck by lightning, and frozen in time. Perhaps it’s why I remember it like it happened yesterday.
It happened that way because it was supposed to happen that way. I stopped twenty feet short of my goal, and then just gave up. Just like that.
It is a story all too common for everyone. In the face of a challenge, most of us are all too willing to throw in the towel early. I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to figure out why we do that as a species. I’ve learned a lot along the way, but so much of it remains a mystery.
Optimism is not a philosophy of positivity without evidence. In truth, most optimism is rejected for no other reason than a lack of information and a reluctance to have vision.
Seeing the end of the journey in your mind’s eye, even when darkness has fallen — and perhaps especially when the light has gone — is an act of defiance. It is resisting that which seems to be, in defense of that which could one day be. It may not always seem as easy as walking another twenty feet, but sometimes, it very much is.