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October 9, 2016 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

On Optimism

There are a lot of contradictions and tensions to navigate in our lives. Part of being human is to have different parts of ourselves and our worlds at odds with each other. And so, part of being human is to also learn how to explore and accept these feelings. Earlier in the year I took a personality test. It told me I am an INFJ-T; that I have an “inborn sense of idealism and morality.” It struck a chord with me and I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on this idea. This idealism and sense of morality, I think, is what helps me to navigate the tensions that arise in my life.

One of the main tensions I have been trying to navigate is the dichotomy of growing up in a relatively poor household and burrowing myself in academia. I find that the majority of people I tend to be surrounded by do not have similar life experiences as I do. There is slightly more disconnection between their politics or academia and their life experiences. For me the two are intrinsically linked. I know that there are, certainly, academics who build their work off of their life experiences. I just don’t think we are in the majority. Much of the humanities and social sciences is about removing your normative assumptions when writing and researching. I struggle to do this. If I am exploring and writing about something that I have experienced I cannot remove these experiences from my work. I cannot be neutral. Growing up poor, queer, and a woman are inherently part of who I am: I am not going to take a step back from that in my academia.

I also struggle being cooped up in my ivory tower, removed from the lived experiences of my work. It is easy for those of us in universities to forget about life beyond the institution. I feel as though I need to always be reserved and to ensure that I am not perceived as being too emotional for an academic setting. I really dislike this; there is nothing inherently wrong with being emotional. The classes I have learnt the most from have been the ones where I am given the space to explore my lived experiences and their relationship to course content. For me, university is about expanding our knowledge. By learning of other’s lived experiences we surely expand our knowledge? I am still navigating how to unify my experiences with my academic work, but I think I am doing it justice.

Studying politics, particularly at a post-grad level, makes it easy to fall into a trap of being cynical. The more I learn the easier it is to give up hope that our generation will be able to bounce back from the harm caused by decades of unfettered capitalism, environmental degradation, constant war, and so on. It is bleak, don’t get me wrong. I’ve spent most of the year interning and working at parliament. The more time I spend up in Bowen House the easier it is to become despondent at just how little gets done—both in government and opposition. Launching a campaign takes time, getting answers from the government is increasingly hard, and often it’s a struggle to get any advocacy work done. I once spent an afternoon replying to over 150 anti-abortion emails that had been sent to the MP I work for. That was hard—I bought a bottle of wine on my way home that day.

And yet my idealism persists. Call it naivety, call it stubbornness, call it what you like. I still believe there is cause for hope.

I still enjoy digging into dense legislative documents and pulling out areas that could be improved. Finding issues with the system and suggesting ways to improve it. This year I’ve been able to work on a campaign highlighting how ACC could work better for survivors of sexual abuse. I’ve helped look into the Evidence Amendment Bill and worked on some Supplementary Order Papers to try and make the bill better for those giving evidence in sexual abuse cases. This feels like tangible, albeit incremental, change to me. Surely these small changes will one day amount to a larger change?

Make no mistake, this idealism does not always manifest itself in positivity. Having dealt with poor mental health for longer than I care to think about, I am not always the most positive person. When you live with depression and anxiety it is difficult to see positives. My anxiety alerts me to everything that could ever go wrong and my depression tells me that everything is pointless anyway. Idealism is difficult. Observing the world, expanding your mind, and exploring our sense of belonging can, sometimes, bring about a pervasive sense of dread and despair. The more inequities you begin to see, the easier it is to give up. Why bother trying to make things better when there is so much wrong with the world? But there is reason to hope and people are not inherently evil.

My favourite poet, Anis Mojgani, has spoken about what he refers to as the inherent nobility in all of us. He quotes Bahá’u’lláh—“noble have I created thee.” This is such a delightful and gorgeous thought. Noble have I created thee! Imagine if we embraced this idea. Imagine if we all knew of the nobility housed in our souls. I’d like to think, perhaps, that this knowledge would make us more aware and more conscious of our actions. That this underlying sense of being infinitesimal, yes, but of also being noble, ran through us all.

This year I discovered the Twitter account of Yuna Winter and it’s had such a positive effect on me. Silly, I know, that a social media account can have such an influence. But so many of her tweets have such gentleness and understanding in them. Some of my recent favourites include “woke up feeling super grateful for air” and “you know that feeling of things suddenly becoming less heavy without changing? that’s called inner strength and we have an infinite amount.” So I am taking this gentility and compassion and trying to consciously bring it into my everyday actions. I like to think I already possessed these qualities but there is a difference between possessing them and consciously embodying them.

Idealism alone can only get us so far, though. It’s all well and good to believe that there’s hope for our doomed planet, but there has to be follow through. We can’t afford to sit idly by. This promotion of individualism that neoliberalism is so fond of has got to stop. Collective action is the key to realising our idealism.

Don’t get me wrong, we won’t be able to create lasting positive change overnight. Change takes time. Plus activism is tiring and burnout is rife. So we need to find a way to not only work together, but to look after each other together. I believe we’re capable of this. I have two overarching goals: to restore our planet to good health and to eradicate inequalities. Neither of these are likely to be achieved in my lifetime, but I’m okay with that. Why, though? Why should I spend my life fighting for something I’ll never see achieved? I think this is where the “sense of morality” part of my personality comes into play. A belief that we can do and be better. We deserve better and those come after us deserve better.

I recently had a dream about snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef; I grew up in a region where the reef was easily accessible. I woke up sad. It’s been eight years since I lived there but I still have the fondest memories of days spent splashing in warm waters and discovering types of fish I had never seen before. I feel comforted by the gentle rocking of a boat on the sea, by the smell of the salty air, by the depth and richness of colours in the ocean. My sadness came from an understanding that there are children who will grow up with a bleached shell of the reef and not get to share many of the delights I was fortunate enough to experience. So now there is a question of how to take this sadness and create something positive out of it. I don’t have any kind of answer about how this will be achieved, but I have faith in myself.

There is often a distinct separation between our beliefs and our actions. I believe in ethical consumerism and yet much of what I buy is not fair-trade. I believe we all need to reduce our environmental footprint and yet I still have long showers and create rubbish. I try, don’t get me wrong. But I am not perfect. I think much of my idealism, however, stems from an unshakable belief that we are all perfectly capable of unifying our morals and our actions. We can do this.

I believe in the softness of moss, the calm of sunshine, the healing nature of laughter.

I believe in my mother’s optimism that everything will work out. I believe in myself and, most importantly, I believe in you.


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