A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a cheery woman I love to be around. She’s an artist, still a diehard Ralph Naderite, and a dedicated organic gardener. But one day, when I was ranting about some ongoing environmental disaster or another, she stood up in her broccoli patch, gave me a withering look and stuck her fingers in her ears.
“Please stop,” she said earnestly. “I can’t listen to this anymore. You environmentalists are just too negative for me to bear!”
Negative? Me? “You’ll never believe this,” I told her, “But I am an optimist.” After she’d finished laughing and caught her breath, I attempted to explain myself.
“Look,” I said. “Do you know what I think is one of the most significant characteristics of an optimistic person?” She shook her head.
“Outrage,” I told her. “Controlled and properly applied outrage.”
My friend uncomfortably shifted from foot to foot. “What in the world are you talking about?” she asked.
“Okay ... stay with me a minute. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Not long. You’ll be out of here by noon.”
“But it’s only nine-thirty!”
“Okay ... eleven. Please listen to me. In this crazed world of ours, when we see something happening around us that we think is wrong — whether it’s trying to govern foreign countries that don’t want us or killing endangered species to save them — we have two choices: We can either act to change events, or we can simply accept what’s happening and prepare for the consequences.
“Only by being outraged will any of us make the effort or take the time to do the right thing. Outrage led to the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation and Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Act. Outrage created the Wilderness Act and the Clean Air Act. It was when people got mad enough that change occurred.”
My friend sighed and sat down next to me. “I see your point, but I just can’t stand all the pessimism that comes from environmentalists like you. It never stops.”
“That’s not true and you know it,” I said defensively. “First of all, you know that environmentalists can be some of the silliest and dopiest people that ever had the nerve to reproduce. We provide all kinds of comic relief to break the grimness. I mean ... good grief ... look at the Sierra Club.
“But second, and much more importantly, do you want me to tell you what a real pessimist sounds like?” I challenged.
“Uh ... not really,” she replied.
“OK, I’ll tell you anyway. My idea of a pessimist is somebody who hears about a new sight-seeing tram in Moab, Utah, or another gated community in Montana or Oregon, or another bonehead move by a Wyoming congressman and hears the outrage from others and puts his hands over his ears and says, ‘This is all so NEGATIVE. I think this kind of negative energy is really sad. I can find such happiness in my organic garden and taking hikes with my friends and just living. I mean, I recycle! Why can’t you people just be happy? You can’t stop any of this anyway, so, like, why make yourself miserable?’
“Now that is a pessimistic person ... someone in such denial that they refuse to acknowledge the reality around them, and the responsibility to defend the very things that they allegedly find most precious in their lives. It’s stumbling through life with blinders on. It’s ignoring the obvious. It’s outrageous and hypocritical to boot!” I was on a roll.
“On the other hand, someone who is outraged enough to act believes that things can get better. That positive change is possible. That it’s worth the screaming and elevated blood pressure to see something through to its conclusion, win or lose.”
“I never say ‘like’ in a sentence,” she said, glaring.
“My friend, I’m not even talking about you. Your grasp of the English language is to be commended and I know you have a great passion for right and wrong. I was creating a hyperbolic and stereotypical generalization to make a point. Just don’t assume that outrage is a bad thing.”
“So the bottom line,” she said, “is that you’re a positive, upbeat optimist because you’re constantly outraged and frustrated, and if the world were similarly infuriated, the world would be a better place to live?”
“Something like that.”
“Nobody will ever believe it.”
Jim Stiles edits the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.