The classic test of whether you're an optimist or a pessimist is to look at a glass of water like the one in the picture, and say whether you think it's half full or half empty. But what do you call yourself when your natural reaction is to want to pour out the water, which is probably poisoned anyway, and hurl the glass against the wall?
When you survey the state of the world we've brought upon ourselves, it's difficult to conceive of any other reaction. Switch on the news and what do you see? Iraq spinning out of control, and now mired in anarchy, Palestine bruised and beaten, while Iran is now under threat from a bunch of imperialist psychopaths disguised as world leaders, driven by a military-industrial complex gone berserk, and aided and abetted as ever by the supine international media. And all this against the backdrop of a planet slowly heating up around us, destined one day to throw its hands in the air and eject completely this impertinent species called the human race which has so abused its hospitality.
Depressed by this? Don't change channels yet; don't turn the page. There's more: I'm just getting started. Indeed why look outward to the wider world when there is plenty to take in on our own doorstep?
Whatever else you can say about Bangladesh, it's a country in which it is impossible not to come face to face with stark reality, to reflect and to react. To live in Bangladesh is to slowly come to understand the landscape of the self. Here you discover your own map and your own borders: the things which delight, horrify, enlighten and move you. This country forces you into conclusions about what you believe in, who you are, and who you want to be. It's a place which offers up to you the chance to be the best and the worst that you can be, taking you to extremes of compassion and selfish escapism within the same day.
All of human life is here on every street. Nothing is hidden from view, nothing is sanitized, there is nowhere to hide. Each road is a microcosm for the entire human condition. You have no choice but to dive into what you see, confront it, and when you do so, you realise how deeply interconnected your life is with each person who comes your way. We're in this together folks, however hard we try to separate ourselves from the poor behind walls and gates, or the tinted windows of powerful cars. Our gain is their loss.
At first glance, there is of course plenty of fuel for the determined pessimist here. The population is exploding (in more ways than one), the waters to the south are rising and those to the north are drying up. There are the miseries of floods, of destitution, and of cities in gridlock. Add to these the litany of grisly stories that fill up the pages of our daily newspapers: the acid attacks, the abuse of domestic workers, the rapaciousness of big business, the constant plight of the oppressed and downtrodden, and it all seems pretty bleak.
So whether looking at the bigger picture or focusing on our own little corner of the world, it would seem to follow that the only response for a sentient being of even average intelligence is to curl up in a ball, or to become a hermit and shun everything. But those people who stand out as the great positive forces of history, from the founders of religions, to latter-day heroes such as Gandhi and Mandela, as well as contemporary luminaries like the great intellectual Noam Chomsky and the journalist John Pilger, have done precisely the opposite, and continued fighting for change, despite the immensity of the forces ranged against them. While tirelessly cataloguing the evils they see around them, people like these have been involved in a lifelong struggle to make a difference.
It's examples like these that inspire and save your particularly pessimistic correspondent from burying his head in his hands. Although unafraid to depict our worst excesses, these campaigners never lose sight of the basic sense of human justice and decency that cement our communities, without which we would simply disintegrate as a society, and quite possibly as individuals. What keeps them going is a way of looking at the world, a unique perspective which celebrates the achievements and activism of the unsung silent majorities. Chomsky refers to this silent majority of essentially decent people the world over as the “second superpower”. It's an immense and positive description.
Listen to what the radical American historian Howard Zinn has to say on the issue, in his essay: “The Optimism of Uncertainty”.
"What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, it energizes us to act, and raises at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
In a similar vein it was Mother Theresa who once said: “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love”. Such advice suggests that it is possible, no, necessary, to reach out and make human connections, to build tiny bridges of compassion and truth between people and to celebrate these favours carried out for others, these little neighbourly kindnesses done to help friends and strangers alike which keep the world turning.
Take this one single event: something which happened to me twenty years ago now, in San Antonio, Texas. Dry heat and a vast blue sky. I stepped off the sizzling pavements into the cool of the Riverwalk, a long trendy riverside walkway full of eateries and bars and was tucking into an enchilada at a Mexican cafe. There was a fat old trombonist and a grizzled pianist, together playing the most poignant version of Summertime. A man in a smart suit sitting a few tables away from me looked up and said 'You new here?' We fell into easy light conversation. After a few minutes, he had to leave and headed off, no doubt to one of the mirror-fronted skyscrapers all around the city. I was in less of a hurry, and dawdled over my book and my fiery meal. When eventually I came to pay, the bemused waiter told me 'No need, Sir. That other gentleman paid for you'. He'd left no name, no address. Of course we never met again. I doubt whether he is even aware that I still remember him.
Incidents like this may not be much, when set against the vast litany of international suffering, but neither can they be entirely discounted, as they show, in their own way, what we are capable of at our best, our most selfless and generous. And considering the countless altruistic actions like this which happen each day round the world, I come back again and again to this realisation: I may be a global pessimist but I'm also a local optimist. Awareness of suffering doesn't diminish the need to fight. And nowhere is this optimism more important than here, where the scale of pain is obvious for everyone to see, and the good sides often overlooked by everyone.
Like every nation on earth, this may be a country of personal tragedies, of greed and violence, but at the same time it's a place which can be generous, inspiring and uplifting, especially on a community level, whether through individual actions or the courageous achievements of those who wish to change society more broadly. It's also the country where I have come across more spontaneous kindness and gratuitous acts of hospitality from utter strangers than anywhere else I've been. And each one of these people has reminded me that there is hope. Local hope, in the face of global hopelessness. It's the hope of small things.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007