As I mentioned yesterday, it was interesting to watch the line on Tim Kaine go from being “boring and safe” to “happy warrior” following his speech in Florida on Saturday. In a way that is reminiscent of how Joe Biden talks a lot about the advice he got from his father growing up, Kaine credits his optimism to his mother.
My mom once told me this, “Tim, you have to decide whether you want to ‘be right’ or you want to ‘do right.’ If you want to be right, go ahead and be a pessimist. But if want to do right, be an optimist.” And folks, I’ve been an optimist ever since.
That is something that resonated with me profoundly. While growing up, the dogmatism of my family’s Christian fundamentalism placed almost all of its emphasis on being right. The halls of the higher educational institutions I attended were filled with discussions about being right. And, of course, when political disagreements become about ideological differences, the point is always to prove that we are right.
It wasn’t until I got my first job after college in a chemical dependency treatment program for adolescents that I looked around and noticed that all my efforts to be right were of very little use when it came to actually helping those kids. There was something important that had been missing. I had to start all over and learn how to do right. That was a journey that took me at least the next ten years to figure out.
It is interesting that Kaine’s mother tied optimism to doing right. I believe that is because it’s all about getting down into the trenches and working with people to make a difference. And that reminds me of something Clay Claiborne wrote several years ago.
For someone sitting on the very edge of survival, hope is extremely important. Often it is only hope, sometimes even false hope, that allows him to make it to the next day…Cynicism is deadly for someone on the edge of survival. Even in the darkest night, he cannot afford to be cynical. That cynicism just might push him over the edge.
Cynicism is a privilege. When practiced by those in a position to do it well, cynicism allows them to criticize the oppressor and sympathize with the oppressed without ever having to move out of their comfort zone. In fact, one of the main objects of this practice of cynicism is to make the cynic more comfortable. He may not, as yet, be wanting for much personally, but he can see the growing misery all around him so he has to think or do something. The cynic solves this dilemma by thinking that nothing can be done!
I have witnessed cynicism (or pessimism) flourish under two conditions: (1) those whose only focus is on being right and (2) those who allow themselves to get burned out in trying to do right. The latter usually happens when someone is trying to do right FOR other people rather than WITH them.
Being right is ultimately an activity of the mind. I don’t say any of this to denigrate that…it is an important part of the process. But when it is divorced from doing right, it is ultimately useless and leads to pessimism. By engaging in the world with people who have no choice but to hope, Tim Kaine learned to do right. That’s how he became a happy warrior.