I recently admitted to myself that I am, despite everything that tells me I should be otherwise, still an optimist.
I don’t think optimism has to be an assumption that things will work out; sometimes it can be a belief that things can work out. And it is a soft sort of optimism, I think. One that can — and often does — retreat into the cynical shadows that I’ve collected over the years as the real world and the one I just know we’re capable of creating diverged further and further from one another. To believe so intensely in humanity’s capacity for goodness but have so little expectation that good things will happen can be a fragile emotional existence.
For now, it’s enough for me that I continue to believe in the possibility of a brighter future that we can build together. That I still believe that people are basically good and curious and that those who break from that should be treated with compassion and support. It’s enough for me to believe that people are still capable of kindness, because through kindness we create community and that’s where our power lies.
I can sometimes feel my grasp on hopefulness slipping, usually slowly for a long while and then all at once, and I have to lean on someone else’s until I can get a firm grip again. Sometimes it’s a tweet that brings me back or a stranger on the subway. Often it’s a Dec. 2021 Late Night segment with Dutch historian Rutger Bregman about his book: Humankind: A Hopeful History.
The conversation really highlights some of what I love most about Late Night (besides the actual comedy of it all): genuine curiosity, kindness and an unwavering commitment to choosing hope over fear. We see that on delightful display throughout this conversation.
The author talks to Seth Meyers about his thesis that people are decent at their core and humanity is better than we give it credit for. He says that “this is really a book for those who have lost their faith in humanity, and I think there are quite a few of us today.”
Assuming the best reminded me of one of my favorite books: Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging. He tells the story of Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, who said that poor people were creditworthy and good entrepreneurs and in doing so created an entirely new possibility for the future, not only for those individuals’ lives but for everyone in their village and ultimately country.
Grameen Bank’s model relied on community to function, as small groups of loan holders were required to make their own loan payments in order to fund loans for someone else. These entrepreneurs were also expected to contribute to others’ success in non-fiscal ways, building the social capital that connects us all and strengthens our communities. Because one person was willing to take a chance on the women who participated in the program, they were able to effect meaningful positive change in their own lives and at a large scale.
Seth put it simply at the end of the interview: “We should all look for the best in other people, and maybe they’ll deliver on it.”
Watch the full interview with Rutger Bregman below.