It’s September in Southern California, and that inevitably means a heat wave. The air conditioner blasts here in my upper room essentially all day while the fan struggles to keep up. It makes things bearable. They say that the secret to enduring the heat is not fighting it- to just let your body sweat and adjust to a new standard. I’ve gone for that idea from time to time, but today is not one of those days. Today, the rumble of the AC is my constant companion.
What I find remarkable about this heat wave that has brought us temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s is not its location on the calendar or its severity, it’s the comments I hear about it. I don’t mean simple griping. That’s a given. I even find myself uttering the inane, obligatory, “it is HOT.” The comments I find surprising are the ones in which surprise is articulated. “What is happening?” “How weird is this for SEPTEMBER?” “Why is this happening?”
Here’s the thing. We get a heat wave every September. We usually get one in January too, and people get a lot more excited about that one. But then it goes away and gets cold again (as cold as it ever does around here) and February goes back to being especially chilly, and life goes on. It reminds me of an unfortunate reality of man, myself most certainly included. (I suppose that was redundant to reinclude myself, but I want to emphasize that I am by no means immune to this malady.)
Our memories are both selective and short. It isn’t that they are defective, necessarily. Indeed, one of the foremost pediatric neurosurgeons in the country once claimed that the human mind has enough room in it for all of the knowledge discovered in all of the history of mankind. (Accessing that information in a timely manner, as well as inputting it in a timely manner is another matter entirely.) We choose to use our minds this way. We forget, we are surprised, and we gripe in our stunned condition. Yet the heat wave came last year too, and at the same time.
Every winter the news freaks out about how cold it is. Then in the summer they freak out about how hot it is. The populace is right there with them, for the most part. Why are we surprised about things that happen almost exactly the same every year?
We return to the gym and we’ve forgotten that it’s hard. We drive through Los Angeles at one am on a Tuesday and we’re shocked that there’s traffic. And every September and January, we’re surprised at the heat wave.
I don’t know why this is. I only know that I want to remember things. Life is a little less scary that way. The heat wave will come next year too, and I’ll turn on a ceiling fan and get on with my life. Life is full of the unexpected, but it also isn’t.
I suppose it depends on what we remember, and on what we expect.
I’ve read a fair number of accounts of prisoners of war during the various conflicts of the modern age, and those that managed to live through their experiences and return to some sort of normalcy typically agree on a certain principle for looking at the world. It is perhaps articulated best by a P.O.W. in the infamous Hanoi Hotel during the Vietnam War. When asked who were the first kind of people to break in prison- to give up and die- he naturally responded that it was the pessimists. This makes sense, as they never had any hope. However, he was quick to add that the optimists were quick to follow in their footsteps and fall next, succumbing to the horror of their circumstances. This is counter-intuitive. We’re always told to stay positive, and in truth, there is much good to be found in that advice. Yet what he calls optimism others might call denial. Those he referred to as the optimists in prison were always going on about how they would all be rescued by Christmas, and then they would smile and caress their hope as it brought them through agony. But then Christmas would come and the rescue wouldn’t. They would be shattered until they lighted upon another idea. By the spring we’ll be rescued. They would then shift to this being their mantra, remembering that despite all of the bad, they would be out by spring. Then spring would come, and with it no rescue. It required a varying number of crushing disappointments for these optimists to lose it and give up, but they all did. They had hope, but it was imaginary. Their timelines were arbitrary. True, the glass is half full, but if it’s full of antifreeze, you still shouldn’t drink it.
The ones who made it through the war without cracking up or dying were what this officer called the hopeful pragmatists. They were the ones who realized that they had received a beating yesterday, a beating today, and in all likelihood, they’d get another one tomorrow. Their hope was not that every man of them would be rescued- that was impossible. Their hope was not that they would be rescued at a certain point. Their hope was that the day would eventually come when old glory stormed the castle. They had no idea when this would be or which ones of them would make it, but this hope, this true hope, kept them going. They did not succumb to the bitterness of their circumstance by denying hope, nor did they fabricate it. They hoped in what was real, and they remembered what had happened already so they were not surprised when it came again. Eventually, their hope was proved substantial. Rescue did come, but it came long after the optimists and the pessimists had died alike.
Circumstances are hard. It’s hot. We’re unhappy with X, Y, or Z. Putting a smile on your face won’t solve all of your problems in an instant, but neither will carrying a wounded sense of defeatism. Life is what it is. There’s a lot of beauty around if you know where to look for it. Even in the darkest of situations, there is some good to be found. Even if we don’t know when things are going to get better, they will at some point- either for us or for some of our brothers in arms. I’m not saying don’t hope for big things- great change never comes without that sort of audacity. Only let us remember that it gets hot every September, and then we can deal with it accordingly, without the burden of shock slowing us down.
I want to remember things. I want to be a hopeful pragmatist. Do you?