The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Ralph Couey

January 8, 2011

RALPH COUEY | Optimism out of style, still a priceless tool

— A few years ago, I came across a stack of old Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1950s and 1960s. The mere sight of those covers took me back to the days of my youth when both magazines would arrive in the mail every month.

Carefully, I opened the cover and flipped through the pages.

The insides were literally stuffed with advertising, mainly work-at-home plans. The articles, once you found them, spoke in wondrous terms of advances in science, technology and manufacturing.

There were also interesting little snippets of information, like “married men driving with their wives break fewer traffic laws than single men.”

Really?

But mainly, it was the covers that fascinated. Drawn by gifted artists, they depicted futuristic cars, spaceships, futuristic cities, domed homes, all manner of technological marvels. I remember looking at those covers and allowing my imagination to run free about the future I would inherit. Always present in that predictive cover art was an effervescent view of the future.

Everything was possible.

There would be no more poverty or hunger. Everyone would lead exciting and comfortable lives made easy by a plethora of “labor-saving devices.”

Looking into the crystal ball of those covers, the future looked very rosy, indeed.

How times have changed.

The events of the last quarter century have made cynics of us all. The predictions for the future are uniformly dark and gloomy, even apocalyptic. Climate change, terror attacks, a rain of rocks from outer space, global starvation and war, all contribute to the incipient feeling that the human race is circling the bowl of history. Our destruction, even extinction has become a foregone conclusion.

As I idly looked through those old magazines, I wondered what has happened to us? Where did that irrepressible optimism go? In the ’50s and ’60s, no problem lay beyond an eventual solution; we only had to keep plugging away. Now it seems that there are no solutions anywhere for anything.

The problems thus become self-perpetuating.

And perhaps, self-fulfilling.

I have a problem with that attitude.

Optimism used to be the way we led our lives. Now, it has becine socially unacceptable. I suspect that the people who make millions out of advocating for those problems are also actively resisting practical solutions.

After all, if those problems get solved, they’re out of a job.

For the rest of us, however, when one insists on viewing life through the dark veil of pessimism, solutions are harder to find, even to seek. We feel that nothing can be fixed, so why even try?

Innovation, once the province of basement inventors and garage mechanics, has been replaced by an expectation that someone else will fix the things that need fixing. We have stopped thinking and tinkering.

When was the last time any of us actually undertook the effort to create something new?

Have you ever picked up a bracket, a board, and a couple of screws and thought about a novel way to do something?

When was the last time any of us looked to the future with any other feeling than impending doom?

We’ve allowed ourselves to lose our optimism. We’ve forgotten how to create solutions. In a way, we’ve given up.

Many of the significant inventions of the last 150 years didn’t come out of a corporate lab. Charles Goodyear created vulcanized rubber in his wife’s oven. A Hungarian journalist, Laszlo José Biró, tired of the nib-and-inkwell, invented the ballpoint pen.

The cardiac pacemaker that has extended the lives of so many was perfected by an American engineer, Wilson Greatbatch, working in his garden shed. During the Great Depression, Leonard Goodall, working in his backyard workshop, created the powered rotary lawn mower.

And who could forget the two bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, Wilbur and Orville, and how their invention literally changed the world?

They had an idea. Over hundreds, even thousands of hours, enduring multiple failures along the way, they pursued their idea, perfected it, and promoted it. We can still do that.

We can still turn ideas into a brighter tomorrow.

Optimism is the exercise of hope for a better future. It is the paint on the canvas of the art of the possible. It is a brush any one of us can wield.

If we choose to be optimistic; if we choose to dream even a little, then nothing is impossible.

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.

 

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