Forever an Optimist

by Lauren Vespoli | 5/23/13 10:00pm

For some reason, I distinctly remember my father teaching me the word "optimist" after a family vacation mishap. I was young, it was winter and my parents and I got bumped off of our flight to somewhere warm. There was another flight due to leave the next hour, and I kept repeating how I thought we would get on that one. My dad laughed and told me I was an optimist. I didn't know what that meant, and he explained that an optimist is someone who expects the best outcome. We ended up spending that night in the airport hotel.

Now, over a decade later, on the cusp of finishing my academic career for the foreseeable future, I still call myself an optimist. If you know me well, you'll know that I can be pretty sarcastic. It's not negative or mean-spirited, but just my sense of humor. However, you might not know that I'm also somewhat paranoid. As a young child, I was so terrified of being struck by lightning that whenever there were thunderstorms, I would take a sleeping bag into a closet or our basement to spend the night somewhere without windows. As recently as two years ago, when someone took a late-night wrong turn into my driveway at home, I stayed awake for two hours afraid that they were burglars about to case the place, and I would have to wake my parents. I then spent a while longer googling crime rates in my town.

But despite my outward sarcasm and occasional inner paranoia, most of the time, it's pretty sunny inside my head. Perhaps this is a result of some naivete that comes from being fortunate enough to have a pretty great life. Still, after the bleakness of my humanities-based liberal arts education, I pride myself on still looking for the best.

During these past four years, I've read Nietzsche and "Paradise Lost." I took my senior history seminar on the ways Europeans cheated Native Americans out of their land, and have studied the American Civil War, the Holocaust and Joseph Stalin. I've received a C+ in Econ 1 and have a W on my transcript from trying An Introduction to Neuroscience. And that's just the academics. Freshman year, I received rejections from: the Mirror, Ski Patrol, Dimensions, OLE and Trips. At one point during winter term, I cried on the phone to my mom, asking why Dartmouth accepted me if they clearly didn't want me to do anything else besides go to class and watch Hulu in my room. She told me to keep trying. Sophomore fall, I reapplied for the Mirror and was hired. In the spring, I applied for an internship at the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, and am about to finish my second year of work there.

Outside my own little slice of experience, Dartmouth itself has given me many reasons to doubt it. Yet despite the hazing exposes, protests and reactions to them, I still believe that most of us care about each other and are intelligent people who are going to be okay.

Where does the Bucket List play into this journey of optimism? What have I learned about myself throughout this process of writing roughly 15,000 words in a public forum over the course of senior year? Well, looking back at the bucket list I made for myself before the year started, there are a significant number of things I still have not done. I haven't gone to the ceramics studio, apple picking or salsa dancing, and I haven't visited Montreal (senior week, anyone?). Some might view this as a failure: I did not complete everything on my list. I, however, see the unexpected experiences that weren't included on my list: the greenhouse, ice fishing, the meditation garden. I don't even think this project was really about what I did. I mean, the Great Vermont Corn Maze was still a highlight of the year (two words: baby goats), but to me the list was more about the exercise of writing through my thoughts and the feedback I received from peers, administrators, my parents, their friends and even you, anonymous online commenter who once wrote, "What is the point of this article." I loved hearing when something I wrote resonated with someone. To me, much of writing is putting into words all the subtleties and complexities of felt experiences, so that the people who read them feel a little less alone.

That's how I felt reading these lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald's essay, "The Crack-Up":

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Sometimes I wonder how one can read the news and still manage to go about her day, or how Stalin could exist on the same earth as baby goats, or how the school where I attend classes and study in the library by day can be the same place on Webster Avenue at night. I guess I take my hope from the good things.

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