Blame for American optimism often falls to essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This "hitch your wagon to a star!" thinker inspired the Transcendental Movement and compelled his protege, Henry David Thoreau, to build a cabin in Walden woods and experiment with living deliberately. Emerson's high-flying quotes could serve as an affirmation a day for a lifetime. But using his words as mere affirmations or as proof that he led us down a superficial path to empty optimism misses the wisdom behind his words that we desperately need - wisdom born of loss and grief.
The Emerson pedigree places him among the Boston Brahmins. But his early lived experience was anything but. His father's death at a young age thrust his family into poverty and challenged his mother to keep them afloat by renting rooms to boarders. He bore the brunt of jokes at school because he and his brothers alternated wearing one winter coat among them. Loss after loss of loved ones, mostly due to consumption running rampant, would justify a cynical, bereft, and pessimistic voice. The optimism echoing in those happy, pithy quotes was hard won, and a conscious choice. I doubt that he would have introduced his thought experiment in his first book, Nature, launching Transcendentalism if he hadn't had a deep relationship with nature and spirit...and an optimism grounded in grief.
In light of the degradation of nature that is affecting all of life, beginning with the most vulnerable, what do we need to transcend in order to find and act on, not fluffy affirmations or hopeless cynicism, but grounded optimism?