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The Wind and A Lot of Thoughts About Pessimism and Optimism

Apr 21, 2009 • creativity, family

The past few days I was camping in southern Utah at Sand Hollow State Park. When we entered the park, the ranger knew -- but did not share with us upon entering -- that the area sported some of the windiest regions in southern Utah. The ranger later explained that only three days out of the last month were non-windy.

Had we known this from the start, we might have pitched our tent in a more secluded shelter. But as we had no idea about the wind, we put up our tent in full view of the lake, which spanned out before us majestically alongside green buttes and round red-rock formations in the sand.

During the first night, after enjoying a more or less windless day, I awoke to the sound of my tent panel flapping in the dark. It sounded like footsteps in gravel, and my senses alerted to the idea that someone might be right outside my tent. I knew, however, that it was only the rain fly, flapping off and on, sometimes violently. The wind blew and blew, but I finally fell back asleep.

The next day, after traveling to see petroglyphs and a gypsum rock formation, we returned to the campsite to find the wind blowing harder than the previous day. The wind blew so hard it was bending back the poles of our tent, and my brother-in-law urged me to quickly collapse my tent to avoid damage. Had we not staked it down and had numerous bags and blankets inside, I'm sure the tent would have blown a hundred feet away.

I removed the poles from the grommets and folded the tent down on the ground. It laid there a defeated clump of material, like a parachute wrapped around bushes. We sat inside the trailer for the next few hours, where my in-laws and their family slept, and watched the wind whip across the lake. White caps and incoming waves repeated all afternoon. At times the trailer rocked, as the wind gained speed and then let down again, and then rocked the trailer again. The flags on the four wheelers whipped in the wind, and we all felt trapped inside the trailer.

We thought the wind would be temporary, like the desert sandstorms that we'd seen in movies, which blow sand furiously for a few hours and then pass. But the wind continued. A parasail enthusiast in the water apparently knew the area's windy condition and harnessed it with a giant sail in the sky.

By and by we ventured outside in the wind. We thought little of the tent, as it rustled and flapped. With several four-wheelers, we throttled into the sandy recesses of the area, up past the round red rocks and through the sagebrush and rock protrusions up to the soft sand dunes. We raced up hills, careful not to hit anyone coming the other way, and steered across cornices.

The wind whipped furiously along the cornices, throwing sand in our faces like little straw that flies around in hurricanes. The granules stung. I covered my face with one arm and held my breath as I laid the machine full throttle past the contours and down into a small, protected dune valley.

When we returned to the campsite, the wind was still whipping the ground and tent and lake as strong as before. By now sand had covered the entrance of the tent, and we realized that sand had blown through the tent windows as well. It was not a four-season tent by any means, and the rain canopy provided only a partial covering to the side mesh windows.

Looking inside the tent, we saw that sand had collected through our gear and sleeping bags, as if someone had entered with a bucket of sand and gently dumped it around. The fine red sand permeated nearly everything. I lifted up a sleeping bag to feel some object at the bottom -- a pair of pants? A sweater? It was sand. Fine red sand.

We tried to ignore the sand and took refuge again in the trailer, passing the time with card games such as Memory and Crazy Eights. The little kids soon felt cramped in the trailer and started to venture outside in the sand to play, building castles and running along the shoreline and chasing the dog -- all with the wind blowing constantly, blowing their hair around.

As I joined them outside, walking about with the kids in the blowing wind next to the white-capped lake, a strange thing started to happen. The immersion in constant wind began to be fun -- like immersion in water for the first time, a new experience. Our body motions changed, we had to shout to be heard, our hair flowed back. We turned and moved our bodies aerodynamically. We were like kites up in the air, being blown about by forces we couldn't see. We interacted with the invisible, which pushed and pulled and turned us about.

The more I remained outside, the more I grew accustomed to the wind. The more I started to enjoy the wind. I liked being pushed around by something I couldn't see. The wind, rather than a negative, proved interesting. We could feel it all over our skin, our faces. It required us to change our breathing. It made walking different. We walked at angles.

As night fell, we conceded that sleeping in the tent would be uncomfortable and impractical. I thought about possibly pitching the tent in an alcove, if we could find one, but it would require some hiking, since our current area was an open desert landscape. My wife was set on a motel, and after some deliberation, we headed out to a motel for the night.

In the morning we returned to the campsite, where the wind was still blowing. We walked in the sand and looked across the lake, and then walked in the wind some more. The wind was no longer a deterrent, not something that could ruin the whole trip. In many ways, it made the trip memorable. Yes, the very element that threatened to ruin our experience is ironically what made it worthwhile.

It was a long drive home from St. George back to Eagle Mountain. I had several hours to think. I don't have a philosophy degree, but I know that my shifting perception of the wind as a positive, appealing element of the trip places me squarely in the optimism camp, and in so doing brings up the longstanding debate between optimism and pessimism.

An optimist holds that, in the end, things work out for the best. If you just change your perception, you can find some benefit or good result that has come out of what might otherwise be tragic. Although nothing truly bad has ever happened in my life (for which I am grateful), it is perhaps my optimistic point of view that sees it that way.

For example, when I went to college in New York City with my wife, we couldn't find housing – because I didn't have a job, because I was a student. As a result, we ended up living in an old brownstone on 141st and Broadway, right in the middle of Dominican Harlem. Moving from Provo to Harlem was eye-opening, a little terrifying, and not very safe. But in time we became comfortable there, grew used to the loud music and the sidewalk drug dealers. The culture broadened our perspective.

A similar thing happened with my career. I wanted to be a literary writer, but not finding financial viability in that, I turned to technical writing almost as a last resort. But rather than proving a boring, sellout career, it turned out to be a perfect fit, a job that combines my love of technology (something I never knew I had) with writing and creativity (through design).

When I think of optimism, I also think of Chad Hymas, a motivational speaker who broke his neck in a hay bale incident on a tractor and became a quadriplegic. He recently spoke to our IT department, explaining that shortly after the accident, while he was still lying in a hospital bed, his father came to him and said, “Chad, what if I told you that you could become more productive, fulfilled, and happy without the use of your arms or legs?” It was an assertion that Chad initially rejected outright with anger and swearing, telling his father to get out of his hospital room. In time, however, Chad found what his father said was true. He really could be more productive and fulfilled without the use of his arms and legs (hence the inspirational aspect of Chad's talks).

I also think of the time I was dragged into fishing by a garbage collector at my church as part of a group men's activity. Fishing was the last thing I wanted to do that morning, and it was a hassle and disruption to my weekend. But within 20 minutes of casting and reeling, I was hooked on the sport and spent the next year driving out to the Florida shoreline and piers to fish, sometimes alone, sometimes with my kids.

As sound as optimism seems, it can also be damaging and unwholesome. An entire camp of pessimists advocate a more realistic point of view. For example, Oswald Spengler says that “Optimism is cowardice.” Voltaire mocked optimism in Candide. Freud, Schopenhauer, and other philosophers rejected optimism.

Optimism can become the “opium of the masses,” as some say, when we use it to lazily accept the status quo rather than confronting and changing our surrounding conditions. When we use optimism as a way to cope and be satisfied with the way things are, it can prevent us from seeking out better levels of living and being.

For example, whenever the subject of my wife's Mountain Dew addiction comes up, she replies that being addicted to Mountain Dew is better than being addicted to crack. And locking herself in her room when she's frustrated is better than drowning her kids in a bathtub. This is surely the optimistic point of view, but here it does little for her except provide her a nice story to keep about her ways.

I'm guilty of the same. When drug dealers moved next door to our house in Florida, I thought it might be good because it would force me to get involved with community groups against crime. Instead, even after 50 calls to the police over a year or two, gunshots ended up being fired at our home, because it was in line with another drug home. More realistically, I should have recognized the futility of turning around a drug neighborhood and moved out immediately.

When my hard drive crashed and I lost everything, I told myself, well, this is a chance to start over, to drop all the baggage of the past and live in the present. Instead, I should have looked at the situation more realistically and started a regimented backup plan with a new drive, letting my remorse over lost files teach me to be more disciplined in making backups.

When I had to take two jobs to support my family, and ended up working Friday evenings and Saturdays, I thought the part-time job teaching might enable me to keep one foot in academia and one foot in the professional world, bridging a gap I needed to keep my mind fresh and alive. Instead, the second job wore me out and embittered me against student essays even more than before. More realistically, I could have set lower expectations and avoided the disappointment.

When our economy entered a recession, I heard some speculate that it might be good for our unchecked American spending. The depression would help us tighten the belt on credit cards, reduce easy loans, and curb reckless spending. We could embrace principles of thrift and resourcefulness that earlier generations learned in the Depression.

But while that may seem like a good story to tell ourselves about the recession, the reality is that millions are without jobs, unemployment breeds insecurity and fear, and the economic instability of our markets retards corporate growth. With less growth, opportunities shrink. But recognizing reality motivates us to fix the problem, rather than candy-coating the results so that we see no problem.

In looking back at the wind at Sand Hollow campground, should I have rejected the optimistic outlook to see the wind as a friend rather than an enemy? Instead of embracing the aerodynamic fun that it provided, instead look more squarely at the nuisance of the blowing wind, our futility to stop it, and have packed up camp to another area, rather than holding on and “pretending” that we liked it?

In some situations, optimism can be a coping mechanism we resort to when we can't change reality. In those instances, our only recourse is to change our perception of reality. But who is to say what reality is, and what can and cannot be changed?

I suppose I could equally embrace optimism or pessimism and realism depending on the situation and my mood. In that sense, then, I'm also a bit like the wind, shifting directions and strengths without any particular warning or timing. At least that's the story I tell myself.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.