Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 23, 2020

Why I still choose optimism over despair

By BONNIE JIN | September 26, 2020

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COURTESY OF BONNIE JIN Jin discusses the importance of optimism in her life.

1. I recently found my "Hopkins Bucket List" while cleaning in quarantine. Fourteen theses bulleted on a sticky note. I'd stuck the page in a bright red Leuchtturm 1917 days before O-Week.

Write for The News-Letter. Win a Model UN award. Study abroad in Japan.

Check, check, check.

Holding the soft paper in my hands, I remember the optimism I felt when I wrote these down, how excited I was to start a new life in college. To take my life into my own hands. It's been three years, but I still think about the video my brother has of me crying as I opened my acceptance letter. I had so many dreams of things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go, the person I wanted to become.

I don't know why, but as I scanned the list, I felt the inexplicable urge to cry.

Who did this person think she was?

No matter how many things on that list I'd accomplished, I couldn't help but stare at the promises I'd made to myself and didn't keep. As I'm writing this, though it's been days since I've revisited the list, it’s those words that replay in my mind.

The more I put myself out into the world, the more I kept drawing the line between the person I am and the person I wanted to be.

That self-doubt soon grew until it became my entire identity.

2. I’ve been on medical leave since the spring. I thought that this was a great opportunity to spend some time alone, to process all the sad things that led me to make the choice that no one expects to make when they first enter Hopkins.

For the first three months, as I isolated myself and was too ashamed to tell anyone what I was dealing with, the things that made me sad just reverberated louder in my small dark apartment on E 32nd St.

Watching the news made it worse.

Don't you feel that way too?

Night after night, day after day, the news was heartbreaking. The sick were in despair. And who was helping those who needed it?

I remember whispering to myself, "This is the way the world ends."

And so I tried to escape to the "good old days." I rewatched seasons of Naruto to reminisce. I silently withdrew from all my friends and obligations because they reminded me too much of the painful present.

And to be completely honest? I honestly do not remember what happened during my first few months on leave. It’s as if someone else lived my life for me.

My therapist tells me it's dissociation from trauma, but I told her I was seeing the world as it was.

Because with headlines after headlines, statistics after statistics how could I not?

3. Over the summer, I worked as a Communications Fellow for Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Excuse the plug, but our office did some pretty amazing things.

We passed a citywide ban on face surveillance technology. We pushed for equitable funds for those devastated by the coronavirus and laid out steps for a Boston Green New Deal. As Sunrise activist Maya Mudgal said, we effectively “reimagined what Boston can do as a city.”

Wu launched her campaign for mayor of Boston last Tuesday. That day, I worked with the young women behind Students for Markey, teens who’d already had hundreds of organizing hours under their belt. They reminded me of myself five years ago — when I was the only high school student helping run Millennials for Bernie.

Back then, I didn’t see fellow organizers as competition, but as deeply inspiring individuals I could work with towards our shared dream. We advocated for each other as much as we did ourselves. I remember feeling so comfortable and transformed by my experience. Every day was a joy, as I kept imagining and re-imagining the person I could be.

Since when did I start to doubt myself — and the world?

4. Until college, my Facebook tagline was:

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” 

It’s a quote from Noam Chomsky, that (overhyped) linguist-turned-activist-intellectual. In high school, when the news got particularly bad, or whenever I felt the work I was doing was hopeless, I repeated those words to myself like a mantra. Because I knew that a better future had to exist. 

Our job is to find hope, even when intellectually, it’s hard to see otherwise.

This isn’t to say that optimism is blind to facts. You can (and should) acknowledge the horrors of the world. Instead, optimism means understanding that this isn’t the way the world ends. The world can get better. And so hope becomes everything we do in spite of what the world offers.

The case for optimism is there. Society is far kinder than it was twenty years ago. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death reminded many of the progress in equality for women. And even I found it in myself — that self that had given up on so many things in life — to start a Mutual Aid Spreadsheet at Hopkins. 

And optimism, for me, is far better than the alternative: that the world is doomed to fail. That we should reminisce about the golden days, because all that's left is to help make sure that the worst outcome happens.

I wish it didn't take me nearly a year of sadness to understand how powerful — and difficult — the task of optimism truly is.

I'm still unlearning the negative self-talk I repeat to myself — like how I don't deserve to be in certain spaces, even though I’m clearly overqualified, for example. There’s also so much I still need to do before I can clear up my social anxiety — people I need to thank and apologize to, misunderstandings I need to address. But I know that none of that is possible if I continue spiraling towards pessimism.

So every time I hear another awful piece of news, I start reimagining the solutions that are possible. Then I research as much as I can about those solutions until the negativity of the original article gets buried by the promise of a better future. 

Don't restrict yourself in your re-imagining either; these solutions should be ideals that large-scale movements — not isolated individuals — work toward. The difficulty is letting yourself imagine in the first place.

So reimagine your identity in society, and what your local community could look like. What else can you achieve? What can Baltimore, for example, do as a city?

It might sound easy, but I know how difficult it is. 

And almost like a prayer, remind yourself that a better world is possible. To paraphrase the activist Antonio Gramsci: We’re pessimists due to our intellect but optimists due to our will.

For me, everything began turning around when I started reimagining the identities I'd resigned myself to. I’m glad to report that I've reached a point where I can let go of some degree of self-judgement, and rekindle the things I love.

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