Cynicism vs. Hope

Call Them by Their True Name

“Call Them by Their True Name” by Rebecca Solnit

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays)Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head.

“Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.”

Change and progress require hard work, and cynics often want to avoid the responsibility of that work. They have a “relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world which generally offers neither.”  Change and progress also require hope, and as I’ve written before, “hope demands things that despair does not.” Hope is risky. But hope is also in love with success.

When you hear news that affects you, what is your first reaction? Does your mind move to cynical inevitabilities, or to hopeful possibilities?  Do you act upon “bad data and worse analysis” to reach your conclusion? As Solnit says in her book The Faraway Nearby, “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”  Life isn’t easy, but as Stephen Covey has written, we have the ability and freedom as humans to respond. “External forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.”

“It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility,” says Covey.  However, “proactive people work on the things they can do something about.” In the same vein Robert Glazer speaks of improving our emotional capacity. “Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.”

Nats Rainbow

Nothing says hope better than a rainbow at a baseball stadium

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, think about your response and consider choosing the proactive option of learning. Of possibilities. Of hope.

Have a good week.

More to come…


My 2018 Year-End Reading List

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m sharing this list of the books I read over the past twelve months.  Since returning from sabbatical early in 2016, I committed to reading more, and to seek out a wider range of works beyond my normal histories and biographies. Here are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I began the year with a work of fiction. In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever. It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.  A powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  Early in the year I returned to reread this wonderful memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia. Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds a richer love for music.

Grant by Ron Chernow.  One of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact, Chernow has  worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this impressive biography of U.S. Grant.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  The release of a new movie of this timeless classic led me to pick up my cherished, signed-by-the-author copy, and reread once again the story that has captivated children and adults alike since its release.

Wanderlust:  A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.  I reread this book in the late winter after a friend mentioned that she wanted to read something by Solnit, the wonderful historian and essayist.  As often happens, I discovered so much more upon a second reading.

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  An important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.

How Democracies Die

“How Democracies Die”

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  The research over twenty years by these two Harvard professors shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments. This accessible book is highly recommended, and should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.  Given what we are facing as a country, this is my choice for book of the year.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by this best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobal.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world. Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed.

The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  Two classics that I read (or reread in the case of TGOW) while taking a summer vacation in Pacific Grove and Monterey, California.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth.  Imagine hearing the phrase “You know, you’re no genius” your entire life and then, years later, being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—in recognition for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology. That happened to Angela Duckworth, and this book summarizes her years of study.

In the Shadow of Statues:  A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu.  This memoir by the former mayor of New Orleans hit home for me on both a personal and professional level.  As Mayor Landrieu notes early in this book on his personal journey to confront the true story behind Confederate monuments, “The statues were not honoring history or heroes.  They were created as political weapons, part of an effort to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

What Truth Sounds Like:  RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson.  This powerful book takes us back to a meeting between Robert Kennedy, James Baldwin, and others in the 1960s, and brings the conversation forward to our bitter racial struggles of the 21st century.

Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams.  A short but enlightening read about how technology is designed to capture our attention, and what you can do about it—by a former Google strategist turned Oxford philosopher.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.  I ended the year by returning to one of my favorite authors.  The first of the two works of Solnit’s I read in December “explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination.”

Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit. I ended the year with yet another powerful collection of essays from one of America’s most insightful writers.  “Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, ‘with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.’”

I hope you’ll find one or two things to pique your interest among these wonderful books.  My 2019 list will begin with Craig Nelson’s 2006 biography of Thomas Paine, who I rank along with Roger Williams as one of the two most intriguing, yet often forgotten and totally misunderstood, founding fathers.

Happy reading!

More to come…



When I was a freshman in college, I waited tables at a local restaurant and bar in Nashville. Waiting tables is hard and humbling work, which I highly recommend.  Once you’ve experienced it you’ll forever be mindful of 1) how you treat wait staff, and 2) how to tip properly.  When I was leaving at the end of the school year, the manager, Bill, and his sister Ruth invited me over for a drink.  At the end of the night, Ruth gave me a hug and said, “Have a good life!”  This was the pre-Facebook/email/Instagram days, and she meant it as a heartfelt farewell to someone she’d probably never see again.  I stuck that sentiment in the back of my mind.

But to paraphrase folksinger Arlo Guthrie halfway through the 17-minute-long Alice’s Restaurant, this isn’t a post about waiting tables.

This is a blog post about the emotional and intellectual value of personal connections.

One of our staff members had her final day at the National Trust coincide with the last day of our 2018 PastForward conference in San Francisco.  Alison, who was heading off for a great new opportunity, always had a smile on her face that matched her outgoing personality, she was an extremely efficient and effective worker, and she would always have something pleasant to say as we passed in the hallway. So when heading out for dinner that Friday evening with my wife and daughter Claire, I stopped to thank a group of staff members who were preparing to catch the red-eye home. In the midst of our conversation I pulled the “Have a good life!” phrase from the back of my brain in saying goodbye to Alison.  Several colleagues groaned to let me know that they would be staying connected to Alison, and I realized my sentiment wasn’t taken as intended.  I tried to make amends, yet Claire gave me a bit of a hard time when we left the hotel, in that exasperated “Oh, Dad. . .” kind of way. I’ve thought about the sentiment and reaction several times since.

Connections are clearly easier to keep today with our on-line options.  The internet is full of articles about why high school reunions are (or quickly will be) extinct, thanks to social media.  It is easy to connect with people all around the world if you are online.  I have maintained contact with a former colleague who is probably the only individual to have worked in offices with both my son and me. I recently discovered that she was just named an Associate with a New York law firm.  I say I have maintained contact…but in truth I just saw it on LinkedIn and hit the “Congratulations” button.

Which brings me back to Claire.  Remember Claire?

With Claire at the Big A

Connecting with Claire…over a baseball game

My daughter has taught me several life lessons, but among the most meaningful is the importance of maintaining personal connections. Real connections, not just electronic touches. Claire certainly uses social media as much as most other millennials, but she is a master at the face-to-face, let’s have a cup of coffee, “I care about you” emotional connection.  She instinctively looks for opportunities to get together and will travel some distance and carve out meaningful time to keep those connections current.  Her contributions to dinner table discussions are legendary, leading family and friends into topics that are consequential and boundary expanding. She is good at telling stories and she cares about yours.  She “gets” that—as the writer Rebecca Solnit has said—“To love someone is to put yourself in their place . . . which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”

In a wonderful 2017 essay entitled Preaching to the Choir, Solnit speaks to why we need to connect, find places of agreement, and then go deeper.

“I wonder if I hear the phrase ‘preaching to the choir’ often now because we have, in our everyday practices, pared our communications down to the bone and beyond.  Almost no one I know calls friends merely to have the kind of long, reflective, intimate conversations that were common in earlier decades; phones are for practical exchanges—renegotiating plans, checking in on arrangements.  Emails, which in the 1990s seemed to resemble letters, now resemble texting, brief bursts of words in a small space, not to be composed as art, archived, or mused over much.  A lot of people are too busy to hang out without a clear purpose, or don’t know that you can, and the often combative arenas and abstracted contact of social media replace physical places (including churches) to hang out in person.”

Sometimes I will catch myself among a group of people with my head buried in my phone screen, oblivious to the life around me. Other times I pass on chances to connect through a meal or conversation for no reason other than I have my head somewhere else.  I walk past people in the hall or on the street and act as if I am under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.  Yet, inevitably, the times I pull myself out of my self-absorption to connect at that emotional “I care about you” level, I am the one who benefits. I have conversations and connections that let me know whether friends and family are having a good day, much less a good life.

The next time you find yourself in a similar situation and you don’t know what to do, simply walk up and say, “Tell me about yourself,” (a.k.a. the only icebreaker you’ll ever need.)

I hope you can use the upcoming holiday season to connect with real people, share stories, and have a good life.

More to come…


P.S. – As I originally wrote this piece, I pointed out all the references to the song Alice’s Restaurant (with four part harmony, naturally).  But then I thought better of it.  So I took them all out and only mention it here, buried in the footnotes, for those who thought “that sounds familiar” and will chuckle. If you have never heard of the song or Arlo (son of famous folksinger Woody Guthrie) and are curious, then click on the video above.

P.P.S – You’ll no doubt be hearing more from me on thoughts coming from Rebecca Solnit’s new collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names, which is where I read Preaching to the Choir.