Until Sunday, I had never heard of the company Life is good, which is perhaps not surprising considering that the company eschews conventional advertising. Instead, they grow based on word of mouth, and through the publicity generated by their work on behalf of children affected by poverty, violence, and illness.
Bert Jacobs, co-founder (together with his brother John) of Life is good, was the keynote speaker at the Ellucian Live conference I attended in Philadelphia this week. Bert’s story about the power of optimism is indeed inspiring, and it’s clear that his message – embodied in the grinning face of “Jake” on the products the company sells – resonates with people.
Depending on the situation, I may be labeled a pessimist sometimes and an optimist others. I can hardly claim a sunny disposition, but I don’t generally expect things to go wrong. (I was certainly not expecting my returning flight from Philadelphia to be delayed, then canceled, due to bad weather, or to find myself spending an extra day and a half – if there are no further weather delays – on the East coast.)
When things depend on me, however, I find it hard to be positive. There are things I’m very good at, but taking charge of a situation is not one of them. It’s much easier for me to try to adjust to circumstances than to try to alter them. When change is needed and I seem to be the one who needs to make it, I feel very little confidence that things will go well.
I have some trouble with the idea of optimism itself, if it is based simply on human nature and ability. One of Bert’s points was that life is improving over the centuries. He cited lower incidence of violence (it seems ubiquitous to us today due to mass media, but there has been widespread violence throughout human history), though he didn’t specify any particular evidence for this claim. He cited medical advances increasing life expectancy and the greater prosperity spreading throughout the world through the power of free enterprise.
Those are wonderful gains, and I certainly have no desire to return to conditions of an earlier age, but while I’m not convinced by those who see life as getting worse, I’m not convinced it’s actually better either, overall. Are people really happier, or better in terms of moral character, than in past times? Human nature is pretty much the same, I think, and people deal with both adversity and prosperity (however relative those may be) in much the same ways.
Bert gave no indication whether his confidence rests in any way on faith in God, but I cannot see any other sound basis for true optimism. One of the books I have been reading (it’s a good thing I brought three, as I am having lots of extra time for reading) is about prayer, and it reminds me that joy is based on “the confidence that the deep issues of life are settled, that God is alive and well and full of love, that my destiny is in his hands — and his are good hands.”
Even with that reminder, I find it a struggle to choose joy – especially when I find myself spending a night in the airport instead of home in my bed, and no expectation of getting home for at least another day. There may be power in choosing optimism simply based on the power of optimism itself, but I am quite pessimistic about my ability to find such power.
Knowing that the power is God’s, however, and that life is good because God is good, I can ask for His help in choosing to trust Him. And I can affirm that yes, life is good.