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Taking the short view

The 2024 New Year's Eve numerals are displayed in Times Square, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in New York.
Yuki Iwamura
/
AP
The 2024 New Year's Eve numerals are displayed in Times Square, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in New York.

It’s New Year’s Day, or at least we think it is. Other nations have different ideas. The Chinese New Year celebrates the first day of the first moon of the lunar calendar on February 10 this year. The Hindu New Year falls in April, and the ancient Celts of Europe, poor superstitious pagans without so much as a pocket calendar between them, believed that the New Year began on October 31, which we now know to be Halloween. But the falling ball in Times Square tells us that we have got the date right at last.

The changing year, however uncertain its exact date, ought to have something special about it – a sense of optimism, and a new start. Optimistic people still make personal resolutions for self-improvement. The singular achievement of the modern age has been to forget about the future. The word “posterity” has practically vanished from the language. There’s no profit to be made out of posterity, and no votes there either.

So nobody is building any new utopias. The opinion polls show a lot of pessimism. There’s not much sense of “Let the good times roll,” but rather an uneasy feeling that, in the words of an old Carly Simon song, “These are the good times,” and they have rolled already.

If you are a glass-half-empty sort of person you can and will assume the worst about the future: that it will rain on your parade, that the cat will sleep on your clean shirt, that your New Year resolutions will be an utter failure and that the 2024 election will be an unmitigated catastrophe.

But the future is wide open. We can believe what we like about it, and with a bit of creative thinking, we can discover reasons for optimism about practically everything. Our philosophical guide is the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s 1759 novel called Candide or Optimism. Pangloss held to the theory that “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” No matter how many dreadful things happened to him — and many did — Pangloss always found an optimistic way to explain them. Even when he was hanged he looked on the bright side.

If the dogged optimism of Pangloss is too hard to achieve, we can follow the example of Charles Dicken’s character Mr. Micawber, who always believed that, no matter how bad things seemed, something would turn up. This also forms the basis of all political programs and speeches.

If the future doesn’t look too bright the simple solution is to live now, in the present, as many bumper stickers recommend: one day at a time, don’t borrow trouble. That genial 18th-century letter writer, the Rev. Sidney Smith, advised that the secret of happiness was to: “Take a short view of life, no further than dinner or tea.”

This is a piece of conventional wisdom that we can all appreciate and apply to our own lives. Pessimists may cry that the party’s over. But it’s not over yet. We are almost eight hours into the first day of 2024. Nothing bad has happened to me yet. So far, so good.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.