I am an optimist. It does not seem much use being anything else. - Winston Churchill
I’ve been riding my bicycle to work and really enjoying it. It is definitely the best part of my day. I leave my bicycle in the facility back entryway and from time to time during my shift I go back there and say hello and give it a pat like it was a horse – the presence of my bicycle is never far from my consciousness. Not far from my consciousness any time but especially tonight is my other “ride”: my actual horse. He’s very badly injured, and is at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island (a great place to bicycle, incidentally, PEI) awaiting surgery in the morning.
I’ve had the urgent opportunity over the past 24 hours to think over why I like my horse and just what he means to me. He’s beautiful, strong, talented, and smart – usual attributes for a good mount. But what I like best about him is optimism.
This horse checks everyone’s person for treats. He looks in every bucket and surveys every shelf and container, looking for a forgotten carrot or pellets of grain. Every time you open his stall door, he tries to march out to the field – right after he grabs a mouthful of hay from the big round bale in the aisle. He keeps challenging the more dominant horses, to get at the best feed, to be first in the barn, first to the water trough, and ridiculous as it is, first to court a new mare in the herd even though he’s been a gelding since he was one. He does not get discouraged. Over a jump course he’d try just about anything, ears and tail up, regardless of whether or not the rider set him up right, he’d take off with all his strength from too close up or too far away. He is not a willing horse, really, and certainly not an obedient one. But he believes he can make it - he has optimism.
I’m realizing this is a characteristic I have loved in key people in my life as well – recovering addicts, gamblers . . . recovering gambling addicts. They believe they can change, even though it’s so hard, and they fail and they struggle and they try again - they believe they can make it. That’s optimism.
Biologists, too, especially field biologists, need to be optimists. You mark one fish and throw it back in the ocean. It takes a lot of optimism to believe you will ever see that fish again. An old adage in behavioural ecology is “Under carefully controlled conditions, study organisms will behave however the Hell they want”. To expect to get meaningful data out of a vast and random world full of chaos and serendipitous events – that takes optimism.
It takes optimism to be a cyclist, too. To trust that you will join a rushing flow of motorized vehicles driven by . . . a vast and random selection of operators . . . and be respected, considered, acknowledged – that takes optimism. You go out there as a vulnerable road user and expect to come back in one piece. You talk over and over again to administrators and politicians and get nowhere but you believe you can make a difference for active transportation in the end.
But, hey, sometimes (maybe most of the time) that nice lady has a treat in her pocket, or you clear that fence. You get through one day at a time and feel respect for yourself. You get results that change the way we know the world. You get a one metre law passed, or a bike lane made.
You get home in one piece from a scary ride and know everything is going to be all right.
I heard once of a radio interview with a racing cyclist I know, who was clocked at roughly 110 km/h during a ride down a mountain on the Cabot Trail. The host asked, “Don’t you worry about what would happen if you got a flat tire, or hit something at that speed?” And the cyclist said, “If you think about stuff like that, you’d never do this”.
Don’t think about stuff like that. Have optimism. Everything’s gonna be all right.