Share This Article
It Takes More than Optimism} ?> I was five when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. From that day forward I wanted desperately to travel in space, and the Disneyland adventure Mission to Mars gave me a little simulated taste of that adventure a few years later.
The pre-show featured animatronics wearing white lab coats with the Rockwell and NASA logos prominent. After a stirring recorded speech about the amazing progress scientists had made in the exploration of space, we were seated in our “space craft,” a circular theater with projection screens mounted on the walls, floor and ceiling. As we blasted off for Mars, the seats rattled and in the space of minutes we’d travelled to the surface of the red planet where we explored Olympus Mons and the Valles Marineris before returning to a safe landing at Disneyland. The effects were only convincing if you wanted them to be and the science was… imaginative. Yet I loved it. Truly there was nothing that science couldn’t accomplish given enough time. Like the song said, there really was a great big beautiful tomorrow.
I waited, but that bright future didn’t arrive.
Skylab came and went and the International Space Station still orbits, but NASA—for the moment—is out of the manned launch game. Jet packs and flying cars are still the stuff of fiction as are food replicators and gleaming, plastic, self-cleaning houses. Instead, our attention is focused on disasters, both natural and manmade. Our “beautiful tomorrow” vanished under a floodtide of pessimism. Something went very, very wrong.
Which was more-or-less the point of Bard Bird’s 2015 film Tomorrowland. The film’s hero, Frank Welker, begins the movie as a hopeful child who grows to become a paranoid, curmudgeonly old man in the face of a world in decline. Except, as the film points out, focusing on the negative predisposes us to a negative outcome. Comic writer Grant Morrison made the same point in his 2011 book Supergods:
“If we spin a tale of guilt and failure with an unhappy ending, we will live that story to its conclusion, and some benighted final generation not far down the line will pay the price.”
So we just need to be more upbeat, right? If we had a more positive outlook, the world’s problems would simply disappear! Yay optimism! …Right?
Another film from 2015 provides a slightly different—and I think more realistic—approach to achieving that happy future we want so very badly.
The Martian, Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, is a survival story entirely fueled by confidence in the face of overwhelming adversity. It tells the tale of botanist and astronaut Mark Watney who is abandoned on Mars when his crewmates believe him dead. (Spoiler alert: he’s not.) With no rescue in sight and no way to communicate with NASA, Watney sets about finding ways to survive and get word of his survival back to Earth. His philosophy is nicely embodied in this quote from the end of the film:
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
The key to Watney’s survival isn’t merely optimism. He doesn’t expect to simply “believe” his way to success; he perseveres and takes steps toward that brighter future. He applies the science he knows, gets hands-on with the problems, attempts solutions, watches them fail and then looks for another solution. He fights through dozens of set-backs and trials to win his ticket home.
Which brings us back to that progressive—but still very distant—bright future that the space adventures at Disneyland point towards. The reason it never materialized is because we didn’t work for it. We stopped doing the math… or whatever hard work was required.
Watney’s success formula isn’t complicated and has the beauty of being applicable to just about any problem you care to name. If we want to get to Mars or cure cancer or end world hunger, we have to stop arguing and complaining and start “doing the math.”
This formula works nationally, locally, and personally. It’s a lesson I have to re-learn all the time. I spent a lot of years dreaming about writing professionally. Dreams don’t get published. Writing does. Fingers on keys going clickety-clack is my equivalent of doing the math. Once I learned that, I started moving closer to my imaginary ideal.
Looking beyond my dreams, there are other problems to be solved—both personal and societal. In most cases I didn’t cause the problems, but maybe I can solve some of them. It’s going to take Watney-like perseverance, but there’s no need to feel overwhelmed. I just have to get to work and start “doing the math.”
If enough of us stick with it long enough, maybe we could brighten our future and make tomorrow beautiful.