There is only one species that scientists call biologically immortal: a small jellyfish found in oceans around the world that, when under threat, can turn back its biological clock.
When faced with injury or starvation, the Turritopsis dohrnii, or immortal jellyfish, can revert back into a tiny blob of tissue which then turns into the sexually immature polyp phase of the jellyfish’s life. It is something like a frog turning back into a tadpole.
To remain optimistic as a human being requires a capacity akin to that of the immortal jellyfish: the ability to rejuvenate when faced with an extreme threat.
We have long wanted to write a story about what it means to be an optimist. Given the extraordinary strain we as people, our businesses and society are under, the story now feels necessary. However, it has been a struggle to write.
Dolphin Bay has always seen itself as an optimistic company, and we have written a host of upbeat stories in this newsletter. Nevertheless, our impression is that many aspects of the South African and African situation, especially our economy, have worsened over the years in which we have published these stories. The bigger picture of global politics and economic trends, too, can strike us with dismay.
We needed to ask: in these dark times, is it not naïve to be an optimist? Is there any value or point in optimism at all? Many people seem to think not as they routinely shoot down any discussion about positivity.
In digging deep, we realised that for us the value of optimism lies in the power it provides for opening the way to a better future, regardless of how long our difficulties seem to last. Negativity mires people in their present suffering and makes them rudderless, shutting out any possibility of a future vision. It makes suffering meaningless and people feel overwhelmed and despairing.
Optimism is also more fun. It creates a sense of excitement, opening the door to our vast creative capacities.
It is true that optimists are usually idealistic, picturing a better and more prosperous world that may not materialise in its entirety. However, without optimism there is no possibility of hope. Optimism sets a direction and provides a purpose for toughing things out as it empowers us to act in the knowledge that our challenges will be temporary.
Many studies have shown that people experiencing enormous suffering have the highest chance of survival when they have a strong reason to survive. Every world leader we have ever admired takes an optimistic and visionary stance, as do every one of our heroes, whatever our culture or background may be.
Climb Kilimanjaro, and you will have an almost limitless sense of satisfaction at the top. Get dropped there by helicopter and you will be cheated of that feeling. The point is not only where we land up, but our experiences in getting there.
Optimism is not just a personality trait; it can be cultivated. Our business culture acknowledges that every one of our actions and reactions can be the consequence of a conscious decision.
Things may be dark but the positive power of our thoughts and actions can, eventually, overcome the darkness.
Optimism is also more fun. It opens up a sense of excitement. This opens the door to our vast creative capacities and huge physical energy. It allows our brains to be flooded with serotonin. We get things done more quickly, are more pleasant to be around, and our positivity becomes contagious.
Eventually, we build up a community in which we are constantly energising one another. Then when we go through low patches, as we are all bound to do, we have this community to pull us out again.
This process of growth in our thinking never ends; it is a continual development and renewal, like the extraordinary capacity of the immortal jellyfish. The joy of it for humans, rather than sea creatures, is that eventually we gain wisdom.
An added benefit is that, generally, we don’t need to worry about getting eaten.
When treated badly we might become angry, possibly with justification. The choice is whether we allow this anger to eat away at our well-being, or whether we use it to affect positive change.
React wisely and we are reborn into higher levels of optimism, a process that continues throughout our lives.
An easy way to do this, we find, is to imagine ourselves doing something creative and positive – making the best choice we can conceive of – and allowing that positive energy to take us forward. Conceptualising the reality in our minds enables it to materialise.
We are not writing this story in ignorance of the enormous suffering around us. Current circumstances are having a devastating effect on so many people. We must all acknowledge this and take action to alleviate this suffering, as part of our human responsibility and growth, and we are enormously encouraged that so many people are acting out of compassion for others at this time.
Yet, if we are not to become mired in others’ suffering, we can also acknowledge that people find a way through, and while doing so often provide great beams of light and inspiration to others.
We are ceaselessly confronted by this decision about whether to act out of fear or out of love – even in our darkest moments.
Do we focus entirely on the hardships of the present moment? Or do we train ourselves to develop a vision for change – a capacity that opens up the possibility of renewal, even under severe threat?
We choose to be like the immortal jellyfish.
Image credit: Wonderful Engineering.