What Is ‘Tragic Optimism’ and Can It Help Us Make Sense Of This Moment?

9 minute read
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack

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After another week of searing headlines about just about everything—global climate issues, the unfurling tragedies in Afghanistan, in Louisiana and parts south, the pandemic—all of it left me sleepless and sad and cynical. The latter is the most corrosive emotion I can think of right now, and when I’m not in that ditch, it’s getting harder to imagine what our future looks like as the sands continue to sink and shift beneath our tired feet. It’s a disorienting helpless feeling that we are powerless and that there’s no escape from these looping circles of anxiety.

I pawed around the internet looking for some good news to share here, and it became clear I’m not the only one struggling to stay out of the ditch. There were not one but two pieces circulating (from the BBC and The Atlantic) advocating for something called “tragic optimism.” It’s a concept you might know if you’ve read Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Anna Gotlib, a moral philosopher, defines it best for our times in a paper published earlier this year: “Frankl argues that we can make suffering meaningful, view guilt as an imperative to improve ourselves, and interpret the fragility, unpredictability, and transitoriness of life as motivation to find meaning.”

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Gotlib points to 2020 research suggesting that the people who cope better in ongoing crises do not focus on finding happiness (a particularly American obsession) or even healthy distractions from the sadness, but rather those who can acknowledge suffering without being pulled under by it. And in this case, Gotlib is not necessarily referring to the trauma of those who lost someone to COVID-19, or essential workers and medical staff on the frontlines, but all of us who’ve staggered through this period of isolation and anxiety “displaced from our usual routines, epistemically confused, and motivationally adrift.”

So the question I ask is how do we keep evolving in periods of stress? Can we incorporate gratefulness into our daily thinking, or will we succumb to self-pity or avoidance of anything ugly or difficult? Stressors don’t deliver growth and perspective automatically. But if Frankl and Gotlib are correct, it’s possible to have optimism in the face of collective tragedies, comprehend our lack of control over the future, and still kindle optimism about our ability to find connection and purpose.

So in that spirit, here are a few bits of the wisdom I’ve collected from experts and readers of this newsletter. (More in future editions.)

Connect, connect, connect: Cultivate casual, friendly social interactions. It could be a two-minute conversation with someone waiting for a bus with you or a barista or someone in the dairy aisle, but those little moments of humanity can infuse ordinary days with meaning. They tether us to each other and the world. Readers Chet and Stuart both stressed this idea of turning outward instead of focusing on self in their notes about staving off cynicism. And, in uncertain times, these brief exchanges signal to us that the world is a safe place; write Emily and Amelia Nagoski in Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle.

Spend your time like love: We vote on what means most to us with our energy and time, so consider where you’re investing your heart. Are you overspending on the actions that don’t have meaning long term, or putting your best self into things that will matter to you in 10 years, like your family or the people whose lives you influence? As Henry Thoreau put it: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” (With thanks to readers Linda, Tjong-Liem, Bea, and Chet for their thoughts on this topic.)

Let happiness ensue, rather than chasing it (to paraphrase Viktor Frankl). Being alive means you’re in a state of flux, and if you think of wellness and happiness things you can achieve with the right ingredients and habits, you will be exhausted trying to hang on to stasis. But if you change your expectations and see joy as a random by-product in the quest for purpose, you’ll feel delighted rather than deprived. Or as the Nagoski sisters write in Burnout:

To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again.

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Photos from the week that was.

Brooklyn Public LIbrary, August 2021
Photograph by Susanna Schrobsdorff

On an unspeakably hot day, I was walking past the Brooklyn Public Library with its gorgeous bronze doors when I saw this “Compliments Chair” and a man inviting people to sit down and accept sincere compliments. Turns out; the complimenter was Meir Kay, a director who makes uplifting videos, including “A Valuable Lesson for a Happier Life,” which has racked up more than 271 million views.

Brooklyn Public Library installation.
Photograph by Susanna Schrobsdorff

Also outside the Brooklyn Public Library, was an art installation called “The Parts” by Chloë Bass, BPL’s 2021 Katowitz-Radin Artist-in-Residence. It’s a kind of personal history made public in which she captures the difficult events of the last year in photos and passages like this:

When people ask what we were doing during this time (and if there is a someday, they will ask), I'll say this: we ate vanilla ice cream leaning against the hood of the car, saying it's a tip as we shrunk from the gloved hand of the walk-up waitress.

New York City Garden
Photograph by Susanna Schrobsdorff

Secret Gnome Garden: My friend showed me one of her favorite places in New York, a Manhattan garden that’s hidden in plain sight. I’ve passed its outer gates hundreds of times and never realized that it is a public space. Alas, I can’t tell you where it is, my friend made me promise. But I bet if you walk New York with garden-seeking eyes, there are lots more.

INJY- Garden two
Photograph by Susanna Schrobsdorff

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❤️‍🩹 Here are ways you can help people in Afghanistan and earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. Plus, how to talk with veterans about the fall of Afghanistan. And see below for ways to support resettled Afghan evacuees in the U.S. via Pandemic of Love, and visit their site, or World Central Kitchen to find out how you can help those without power in Louisiana.

🔎 The U.S. Is Getting a Crash Course in Scientific Uncertainty As the pandemic takes an unexpected direction, Americans again must reckon with twists in our understanding of the virus.

🌳 The 18 Most Memorable Trees in Literature: This new book includes gorgeous passages from classics like Robert Frost’s Birch in “Birches” to Ross Gay’s Peach in “The Opening”

🎙️ Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, a bestselling book about trauma had a fascinating conversation with Ezra Klein for his podcast this week. “The devastating argument [the book] makes is not that the body keeps the score, it’s that the mind hides the score from us,” said Klein. Van Der Kolk points out that we respond to traumatic stress physically, and that healing should involve our bodies, not just our conscious selves and that can include all movement from yoga to biking or tango dancing. “You need to do something to rearrange your relationship to your internal physiological state,” he says.

Good sleep makes everything better…

🐑 Why Dreaming Matters: researchers from the University of Tsukuba have found new evidence of brain refreshing that takes place during a specific phase of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when you tend to dream a lot.

🎵 The Best Music For Falling Asleep: The BBC’s look at how we navigate pandemic-induced insomnia including Max Richter’s “eight-hour lullaby” developed in collaboration with a neuroscientist.

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☝️Check it out: I’ll be leading creative writing workshops at Taconic Ridge Farm in upstate New York with the phenomenal New York Times bestselling novelist Libba Bray. They are open to all regardless of experience. September 11th is sold out, but spots are still available on September 12th, 10am-12:30pm. (You can find more Hillsdale workshops here.)


Here’s a reminder that creating a community of generosity elevates us all.

Pandemic of Love has been able to fund rent for a number of families and underwrite thousands of dollars in furniture in partnership with Lutheran Family Services and other refugee organizations. Anyone living in the D.C. area who would like to donate their time can email details of their availability to the local chapter of Pandemic of Love here.

Story and images courtesy of Shelly Tygielski, founder of Pandemic of Love, a grassroots organization that matches volunteers, donors, and those in need.


Our regular acknowledgment of the animals that help us make it through the storm.

Meet Gimli, a Pembroke corgi, whose name comes from a dwarf warrior character in The Lord of the Rings. Submitted by Becky.

Send your images to me at Susanna@Time.com, and visit me on Instagram @susannaSchrobs for more.

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