By Seth Cohen
Despite my self-avowed commitment to be a radical optimist, I have to admit that recently it has taken a bit more effort to stay optimistic.
The almost weekly news of an unarmed black man being killed somewhere in America, the relentless attacks on the legitimacy of Israel and the increasingly divisive U.S. presidential election all have made it increasingly challenging to see silver linings among the cascade of clouds.
There are lots of reasons to still believe these are the best of times, but there is no question that we are walking among long shadows being cast by unchecked bias, unfettered antagonism and an insidious increase in hateful speech.
And yet, within what otherwise might be a sad and somber moment — the death of former Israeli President Shimon Peres — my sense of optimism has been renewed in an unexpected way.
Shimon Peres represented (to me) the ultimate sprit of optimistic self-transformation and the disavowal of limitations in the face of opportunities. You see, for most of us who encountered him in his final decade of life, Shimon Peres was a wise elder statesman, a grandfather of the Israeli national spirit and a beloved statesman.
But he wasn’t always that person, nor was he always as beloved in life as he is now being immortalized in death.
Peres was a calculating politician, and before he was a peacemaker, he was a hawk. That isn’t to say his pursuit of peace wasn’t genuine — there can be no doubt, after his role in crafting the Oslo Accords and subsequent decades of commitment to the peace process, that it was. But it is to say that he navigated a significant transformation from one personal worldview to another.
Similarly, before he was (perhaps) the most successful president of Israel, he was a failed candidate for prime minister — five times. Sure, some of this failure might have been circumstantial, but there is no question much of it was personal as well and was a reflection of ambition and of unrealized political acumen.
Nevertheless, what he didn’t achieve at the (all-too-frequent) Israeli ballot box, he did achieve in a seven-year term as Israel’s president, a position of reflective and influential leadership, and in a personal transformation that allowed him to pursue both essential ideas and an unconstrained imagination.
These transformations of Peres’ life, in many ways, paralleled the growth of a nation — in fact, the two have been, until his death, coexistent. At each turn and each challenge, Peres (like Israel itself) adapted and transformed, holding on to a spirit of possibility that allowed him to continue to reinvent himself in the pursuit of his own advancement as a person and in the pursuit of the greater good of a nation he loved and helped create.
To be able to do that not only takes resilience, but also takes optimism. It also requires belief that optimism is not a fool’s balm or the naiveté of the weak, but it is the asset of the strong and the unyielding.
Optimism isn’t what we hold on to; it’s what we foster — within ourselves and within those around us. It is what allows us to maintain our stamina as we each undertake a lifelong search of better versions of ourselves.
As we embark on the Jewish new year and look ahead at a year of challenges both foreseen and unknown, it is well worth remembering one of Shimon Peres’ favorite quotes: “If your dreams outnumber your accomplishments, you are still young.”
So here is to wishing for a youthful year of many achievements, even more dreams, and an unyielding optimism that allows each of us to transform ourselves from who we are to the best of what we can become — individually and together.
Shabbat shalom from Atlanta, happy new year and l’shana tova tikatevu.
Seth Cohen is an Atlanta-based senior director for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.