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The Optimism of the Founders

"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

                  - John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail

Mr. Adams might have been off just a little on the exact date but he was absolutely right otherwise. 

And consider the optimism evident in his words; he and his co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, by affixing their names to an ambitious document formalizing the young American colonies legal separation from the British Crown, had defiantly committed what could only be considered an act of treason against arguably the most politically, economically, and militarily powerful nation in the world!  Maybe, when all the odds say your grand experiment will almost certainly lead you to the end of your rope (literally), cockeyed optimism is about the only thing that will let you sleep at night.  When you gamble and deign to challenge the status quo, and set in motion wheels of change whose vibrations will echo across centuries, optimism is a rather necessary ingredient.

Sometimes gambles pay off.  So this week, as we commemorate a bold act of calculated treason with solemn acts of devotion, pomp and parades, and all manner of "shows, games, sports, guns, bells bonfires, and illuminations" as well as barbeques, picnics, and golf, we are really paying tribute to a small band of brilliant optimists.  So play, party, and be loud!  I like to think they wanted it that way.  But while you're at it, examine your own level of optimism.  Are you a "glass half full" person, or do you focus on where it is empty? 

We've lately been writing a lot about cynicism in law enforcement.  While we know and understand that a certain degree of cynicism is inevitable in a profession that exposes its practitioners to the worst of human nature and behavior - realistically, it might even be necessary for officers to survive and flourish in a job where trusting too much can get you killed - we also know and understand that too much becomes toxic.  Unchecked cynicism becomes pessimism, the antithesis of optimism and a sure pathway to the depression and siege mentality we urge against but that is so common among cops.

The writing, and signing, of the Declaration of Independence was an exercise in, and homage to, unbridled optimism.  The history of the United States, it's expansion far beyond the bounds of the original colonies into a global power, and our unparalleled economic, political, and military leadership in the world is due to our natural national optimism and willingness to dare.  Even today when some see ascendant nations challenging the US in terms of economic and educational attainment, global influence, scientific innovation, and progress in the name of freedom, and worry that somehow portends a US in decline, I see it quite differently; those nations have learned and benefitted from a world led and secured by a strong US, and the proliferation of politically and economically powerful democracies is a testament to the wisdom and courage of our Founding Fathers.  People from less developed and less democratic nations still long to come to America, as well as many other strong and proliferating democracies, and yet other nations are working hard toward shedding antiquated and sometimes still autocratic ways of doing business as their citizens learn why and how things should be done in a free nation and put demands on their leaders to do it.  The American ideal is still revered.

And yet, as we enter our 236th year of nationhood, we sometimes seem a country in the midst of an identity crisis.  We have recently fought, and are fighting, the most polarizing political and legal battles in a generation over immigration, healthcare, and gay marriage with more battles looming on the horizon.  Politically, we struggle to overcome what has become a global economic crisis but are unable to find accord on on how best to do it or if it's even possible to "recover," or if a perhaps "reset" with massively altered fiscal expectations is in order.  Our technological advances outpace anything we've ever seen before, changing the face and reach of media and making information a commodity more than ever.  As technology advances, and the means of communication evolve, we should expect more fights over issues of use, free speech, and privacy.  

And while we're at it, I expect more than a few of these fights will be over how the police use and access information and communications for criminal justice purposes, with far-reaching implications for our role and how we are perceived by the public we serve.

In a way, these fights are all about what is our cultural identity.  Ours is a nation with a history of often rancorous debate and this year is no different, especially as we approach an election that, in the eyes of many, will define the future course for that cultural identity.  With so much at stake the voices on both sides of every issue are particularly shrill, but this is really nothing new.  What is disturbing is the apparent loss of optimism by so many - optimism in our system, our country, our ability to weatther the political and cultural storms, and even our future.  This pessimism - this cynicism - is perhaps more evident because of our greater technological connectedness and ability to hear so many voices at once, even the angry and disaffected voices.  Maybe there's no more pessimism or cynicism than at any time in our history, but we just hear more of what is out there.  But maybe there is more, and the amplification given to more voices than ever before fuels a contagion of pessimism. 

Either way, let the cynics and pessimists entertain themselves with dire predictions of an America in decline.  Today, no matter your political leanings, choose optimism.  Ours is a nations that survives and thrives:  we've survived civil war, world wars, and cold wars; depressions, recessions, and political scandals; We've struggled through tectonic cultural shifts that were, to many, sure to tear the social fabric of our nation apart only to see it come back better than before - and with many later left wondering what the big deal was in the first place; the sharp political polarization is nothing new, despite revisionist history that claims otherwise, and the only shots fired between politicians on Capital Hill are the verbal variety these days, unlike at times in our past (see: Burr-1 Hamilton-0).  We will continue to survive and thrive... and periodically fight over our political, social, and legal cultural identity.  The fact we can fight, as annoying and inefficient as the fighting may be, is a testament to the freedoms we enjoy that allows everyone to have a political voice, even if the words spoken are those of a lunatic. 

The experiment has worked for 236 years.  Our Founding Fathers' optimism was well-placed.  Today let's set aside the cynical view and contemplate what it is we're celebrating, and honor those who were willing to risk it all for us.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.