Neil Heinen: With a little effort, we can overcome our cynicism

A dose of optimism can go a long way

By Neil Heinen

Every once in a while I have to remind myself to ratchet down the cynicism a bit and look on the bright side. I am an optimistic person by nature, erring on the side of too optimistic if anything. But part of my job is to form opinions on things, and after a little too much time observing the world of politics, I find myself getting crabby. And that's when I know it's time to step back and try to regain a little perspective.

A few days after President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, an Op-Ed in the New York Times noted the disconnect between the President's overly optimistic words and the actual experiences of black Americans today. The piece went on to thoughtfully make the case for why the Republican Party in particular should consider its roots as "the party of freedom."

What made the piece so poignant to me was that it was written by the extraordinary poet Ishmael Reed, an award-winning, African American writer and playwright. It reminded me why I so often turn to poets (including Reed) and other artists for inspiration or comfort or both. I think we'd be a better country if those folks took to our opinion pages more often. They have a talent, a vision and a message that way too many of our modern-day politicians not only lack but also disdain.

Several weeks later, I taped my Sunday morning television program that shares a name with this column. I was joined by Wisconsin State Journal editorial page editor Scott Milfred, The Capital City Hues publisher and editor Jonathan Gramling and former mayor Dave Cieslewicz. I recommend all three as an antidote to cynicism.

We spent a half hour talking about some of the most challenging and potentially divisive issues facing our city and not once did any of them resort to anything approaching incivility. They were thoughtful and smart and refreshingly positive about the state of this place where we live and its prospects in a time of considerable turmoil and change. I suspect, despite the considerable wit of all three, we would have bored those who find most cable and radio talk shows entertaining.

Then I had an experience that combined elements of the two I just mentioned. While I was in Boston with my wife, Nancy, celebrating her sister's birthday, a group of us watched the movie Searching for Sugar Man after dinner. It's a documentary about the singer Rodriguez. I'll spare you the plot details, but everyone I know who has seen the film shares a sense of having been profoundly moved by Rodriguez's dignity, compassion and just plain old human goodness. It was the right mix of inspirational art and civil good will.

So, what brings all this rose-colored-glasses stuff on? As I was going through some papers in my office I found something I'd gotten in the mail earlier this year. It was the little yellow piece of paper from the department of Public Health Madison & Dane County Animal Services listing Your Responsibilities as a Dog Owner. To it is attached the annual dog license and county dog park permit tags. Our older dog Omelet died last November, so we just renewed Baguette's license. On the sheet, at the top, someone had written one line: Sorry not to see Omelet's renewal this year.

I have no idea who in the Health Department wrote that. And, yes, our dogs' names are unusual and perhaps memorable to someone who sees hundreds of them each year. But it was a kind and thoughtful act from a public servant who didn't have any reason to do it except for being caring and nice.

And you know what? What goes around comes around. If that person can do it, so can I.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

Find more of his columns here.  

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