I surveyed my students last week, asking their opinion about the moral character of our country. Of the nearly 100 students who responded, 96 percent of them were hopeful that in the future the moral climate of our nation will improve. A cynic might suggest that is because there is nowhere to go but up from here.
But youth breeds optimism. So, too, does the American spirit. Americans are naturally optimistic. Tocqueville explained two centuries ago that Americans have “an intense faith in human perfectibility.” More recently, a former American president celebrated “the audacity of hope.”
Immigrants come here hoping to find liberty and opportunity. Americans believe that hard work can change the world. We think that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. And we believe that life will be better for our children and the world.
Hope and optimism are contagious. I’ve had the good fortune to catch a dose of it from Richard A. Johanson, a 90-year-old bastion of Fresno’s business community. Johanson will be recognized for his ethical leadership next week at an event sponsored by Fresno State’s Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
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Johanson’s can-do attitude seems to be typical of members of the so-called “greatest generation.” Johanson grew up during the Great Depression. He served in the Marine Corps during World War II. After the war, he started Johanson Transportation Service and went on to help found the Fresno Business Council.
In his retirement he continues to share his wisdom and mentor the younger generation. He even wrote a couple of books. The title of one of his books explains where he is coming from: “A Passion for Stewardship: The Legacy of a Generation.” Johanson, like others of his generation, embraces hard work, perseverance, courage and resilience.
Johanson maintains that success creates a responsibility to give back to the community. He is civic-minded and concerned for the well-being of our community. And he remains optimistic and engaged in community affairs in his ninth decade.
That kind of positivity is typical of steward leaders. They want to leave the world a better place. They believe that they can make a difference. And they persevere, hoping that their efforts will bear fruit. They change the world by caring about it. And they care about the world enough to want to change it.
One passage in Johanson’s book has stuck in my mind. It offers a recipe for success, derived from the experience of those who lived through the Great Depression and the chaos of two world wars. He explains, “Out of despair came hope. Out of hope came opportunity. Out of opportunity came compassion. Out of compassion came dedication. Out of dedication came transformation.”
There is much evil and suffering in the world. But confident and forward-looking people view difficulties as opportunities. As the great American philosopher William James once explained, “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”
Grumpy cynics do not believe that anyone can make a difference. And so they do nothing. Defeatism is self-fulfilling. It creates a vicious cycle of despair and disengagement.
Hope works in a different way. Optimists are resilient. They bounce back from adversity. They face short-term setbacks with faith in long-term success. When confronted with a challenge, they roll up their sleeves and get to work. By engaging the world, they inspire others to do the same. That’s why hope and optimism are infectious.
The pioneer, the entrepreneur, and the community activist are models of the can-do spirit. We need to nurture that spirit in our youth. One suggestion is to remind them to look around them. There are role models of hope and hard-working optimists right here at home who say yes to life and its challenges.
In one of his books, Johanson expresses his hope that one day the Central Valley will become a “crown jewel in the nation’s tiara.” He explains that this will happen when concerned citizens say “yes, we can” instead of “no, we can’t.”
Some challenges can appear overwhelming. But as Johanson has said, “no one can do everything but everyone can do something.” That message of hope and hard work resonates across the generations.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala
Upcoming ethics talks at Fresno State
Entrepreneurs on the Dark Side: Ethical Challenges and Ponzi Schemes
March 14, 6-7 p.m., Alice Peters Auditorium in the University Business Center
A Lifetime of Ethical Stewardship
Richard A. Johanson
March 15, 11-11:45 a.m., Kremen Education, Room 140