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Optimism: The Cure for What Ails Us

It was another really beautiful day here in the Garden State of New Jersey. Like almost every Sunday, my wife Jackie, our daughter Ellen, and our friend Marge Wilson made our way to the early service at the Colts Neck Reformed Church. As usual, we sat behind our friends from the Cerny family and shared the latest updates about our two families. We then traded stories with another friend who had her wrist broken by a physician's assistant as he examined her for wrist and shoulder problems. Yes, just another day in church.

However, as I read down through our church bulletin (order of worship for you purists out there), I noted the topic of the sermon which was to be delivered by our Associate Pastor, Chris Van DeBunte. He was scheduled to speak on the topic of "optimism." My, what an appropriate topic, I thought, for the current period of time in our nation within which we all seem to be finding ourselves mired down in a growing national malaise.

I immediately jotted the words 'optimism, the missing element in the world today' into my always present pocket notepad. I did not want to lose the spark which the sermon's title had ignited in my psyche. As expected, Chris' sermon was right on target as he spoke of the emergence of optimism among the remaining disciples after the Our Lord ascended into heaven.

But you know me my friends. My mind began to meander in ways not envisioned by our pastor when he wrote his sermon. I began to ponder the need for optimism in our world today. Given what is going on the world around us, many among you will find it hard find anything about which to be optimistic. Foremost among our concerns is the fact that our fire service is under attack. People that we counted as friends and supporters for many years are now out working to put us out of existence, or at the very least cut the daylights out of us.

Let me give you one important indication of this change in focus. Missing at the Fire Service Caucus Dinner in Washington, D.C. back in April were the speeches regaling all in attendance just how much affection and assistance we were going to receive from the usual array of federal fire service grant programs. We heard the usual platitudes and professions of love, but something was different. Missing from the evening's festivities were the usual messages of undying support for our programs and an optimistic view of the coming fiscal year.

Notable among the speeches was the one delivered by a U.S. Senator Tom Carper from Delaware. He advised us to prepare for a year of lower expectations. He suggested that forces within government were working actively to undercut all of the fine efforts which have been expended in the creation of our federal fire programs. My friends, these were indeed disappointing words to those of us who have been laboring in the vineyards of the fire service for more than a couple of decades.

Let me change gears just a bit. Now I am going to adopt my "Little Harry Sunshine" persona to set the tone for this visit with you. We seem to be devoting far too much time to worrying about things over which we have absolutely no control. How about the debt crisis in Greece? What about the devolution of the European Common Market? Or what about the damaging effects of partisan politics on our nation?

Bull! I don't know about you, but there is not a thing I can do about these issues. Oh, these matters might be important to us all, but neither you nor I are the ones capable of addressing them. Heck, the last time I went to a European market, I bought some imported steaks. That's about it.

Maybe it's just me but I would prefer to take a brighter view of things in the world around me. That's the "Little Harry Sunshine" guy to which I was alluding earlier. As I sat out on the front porch the other day pondering this topic, it came to me that when things start to look grim a good cure for our malaise involves a sudden infusion of optimism. As I sat there enjoying a cigar and soaking in the beauty of yet one more day here on God's Green Earth it came to me.

You and I are the ones who can start the change in our nation, just not on the larger scale that makes the evening news broadcast. You and I need to inject a dose of optimism into the world. Now this will not be an easy task, given the ongoing partisan battles in Congress and the bitter Presidential contest which is looming in front of us. These are hogging the headlines and hurting our psyches.

In addition to the normal political battles, many different battles for the bucks at the local level have injected a new level of anxiety into our world. We are being asked to do more with less. I am here to tell you that the only thing you can do with less is less.

Let me be brutally honest at this point, because that is what you expect from me. I do not care how efficient you are able to become. I do not care how hard you try to do more with less. It is people who perform the services which our public expects from us. Having less people means you will be providing less in the way of services. I do not care if you are career or volunteer, the equation is the same. The only thing you can do with less is less.

However, you do not need to be a grumpy Gus about it as you slog your way through the endless budgetary battles. Heck gang, we are still in the fire service and as an old U.S. Air Force mentor once told me, on your worst day you will still be doing the best job on the face of the planet. You will be a member of the fire service. Keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart. It won't be easy, but it will put you ahead of all the angry people around you.

What I am going to suggest may sound a bit weird, but stay with me. We need to get to the point where we face the reality of the world around us. Is there anything you and I can do about the morass in Washington? Other than vote our individual consciences, there is not much we can do. What might you and I do about illegal immigration, or the national debt? Sorry Charlie, you and I are just a couple of powerless tuna swimming through the sea of confusion known as 21st Century America.

We need to focus our effort on the things we can control and begin to remove those things we cannot control from our memory bank. Let me suggest the following to you. Make two lists. On the first one I want you to list all of the concerns you see at work in the world around you. I am thinking at every level: world, nation, state, county, town, township village, or city.

I am sure it will be a long list indeed. Let me also suggest that it will be quite personal indeed. Things which are important to you may not be important to other people. But that is not your problem. Just create the list in all of its negative glory. Do not skip anything. As you might imagine, this will take quite a bit of time to accomplish. Just do it, please.

Once you have completed the first list, set it down on your desk and go out to have a cup of coffee (tea, ice water, soda, or in my case, a cigar). Just get away from the list and clear your mind. After a period of time (hours, or days) go back to the list and read down it. Here is where I want you to begin the creation of the second list.

As you read down the first list, check off those things about which you think you can do something. If budgets are a problem, can you talk to someone about them? If so, check that item off. If poor apparatus is a problem, can you work with someone to improve the condition of your fleet? If that is the case check that off. Let me assure you that world peace should not be checked off on your list. However, is it possible that you can have an impact on local peace by improving your attitude and your outlook on life? If so check that off.

Now that you have a number of items checked off on your first list, it is time to create the second list. Write all of the checked items on a clean sheet of paper. I guess you could do this on a computer, but the actual act of writing things out can be a relaxation tool in and of itself. It is my hunch that the second list will be much shorter indeed.

Once the second list is finished, tape it to the wall near your computer screen, or in some other prominent place. Admire it, because you have done something many other people have not or cannot do. For you see, you have created your plan to attack the things you can influence. You now have your plan to inject your version of optimism into the world around you ready for implementation.


So Harry, you might ask, what am I to do with the first list? Crumple it up and toss it into the nearest trash can. You will not need it any more because you have decided what you can and cannot influence and are heading off to make some changes in the world immediately around you. Three more suggestions:

  • Say "thank you" a lot.
  • Smile a lot more.
  • Don't be a dumb-ass.

Good luck and good hunting.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published his first e-book, Running a Volunteer Fire Department. You can reach Harry by e-mail at