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On optimism and cultivating your garden

It was the morning of Saturday, 1 November 1755, All Saints' Day.

Europe woke in shock and convulsed as unfathomable news spread fast.

A minutes-long earthquake had hit Lisbon, impacting not just the city and its surroundings, but reaching areas of Spain and even Africa.

With no time to prepare, a colossal tsunami followed to destroy the city almost completely, before the fires and looting reduced it to ruins.

Between 30,000 and 50,000 people lost their lives.

As news spread of the largest tragedy in living memory, we can only imagine how it might’ve felt like the end of the world.

The tremors of the Great Lisbon earthquake were felt across Europe at many levels.

A few years later, in 1759, French philosopher and writer Voltaire would publish a short novella, Candide, or the optimism.

It’s a coming-of-age classic story. A young man, Candide, leaves his sheltered life to travel across the world with his mentor, Professor Pangloss. As his journey takes him outside his comforting bubble of wealth and privilege, he learns about the struggles and suffering of real life.

Witnessing and experiencing the great hardships in the world, he slowly and painfully becomes disillusioned and pessimistic while his mentor insists at every turn of events, like the Dutch philosopher Leibniz, that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

Even though this line of questioning sounds naïve to us today, its criticism of the thinking of scholars and philosophers across Europe was profound.

Not only was Candide published secretly and under pseudonym, but it was also immediately and widely banned to the public for containing “religious blasphemy, political sedition, and intellectual hostility”.

Despite mocking the optimists’ claim to live in the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire concluded Candide with a deeply practical precept: "we must cultivate our garden".

No matter how grim it all may feel, how dark and hopeless the future may look, it’s the act of attending and caring for something deeply that puts us in a safe place. Putting your attention into the thing at hand - whatever that is for you - to see it grow, evolve and flourish brings joy and comfort, and gives meaning to our actions as we contribute to a better tomorrow.

We all have a garden to tend, or many Somethings to give our attention and affection, somewhere to put in work and effort. It may be our job or career, family or child, a hobby, or, quite literally, our garden. Wherever you put in care and time, and see your own self reflected back at you: work transformed into something valuable.

In the end, it’s all about cultivating our gardens – whatever these are.

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