Optimism is realism. That may be a hard concept to embrace in the middle of a rapidly worsening global pandemic and a crushing economic crisis. But history shows it is the right one. In fact, without that point of view, there very likely would not be any history at all.

There is a story I have told before — in a book, a book talk and, as my daughters will attest, far too often over the dinner table — of an exchange I had with my dad when I was a teenager. I had just watched a documentary on what might come in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and it was very dark. One hundred million casualties in the United States alone. And, as the narrator put it, the end of life as we know it.

Gloomily, I went looking for my dad, and when I found him, he saw I was upset. He asked what was wrong, and I described the documentary to him. He was a scientist and a bit of a professional contrarian who took perhaps too much joy in challenging not just conventional wisdom but almost any idea until he was sure it held water. “One hundred million people could die!” I said with all the frustration teenagers typically have for obtuse parents. And his response was, “Well, during the Black Death, a third of Europe’s population died, and the result was the Renaissance.”

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