Imagining the Unimaginable: Optimism, Cheer, and the Fight for Black Lives

When my partner of five years and I broke up at the end of November, I didn’t know how to be optimistic about a life I couldn’t imagine. Losing my love, my home, my future. But of course, the future happens whether you can imagine it or not, and there’s no better proof of this than the months that would follow, namely COVID-19 and the massive political uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd and the countless Black and Brown lives taken before. 

Typically, imagination works like this: you take what’s come before and map it onto what will be. But what happens when “what will be” becomes disrupted, disoriented, unrecognizable?

I don’t think many Americans could have imagined the 2020 we are now months and months into living, but here we are. Conversations I never thought possible are entering the national and even suburban zeitgeist: abolishing the police, restructuring how resources are dispersed, and revealing the legacy of structural racism in everything from labor to health care, and beyond. In the midst of all this, we are also faced with another question: What does it look like to be optimistic in a world we can’t imagine? And is optimism even what we need right now? 

I keep coming back to a question my friend Avery Trufelman posed as we circled over our futures during the first few months of quarantine: is optimism believing that things could always get better, or that they could always get worse? And what’s the difference? Avery had just begun working on this idea of optimism for the inaugural episode of her new gig as The Cut’s podcast host, while I had been mulling over this void of the future since my break up in November. 

I’d first started thinking about optimism about a month before shelter-in-place was mandated in the Bay Area while watching the Netflix documentary series, Cheer. The show focuses on the cheerleading team for Navarro Jr College in Corsicana, Texas, as they prepare to secure their 14th national championship title in Daytona Beach that spring. As I watched Cheer, still living with my ex as we looked for separate housing, I was struck by the intensity and devotion with which these cheerleaders worked, how disciplined and motivated and competitive they were—despite being mostly invisible to the teams and community they served. A one-sided relationship. 

A confession: as someone who grew up playing sports, I never really considered cheerleading a sport. If anything, I was mostly resentful of cheerleaders because I wasn’t on the receiving end of that binary relationship. I’m non-binary, but in high school I played women’s sports. And anyone familiar with the hierarchy of gender in athleticism can predict its scheduling: women’s games are the opening act, men’s the main event. My team didn’t get the enthusiasm, let alone attention that the men’s team received from cheerleaders—I could hardly distinguish their presence at my games. We didn’t make sense to each other. I wonder if my high school cheerleaders felt uninspired as girls rooting for girls. If it threw off the binary for them, or maybe revealed it.

However, the more I watched Cheer, the more I saw these Navarro cheerleaders beyond their static place in a doomed sports binary, and instead as a manifestation of optimism. To make it at Navarro is to be able to train your body for the impossible. Their ambition is personal, but collective, and ultimately driven by hope—and often comes at great personal sacrifice. Throughout the six-episode series, I watched Coach Monica and her cheerleaders design, execute, and perfect their logic- and gravity-defying pyramid all the way to their final destination: Daytona. The whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking: Who imagined this? To arrange and move bodies through time and space like this? How do you teach a body to do that? Simply enough, I was amazed by Cheer because I never could have imagined it. 

But optimism is more than just confidence in the face of a challenge. Optimism often gets lumped in with delusion because of its “against all odds” mentality—or as a “polite synonym for the unlikely,” as my friend Avery said in her debut podcast episode. There’s a thin line between the two. When I was a kid, I used to be obsessed with the idea that there might be colors I had never seen, or music I’d never heard. I guess this might be the same pull for lovers of sci-fi or even subscribers to QAnon: that there’s something out there, something beyond the restraints of our experience. Something outside of our reality, just within reach. Something that takes suspended belief, or confidence—maybe you could call it discipline. Maybe this kind of delusion gets confused for optimism because of the slipperiness of hope. At its core, hope is just wanting something to happen, so of course it gets included in the realm of foolishness. Where do you draw the line at accepting the limitations of your current state, and demanding more? 

Throughout my watching and re-watching of Cheer in the midst of heartbreak, COVID-19, and the fight to abolish the racist police state, I’ve thought a lot about this thin line between delusion and optimism. Perhaps the difference lies in the approach: an optimist works towards their future by showing up for the present, step by step. A delusional person lacks this roadmap, and lacks the gravity of day-to-day presence. I guess we could call this “magical thinking.” 

Yes, cheerleaders do the unimaginable, but they also suffer for it. A pyramid doesn’t happen overnight. Their training is daily and grueling, both physically and psychologically. They never stop pushing themselves to the personally unimaginable—and they suffer the entire time. Broken ribs, ankles. Dislocated shoulders, backs. It takes more than confidence to push someone through that kind of pain: a hope that tells you, it could be worse. 

Whereas optimism shares the same conviction as ambition, there’s an important distinction.  Ambition feels more personal—everyone for themselves. These Navarro cheerleaders support everyone else, show up for every game and parade or ribbon-cutting, while pursuing their own competitive goals. The difference is that they’re a part of an ecosystem—nevermind that this ecosystem takes them for granted. The sort of drive demonstrated by these cheerleaders reminds me of another sports documentary, Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance. Here we saw MJ get characterized by nearly every teammate he’d ever worked with as something of a bully in his pursuit of the unimaginable: six NBA Final victories within one decade. His ambition was relentless, and often kind of mean. The difference between MJ and Navarro? Their optimism functioned beyond the individual, as a sort of ambition plus. Of course, MJ could have never won six titles on his own—he knew that as well as anyone. The demand for excellence from his team was part of his ambition, but yet he still remained such an individual. Distinct, set apart. Within every team is a composite of individuals. 

It makes me think of one of the first protests I attended in early June: still reeling from the mess of my break up as I walked with thousands of others, all masked, all relatively 6 feet apart, all experiencing whatever they were experiencing as we collectively experienced this moment together in real time. It took everyone to make this happen. This is what I mean by ambition plus. Something about the complication of coordination and maybe compromise, fueled by the same drive. 

“There is such a thing as your nature,” Zadie Smith said in a recent interview on the podcast Keep It, describing The Last Dance. “I’ve been watching that Michael Jordan documentary and one of the things my husband said that really struck me is that, ‘That man is a king.’ I don’t mean that as a piece of rhetoric—I mean he would have been a king anytime that you would have found him in human history. He could have been a king in West Africa in 1750. He could have been a king in India in 1013. He’s kingly. And he leads people. It’s part of his nature.” 

What Smith describes here as “kingly” is naturally wrapped up in the age-old gender hierarchy of power, but I get it. This sort of ambitious individualism transcends gender, despite the power or ease—or perhaps frustration—with which one’s gender is allowed to express this ambition. But yes: some people are just like that. We have leaders like MJ or even Navarro’s Coach Monica—people who have the psychological edge to push themselves and their teams at all cost. Coach Monica is also one of those “kingly” types, destined to be a leader—but despite all her success, I can’t help but wonder if she feels frustrated with her lot in life. Yes, she loves her job and her crew and her team—but I often noticed throughout Cheer that even these accomplishments felt too small for her. She couldn’t help but point to what could have been while standing neck-deep in the success of what was. I don’t say this patronizingly, but as someone who knows this feeling well. It’s pure ambition, complicated by ego—and it’s not optimism. While ambition helps fuel optimism, the opposite is not necessarily true. 

If this all sounds a bit slippery, I agree. We’re talking about human drives and the nuances within. It’s very slippery. But yet, there’s something there—just enough traction to be able to call it when you see it, like me with Cheer or Smith with MJ.

“There are such things as genuine sensibilities,” Smith continued in her interview. “They can be changed and morphed and developed, but sometimes when you see something, you’re like—that’s kingliness, right there.”

And that’s what I saw in Cheer, a kind of optimism that was grounded in the present as it worked towards the future. It’s a future that the cheerleaders immersed themselves in daily. Step by step. I’d never seen athletes so willing to put their bodies on the line. To construct a pyramid, which evolves every year, is to be able to train yourself to make micro adjustments in order to toss or catch a body mid air, perhaps on the shoulders of another body, without error. Or it’s to be the body mid-air, needing to tuck or hold or release yourself as part of an insane choreography—all of which happens within two minutes and forty-five seconds. And it wouldn’t be possible without everyone working just as hard within the same ecosystem. 

Throughout Cheer, I realized that optimism was less about your ability to imagine the future, and more about controlling the only thing a human can actually control: yourself. By committing to optimism, you’re committing to more than just a personal best. You’re deciding to have hope in the present because that’s your ambition for the future, and that’s all you’ve got. Even if it breaks your heart just thinking about it. In a way, it’s kind of a long con.

Meanwhile, it’s well into August and I’m settled in a place of my own. It’s better than I could have ever imagined. My heart is ok, but I’m choosing to believe that it gets stronger everyday. And nearly everyday for the past three months or so, I hear helicopters hovering over downtown Oakland where protesters continue to gather in order to keep reminding us that things could always get worse—and continue to do so, even with the sustained spotlight on racist police brutality and political bureaucracy. In this case, optimism is the refusal to let things get worse. Or as Avery said, “it’s a way to make sense of pain.” The protesters aren’t sporting big bows and big hair like our optimists in Cheer, but they are faithfully trying to maintain the importance of hope in the face of state-sponsored violence. And they’ve created an ecosystem online and in the streets for how to take it on, step by step. They know that their presence matters, even as they continue to hold a mirror up to cops who are structurally unable to self-reflect. And if that’s not optimism, I don’t know what is.

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