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The Other Side of Optimism

Photo: The Cut

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more, with host Avery Trufelman.

In her last episode as host of The Cut, Avery Trufelman revisits the subject of her very first episode: optimism. (But don’t fear, listeners, The Cut will continue publishing new episodes each week in the capable hands of producers B.A. Parker, Jazmín Aguilera, and other members of the Cut team.) This time, she explores the privilege of positive thinking. She speaks to Cut senior writer Katie Heaney about one of her recent pieces, “The Clock-Out Cure,” as well as Palestinian peace activist and author Souli Khatib about his perspective on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

To hear more about what it means to truly look on the bright side, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.

AVERY: So, let me start with an announcement: This is my last episode with The Cut.

The show is not ending — you’re in Parker and Jazmin’s capable hands now, and we have two new producers to welcome aboard: Noor and Schuyler! They will take good care of you, dear listener.

And I’m not leaving, per se. I’m still at New York Magazine, working on a different project that I’ll tell you about. But I am leaving my job. This job. And according to my colleague Katie Heaney, I’m not alone.

KATIE: I had been seeing a lot of people on Twitter announcing that they were leaving their jobs. And you’re like, Well, I also am tired and sick of doing my job and I also would like to quit. 

AVERY: Katie Heaney’s piece for The Cut is called “The Clock-Out Cure,” about how her social-media feeds were suddenly inundated with posts by everyone from academics and journalists to pastors to mayors who were quitting their jobs. And Katie wanted that too!

KATIE: I mostly mean in the worst parts of the pandemic. I just didn’t want to have to sign into Slack or talk to anybody. I wanted to sink further into the bad feeling, and having a job got in the way of that.

AVERY: Well, it’s interesting that you say you wanted to sink further into the bad feeling, because in your piece that you wrote, you’re like, “I just kept telling myself tomorrow will be better.” What was that?

KATIE: That’s partly realism talking. Even when I wanted to quit, I couldn’t afford to. So I had to believe that it would get better.

AVERY: I’ve definitely felt this over the last year. I was just sort of white-knuckling with hope. Optimism was pragmatism. I kept telling myself, This time wasn’t a wash — I was using this time to learn so much about myself. Things have to get better. Tomorrow will be better, next month will be better. I dunno, it just has to be. 

KATIE: Because even really bad feelings and really bad days aren’t permanent. No feeling is the last one that you’ll ever have until you’re dead. So I just feel like it’s just true. Things will get better, and then they’ll get worse again, and then they’ll get better again.

AVERY: Well, I guess one of the interesting things [about] reading what you wrote is that this is going to be my last episode of The Cut and the first one I made was about optimism, in which the optimism expert told me we are naturally inclined toward negativity.

You’re a writer, you know what it’s like when you get, like, five positive comments and one negative one. You’re like, Oh my God, my life is over. We tend to fixate on the negative. She said that optimism is like a necessary corrective. I just wonder what you make of that?

KATIE: I feel like I disagree. Like, I just don’t think I agree that we’re naturally negative. I think almost the opposite — I think people can be delusionally positive and avoidant more than negative. Maybe this is me generalizing from myself, because I think I’m generally a pretty optimistic person.

AVERY: And I suppose I am too. Because since I started working on that original “Optimism” episode almost exactly a year ago, in my privileged little world, I stayed pretty staunchly optimistic. Like, We have to vote Trump out. We have to find a vaccine. The jury has to find Derek Chauvin guilty. We have to. We will. We must.

Now, in a lot of ways, things are relatively, objectively better — I am alive; a lot of my hopes came true. I should probably feel even more hopeful. But the truth is, I don’t. Lately, I feel bleakness trickling back in. I’m like, Oh, right. Climate change. You know? I feel less optimistic, actually.

KATIE: Yesterday, the CDC said vaccinated people could go mostly maskless, and I just felt like this is pretty purely good news.

AVERY: In a weird way, this is like everything that we dreamt of. That moment. It wasn’t the relief that I expected to feel because it was paired with horrible images from Gaza and news of more mass shootings. I don’t know. I’m just feeling weird.

KATIE: Yeah, no, that’s totally fair. And I think that maybe my version of optimism isn’t as optimistic as other people’s? I do think good changes will come. I think bad ones will come too. But I think nothing is permanent, and that includes my optimism.

AVERY: And that’s just life, right? C’est la vie. Roll with the punches. So it goes. So what do we do with that optimistic urge to continually grasp at something called happiness or satisfaction or peace? That hope that life will somehow not only get better, but stay better and better.

But as Eduardo Galeano put it:

Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.

I’m going to keep walking. And the project I’m moving on to, or actually back to, is called Nice Try! It’s a project from Curbed and Vox Media. It’s about humanity’s perpetual quest for betterment. Season one was about utopian experiments around the world, including the ways that quests for utopia have been the seeds of colonization, subjugation, and disenfranchisement, because someone’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia. Season two is not going to be about utopias, but it will be about this same pursuit. This same, relentless force of optimism and its pitfalls. Because optimism, at times, can look like the most glaring form of privilege for the lucky and the safe. It certainly felt that way the first time I took off my mask to drink a fancy cocktail at a bar in Brooklyn. Cheers to brighter tomorrows! We did it! But maybe it’s the other way around: being able to discard optimism is the real luxury.

SOULI: I feel like I, and we, have no privilege to lose hope. What options do we have, like, just to die or to leave this place? I’m optimistic despite everything. We’ll talk about that.

AVERY: Optimism in Brooklyn is one thing. Optimism in the occupied West Bank is another. After the break, one Palestinian activist explains why he has had to learn to be optimistic.

SOULI: You’ve been here, actually, Avery?

AVERY: I didn’t do Birthright, but I have been there.

SOULI: Do you have a family here or something?

AVERY: No family. Mostly just very conflicted feelings.

SOULI: I see. Yeah. I just want to smoke, if that’s all right.

AVERY: Oh, yeah, of course. Go for it.

SOULI: I need a permit as usual.

AVERY: Oh jeez.

SOULI: No, I’m kidding. I’m just a sarcastic person. What can I do?

AVERY: It’s a little on the nose. It’s a little too true.

SOULI: I can’t help it. It’s my personality, but also a survival strategy.

AVERY: Sulaiman Khatib often goes by Souli. He’s an activist living in Ramallah. His biography, In This Place Together, which he co-wrote with activist and writer Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, just came out this year. In it, Souli repeatedly calls himself an optimist. His relentless optimism is that Israelis and Palestinians can, in his lifetime, coexist in full peace and freedom, and that it can be achieved together through nonviolence.

SOULI: If you ask anybody at the time in Berlin in 1988, like a week before, even intelligence. They didn’t know. They didn’t feel. They were not optimistic that Berlin would be united. Our conversation is the same. Change can happen in very strange ways in history and mass movements can really mobilize much quicker than we think.

AVERY: Souli was actually nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in both 2017 and 2018 for his work with the group he co-founded called Combatants for Peace. They give talks and organize gatherings and demonstrations with both Israeli and Palestinian former fighters. Some people find Combatants for Peace super-controversial, that Souli is reaching out to Israelis to do direct action together.

SOULI: The foundation really started from people that participated in the violent army side, and they reached the point that there is no military solution for the conflict.

AVERY: Wait, why say conflict? The sides aren’t equal.

SOULI: No, I mean. I’m trying to describe the reality, whatever words people will use, they will use. So this intellectual, privileged conversation about the terms — I don’t care about it so much. We live under Israeli control. Army control. That’s a fact. You can call it what you want.
I also know some Israelis because that’s who I am, I’m a bridge person. I can’t change myself in that way. I know Hebrew. I have Israeli friends. I write to them and they also write to me every day. This gives me hope that there are more people [who] know in their heart that this occupation must end. And we have to change the way we deal with each other.  

AVERY: You call yourself a bridge builder, and you are, like, bending over backwards to, like, meet Israelis where they’re at. They’re the ones with all the power and the money and the energy. Why do you have to be the one to learn Hebrew, and learn about them, and educate them?

SOULI: Yeah. So we speak a lot about the power dynamic. It’s a very important subject. And I know we’re tired. How much can we teach the world? It’s not just even the Israelis. So I think, in my experience, like building the bridges among our people is so important, because for the first time, the Palestinians [are] almost united right now compared to the previous times. Even [on] social media, the internet and the world, people feel the world start to listen to our voices.

AVERY: I just feel like the thing that’s uniting the Palestinian diaspora and the world right now is not peace.

SOULI: Mm-hmm.

AVERY: Like, that’s not what has been the uniter right now.

SOULI: Uh, yes. This is our thing. Of course, there are a million opinions. You can ask ten Palestinian people now, and they will give you ten answers.

AVERY: Right. I want to talk to you as an optimist.

SOULI: Yeah, I’m accused [of being] optimistic; I don’t think I live in the sky. I live a reality also. My family lives here. My sister’s son was arrested tonight and was released this morning. I’m trying to say, I live in reality. It’s not like I’m a dreamer and living in the clouds.

AVERY: The Palestinian founders of Combatants for Peace all spent time in prisons. Souli was released in 1997, when he was 24 years old. He had been incarcerated since he was 14.

SOULI: I spent ten years and five months, all in all. When we were in jail, we always expected the freedom to come. How? Nobody has the answer.

AVERY: So, Souli, when you first entered prison, was there an end in sight? How long did you think you would be there?

SOULI: No, I didn’t know how long I [would] be there, and I didn’t think about it so much. You can’t think about it. If you think about it, you will spend the next decade in jail. It will be too hard.

AVERY: Before he was tried in military court, Souli was growing up in a village called Hizma.

SOULI: My village, which is located ten minutes from Jerusalem, is surrounded by three or four settlements around. So I’ve seen this with my eyes. I don’t need to read books about colonialism or anything. No, it’s something you feel — that your home physically, literally, is really in danger. You have a blood connection to the land, to the trees, and you start feeling this big power taking this land step by step. You see they are building and bringing in new settlers that didn’t even speak Hebrew at the time, from Russia and other places. So my little village was part of Jerusalem. [You got a] haircut in Jerusalem, [went] shopping in Jerusalem, dating in Jerusalem. Memories [are] just there. Jerusalem was our central life.

Because the settlements [settled] on that road, we are not allowed to enter anymore. There is a checkpoint. And later on, [it became] a wall, obviously. So it has many effects, one of them on water. On agriculture. On the seasons. On life.

AVERY: Does it literally cut off water?

SOULI: Yeah, basically, the settlers, they built around the water sources. They control every aspect of our life. That’s the truth.

AVERY: When Souli was a kid, he couldn’t say the word “Palestine.” It was illegal to fly the Palestinian flag.

SOULI: You couldn’t talk about any politics or draw a Palestinian flag — this was illegal. So I did everything I could at the time, like raising Palestinian flag illegally at night because you could be arrested for six months for that. Any activism, any political action will be faced with heavy Israeli army presence there, arresting people. I’ve seen this in my eyes, of course, many times. You just have a feeling: Either you will be in jail or you will be killed. These are the two options. Around my village we had a big valley, a historical one with a lot of water. Now it’s all under Israeli control and settlements around there. That’s where my dad and my mom met, on the water spring. We used to laugh at them, as a romantic thing. That’s where I learned to swim. And that’s where I attacked two Israelis.

AVERY: In August of 1986, Souli and a friend of his waited by that spring. With knives.

SOULI: Israelis used to come to the spring to drink. Usually there would be an army there or sometimes civilians. So we expected to find Israelis there. We didn’t know who we [would] meet. We saw these two Israelis that were in the army but at the time they were on vacation, so they were hiking. They were 19, 20 years old. I was 14 and five months at this point, and … yeah.


Sorry. Yeah, we used knives, we stabbed them. The intention was to take the weapon in order to use it later on. I wanted to get a gun in order to use it against this new settlement. At the time, the only way [I knew how] to resist this situation was armed struggle.

AVERY: Were you like, Well, I guess I’m just going to get arrested anyway, so I might as well do it?

SOULI: Yes. Also, [it was] I don’t want to live in obeying the occupation policies. So for me, I don’t want to live with this. It’s not, I want to die. For Palestinians, generally, the occupation is a terror thing to happen to us. Any struggle against it is just legitimate and moral and should happen. It’s a reaction to the system. I believed in what I did. But I didn’t think about the risk and the price so much.

AVERY: And so the soldiers were just wounded.

SOULI: Yeah, they were wounded. And they [took] us to a military jail, since we are not Israeli citizens and we live under the occupation rules. It’s not the normal Israeli law. They take you to the investigation section, which is the hardest time in jail, because you are isolated alone and you are under physical and psychological torture for a while. Like with the darkness in the cell all day, or when they put the … I don’t know what to call it in English.

AVERY: Like the hood?

SOULI: Yeah, and like with the handcuffs and with beating. And this was very harsh times for me, like a lot of trauma from the time. And I was struggling to stay strong and dreams that the sun [would] shine again.

AVERY: Did it ever make you feel foolish? Like in 1994 when over 4,000 prisoners were released, including many of your friends, and not you? How did you hold on to that hope?

SOULI: Yeah, of course, there [were] moments like this. This was one of the hardest moments, of course. You feel deeply sad and you cry, and you feel lonely. You [feel] left behind. Things became darker at these kinds of moments. I recognize this. You look at the four walls around you, just in the room. Alone, smoking a lot at the time. After being down in my energy, I recognize what happened, and I breathe again. I think [about] what I should change and what should happen to accommodate a new situation.

AVERY: This is probably a stupid question, but you are in a jail, in an occupied territory, and you’re asking yourself, What can I do? from the outside perspective, almost entirely powerless, and did it ever feel delusional to ask yourself what you could do?

SOULI: Let me say from within, we don’t, I speak now, not for everybody that was with me in jail, but some of us or many of us. The strong ones among us didn’t feel weakness. I understand from the outside, like, “You’re in jail, what can you do?” But, no. We can still think of it in a positive way. It’s really possible for each of us to even learn how to live with personal or collective crises. 

My first hunger strike, I was 15 with a hundred teenagers. We had hunger strikes for 17 days, or 16 days, sometimes. We were organized in solidarity with different groups in jail and outside jail. We have to demand to improve the daily life in jail. To stop the physical torture, to stop isolating prisoners from each other, to allow us to have educational sessions, to bring more hot water. [We had] around 30 demands, usually. Once they agreed to give us like 25, we stopped because the point [was] to improve the life in jail, [and] not to die. And we always succeeded.

AVERY: But I mean, as a metaphor, it’s so heartbreaking that you had to hurt yourself. You had  to severely, severely hurt yourself to make life a little better.

SOULI: Yeah. I think in jail, the power dynamic between the prisoners and the Israeli army is zero to compare. We have nothing [but] our determination and our spirit. And our unity, our solidarity. We always succeeded.  

AVERY: Certainly. Again, just pushing back. [Mahmoud] Abbas is the most compliant leader and compromise has only been met with murder. So what do we do with that?

SOULI: I can bring you from my experience, I never studied this professionally, but I know from my personal experience. In jail, there is a lot of teaching and how to stay calm and optimistic despite the challenges. This is one of the tests that we have right now during the war in Gaza and Sheikh Jarrah and Jerusalem. I have been talking to some friends, Palestinian Israelis, and they felt there was really a good moment to create a huge mass movement of nonviolence.

Strategical wise, it’s very stupid to use violence in front of a heavy, well-armed army like the Israeli army. [It’s] one of the strongest, supported and backed by Germany, by America, by all the way. Their system’s interest is to shift things to the violence corner because there they win, obviously. It happens all the time, the nonviolence here happens all the time and will continue.

It’s actually not something we imported from Martin Luther King or Mandela or Gandhi. It does exist in our culture strongly. Like, I’m not religious, but in the Muslim culture, Abu ibn Talib is a famous scholar that spoke a lot about nonviolence. It’s really hard to convince people under the occupation that nonviolence can even work — the people here who were in jail and humiliated and still humiliated. And the ones in diaspora that can’t visit their homeland. I believe the anger is legitimate. I think we have to be strong and not lose hope.

AVERY: But what are you, ultimately? What is the goal for you?

SOULI: Yeah, okay. For me personally, it is really to end the occupation and to create a safe space and equality for everybody that lives here.

For many Palestinians, including the ones supposed to be radical, this is the narrative: Jewish lived among us over the history, but not like a state [of a] Zionist European colonialist movement. But Jewish — just a religion like any religion. They could live here as in the past.

I’m not legitimizing any wrongdoing that the Israelis are doing. I just don’t know, on a personal level, any way out if we don’t coordinate responsibility together. I’m not a superfan of two states. I’m aware we can’t jump from an apartheid system to live together in harmony. That’s not going to happen tomorrow. I want us to live together, next to each other. That’s what I want, and [it’s] the ultimate goal. I feel humanizing the other and their story and narrative will make things easier.

I definitely don’t mean that getting to know each other is enough. Obviously, it’s one little piece of it. Boycott and many other pressures have to happen. Direct action and disobedience and many other strategies. All this optimism doesn’t mean we set aside and that we don’t do anything. That’s not what I meant. 

I actually have a question to you.

AVERY: Yeah.

SOULI: How do you feel?

AVERY: How do I feel?

SOULI: Honest.

AVERY: Personally, it feels very understandable and I’m having a hard time because it also can sound like another trope. You know? Like, a violent Palestinian goes to jail and gets reformed and comes out a freedom fighter. It is your story, it’s truly your story. It is also a story that Westerners like. That white Jews like. I’m having a hard time navigating it because I don’t want to oversentimentalize it.

SOULI: Yeah.

AVERY: And I want to hear your motives and understand. You know what I mean?

SOULI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AVERY: What do you make of your own story?

SOULI: Yeah. No, I thank you for saying this. I am aware of this, actually. Because some people say, Oh, you’re a really nice guy, let’s send everybody to jail. Then we’ll have peace. That’s not, obviously … phew.

My story gives me some legitimacy in some eyes and different sides. That’s why I’m exposing my self to people, which is not the nicest, easiest thing to do. You lose your privacy and whatever. But I want to use this for other people to maybe soften their heart or move them a little bit. From my experience, I believe this is working.

But I want to say, and this may be important to say to people that oppose any kind of connection and dialog … most Israelis that I know of, the ones that really show serious, strong solidarity with the Palestinians, the ones that refuse the army, the ones that really come to action with Palestinians, most likely started in dialogue.

This is an emotional thing. It’s a hard mindset to change. It’s not dreaming and just being in the clouds. The privilege of losing hope, I don’t have it. Of course, it’s my nature, being optimistic. But really, I don’t feel this privilege. It’s easier for somebody else, for other people that aren’t living here. To lose hope. To not to deal with it. That’s not, it’s not for me. I’m not there.

The Other Side of Optimism