The near-miraculous progress of the not-so-lame-duck session of Congress notwithstanding, you could be forgiven for feeling a tad pessimistic about the state of the world as 2010 draws to a close. It was a rough year: The earthquake that leveled Haiti; the rabid xenophobia evident in the Arizona immigration law and the New York City Islamic center controversy; entire European countries (Portugal, Ireland) needing a bailout; the Tea Party’s well financed hysteria; the BP oil spill contaminating the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches of Gulf states, giving us a taste of what’s to come if we don’t wise up and convert to clean energy; a frighteningly large percentage of the country actually believing Sarah Palin could, or even should, be president and that same percentage believing President Barack Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in this country.

The Chilean miners’ story had a happy ending, but the one in West Virginia did not. The hard lessons apply to all the fossil fuels.

But there was some good news in 2010: passage of a historic health care reform bill, which the loudmouths say amounts to a socialist takeover of the country — and since the media is ruled by loudmouths, no one celebrated.

So it’s not an easy time for optimists. Most people would agree things seem to be on the downslide. The economy’s a mess. The planet is in peril. Most of our institutions and industries are faltering and groping for ways to reinvent themselves. It’s so easy to surrender to doom and gloom.

The conservatives are doing their little victory dance and crowing about taking back their country. That would be the country where income inequality widens every year, where citizens choose anger over dialogue and fear over reason, where the truth is something to be twisted or dodged in order to gain political advantage, where free speech means legalized bribery, where technology enslaves instead of liberating, where the media act more like lapdogs than watchdogs, where the rich get richer and the middle class gets smaller, where being stuck in the imaginary past is better than moving toward a promising future.

I prefer the country where all men and women are not only created equal but treated equal, where the constitution is a living document that guides us in forming an ever more perfect union, where people choose win-win over win-lose, where no one is willing to be either slave or slave-master, where the common good is valued over self-interest, where government serves as an effective check on the excesses of a reckless free market, where people don’t vote for those who keep making their lives harder, where government of the people and by the people and for the people is not undermined by unlimited corporate campaign contributions, where taxpayers worry much more about how their tax dollars are spent than how much they’re paying, and where freedom means equal opportunity not competitive advantage.

I still believe we can take back that country. In spite of everything, I remain a long-term optimist.

Pessimists believe decline and fall is inevitable — a fate we can only forestall by holding on for dear life to the past and its imagined innocence. Evolution and progress are merely illusions. Human beings are fallen creatures, sinners who can do nothing on their own. Only divine intervention can save us.

For those folks, 2011 is just more of the same — decline — and they fret about what life will be like for our grandchildren.

Optimists, on the other hand, agree we’re in an “end time,” but it’s a necessary end. What is falling apart needs to fall apart — to be replaced by something better. We are transitioning to a more sustainable world, a better world. End times are always uncomfortable, even painful, as the old verities give way to a new order.

A time of failing systems and institutions can help us move forward by defining the issues and framing the truth with greater clarity.

Many feel we’ve been mired in this “end time” for most of our lives, but major transitions like this take a while. Some believe we’re due for a “great awakening” or “great transformation,” spiritually and politically, which will lead to a much kinder future for our descendents.

We all need to become pragmatic idealists, starting in 2011. That’s where optimism meets the road. How can we help midwife the birth of this new world? Each of us making some small contribution will help bring it about. The more we do, the faster it will happen. We may not live to see the payoff, but our children’s children will bless us.

You can’t get more optimistic than that.

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