There’s apparently a new book and documentary out on the lives of news reporter Anderson Cooper and his ninety-two year-old mother, the famous Gloria Vanderbilt. And in connection with all this, the New York Times just ran an article about the two of them in Sunday’s paper.
At one point in the article, Anderson says about his mother:
“She has this enduring optimism and this sense that the next great love or the next great adventure is just around the corner, and she’s about to embark on it.”
What a wonderful thing, I thought to myself.
The writer of the piece later quotes Gloria making a relevant remark, and comments after it:
“The phone can ring, and your life can change in a blink,” she said, emphasizing that last word and concurring with her son’s assessment of her nature.
We rightly value spontaneity and optimism, and even an enduring exuberance about life. These can be wonderful things. But, as Aristotle once cautioned us, for every human strength that we can identify, for every virtue, there are two corresponding vices—the extreme of too little, and an equally problematic extreme of too much.
In response to need, for example, generosity can be a great virtue. In such a situation, the “too little” would be miserliness or a disinclination to open up and provide help to someone who genuinely needs it. The extreme of “too much” would be perhaps an over-the-top magnanimity that's simply out of control, a tendency to take care of others so lavishly as to endanger one’s own resources, or even health.
Likewise, in the face of danger, courage is a virtue. Cowardice is one opposite. But there is also a “too much” of crazy carelessness, or rash foolhardiness. The key to living well is to find the virtue and avoid the vices.
Optimism is good. And the sort of spontaneous exuberance displayed by Vanderbilt can be a wonderful thing. But there can also be, not just a “too little,” but also perhaps a “too much.”
Toward the end of the Times piece, we’re told this about the exuberant mother’s son:
Mr. Cooper’s own nature is signified by a profound wariness and a strong belief that disaster is always around the corner. He sees himself not just as a realist, but as a catastrophist. “I always wanted there to be a plan,” he said. “And with my mother, there wasn’t one.”
Apparently, Anderson's mother was always super excited that “the phone can ring and your life can change in a blink.” And he became equally worried and anxious about the same thing, but going the opposite way. Can an attitude of exuberance, an openness to spontaneity, and an enduring optimism be taken too far? Can they even come to damage people close to us?
I ask this as a person who admires exuberance, feels it often, and always tries to take the path of optimism myself. But does Aristotle have for us a cautionary note we should take in?
Perhaps spontaneity and exuberance, in order to be the good things they can be, must be understood and embodied in the right way, balanced between the potential excesses that they not only allow but, in one direction, even invite. Then, the free spirit doesn't so much endanger or worry those around her or him who may in response develop their own distinctive attitudes about the next time the phone might ring.