“Just six more minutes left / We’ve done all we could do / And whatever happens next / I’m glad I’m here with you …”

Being a dad is wild. As a youth, I recall weekend mornings chewing down giant bowls of sweetened cereal, and watching cartoons for the vast majority of my TV time. Then, after a decade or so when cartoons suddenly dropped from my viewing diet in favor of sports and news, cartoons suddenly become part of our viewing rotation thanks to my now-11-year-old son. Spongebob Squarepants has been around for most of that, and he and the other characters were direct descendants of cartoons like Ren and Stimpy and Rocco’s Modern Life, cartoons that tapped into pre-teen hilarity and adolescent (and adult) sensibilities.

When my son started to put Spongebob in his rotation, I welcomed the notion with open arms! (Not so much with the misses, but that’s another story altogether.)

To their credit, the Spongebob franchise has had a few off-shoot projects, including some musicals, video games, and merchandise. But perhaps the most ambitious project among the suite has been Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical. The production opened to critical acclaim including nominations across the board. The soundtrack has a collection of superstars from The Flaming Lips to John Legend, and even tapped into issues I didn’t originally consider within the original series. (Yes, this is an endorsement.)

But there’s one exceptional piece I keep coming back to. When “The Best Day Ever” (the song and episode) first came out, Nickelodeon invested much of its commercial time (yes, hoopla!) to directing eyeballs towards their feature star. It feels like thousands, if not millions, of kids recognize the song just from the initial “Mr. Sun came up …” My son’s first-grade class sang this as part of his moving-up ceremony. The original “Best Day Ever” feels like the aural dopamine aligned to the effervescent main character and all he projects.

The musical’s reprise of this song is special for its optimism in spite of and because of the circumstances the musical’s plot has dealt the main characters. (preview here)

The short version of the plot is that Spongebob and friends have to stop a giant volcano from destroying the town of Bikini Bottom. The song brings us to the part of the plot where they have to wait for the results of everything they’ve done. Yes, a few characters did nothing to help while other characters used the moment of discord to create an advantageous situation for themselves. The solution that Sandy Cheeks, Patrick Starr, and Spongebob offered has made them deeply unpopular with the rest of Bikini Bottom, especially Ms. Cheeks. (That’s as far as I can go without spoiling it.)

Immediately, the musical reminded me of the situation this planet’s inhabitants find ourselves in. In this country alone, we’ve seen the rise of fascism, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-LGBTQIA+ aggression, mass shootings, and economic stratification bust the seams of some people’s visions for an American dream. Unity and peace feel harder to attain, and the after-effects of COVID-19 have forced everyone to rethink notions of trust, governance, and policy on multiple levels. In the abstract, none of this is particularly new, but the incidents feel more perilous as our devices alert us as they do and news networks and social media occupy more of our attention span.

Oh, and climate change.

What Spongebob’s anthem offers us is an opportunity to rethink optimism. What does it mean for us to hold steadfast to a future beyond what we can currently imagine? How do we stare these problems directly in the face and still work towards the bridge or tunnel that will allow us to get the win? What are the solutions that will wrest power from those who use it irresponsibly while still cultivating the power we have to make the world better? What can we create that will give us a sense of calm in the midst of the storm while we wait for that product to work?

How does optimism win when we, in fact, have done all we can do for now?

“Volcanic doomsday caught us unaware / But we’re still here and Mr. Sun’s up there …”

Optimism, like love, isn’t a fool’s errand, but a disposition where the collection of our actions and energies would create the best possible outcome. When we’re grounded in that love with our community and humanity in mind, we understand deeply how necessary our optimism becomes. It isn’t that we don’t know how to list possible negative outcomes. It’s that we’re fully aware of these outcomes and still wish – and work – to create better. Because we have a proactive vision for a better world as opposed to one limited by hurdles real and imagined. We can respect misery, but even the worst of us get tired of being tired. Even crabs in a barrel only pull each other down because the barrel is an unnatural condition for the crabs.

What’s out there outside the barrel? Or, in our case, can we see the sun? Maybe we can train ourselves to do better with hope as an anchor.

Credit goes to the respective owner!

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