What Optimism Isn’t

When I was in second grade (back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth), our report cards were handwritten. There was a nice long section on the back for comments from the teacher — none of this comment-by-number computerized mess. I always received glowing praise about my “sunny disposition” or my good grades — except one time.

In the comment section, this particular teacher wrote to my parents that my “stories always have happy endings. Everything doesn’t have to be butterflies and rainbows.” She wrote other things, too, but those are the words that stuck with me. They felt like a condemnation. (I should’ve known then that I was destined to become a writer; I was so attached to my work that any criticism of my stories and poems felt like an ad hominem attack.)

My parents explained to me that she was probably trying to let me know that life doesn’t work like that, that not everything has happy endings in the real world.

I wanted to scream at them, and especially at my teacher, that I already KNEW THAT. Just a few short months before that report card, I’d been molested by two people in an overnight ordeal at the house of someone my parents trusted. At the time that report card came home, I was actively being tormented (including being kicked and dragged around) by another teacher’s son. I didn’t need convincing that not everything was motherfucking sunshine and roses. I had already learned more about darkness than some people ever do.

Still, I’ve remained an optimist (about most things, most of the time — you may have noticed that our current administration is definitely not one of those things!). There was a group of people I spent time with in years past who actually referred to me as the “infernal optimist.” Not everyone appreciates someone pointing out a silver lining when they’re in the midst of a good wallow. (Fair enough.)

It seems to be trendy, off-and-on, to dump on optimists as being out of touch or unrealistic. It’s true that there are Pollyannas out there perpetuating airy-fairy bullshit that doesn’t help themselves or anyone else. Positive thinking isn’t a magic wand that fixes everything in its path. And sometimes there are things that just don’t have a good side.

I would argue, though, that the Pollyannas of the world aren’t really optimists so much as they are deluded by their own desire to see the world as they’d love to make it, rather than as it is. That’s probably comforting, but it’s not what optimism is all about.

Just as courage isn’t really courage if some part of you deep down isn’t scared, optimism isn’t optimism if it’s not based in reality, if it’s blind (deliberately or through naiveté) to the potential for things to go in a negative direction.

Optimism isn’t seeing only positive potential in everything. Optimism is taking a good hard look at all of the potential paths or outcomes of a situation and then deliberately choosing to put one’s energy and action — and yes, belief/hope — toward the most positive (realistic) one. It’s a conscious decision to move in that direction, not some inborn inability to see anything other than sweetness and light.

Optimism is a choice. It’s a choice I strive to make every day, in every situation for which it makes sense. I fall short at times, or have a grumpy day where everything seems sub-par because I’m tired or something has gotten under my skin, but I do try. I believe that that whole “sunny disposition” thing may be cultivated, rather than innate. Optimism isn’t something you’re born with; it’s something you do. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’d be easier to just roll over in defeat. But at the end of the day, it’s so much better than giving up before giving your all, or assuming things are beyond your control or are pre-determined to be terrible.

It beats even a really good wallow.