A friend was telling me about her son recently, a little boy with a reputation for being a terrible sourpuss. The other children on the block all know this about him; it would be hard for them not to notice. He is always complaining bitterly, always unhappy, always bringing the mood down.
His mother has told me that at home, he’s much the same way. No matter what’s going on, he’s always off somewhere to the side, dissatisfied and crying, “It’s not fair, it’s not fair.” He throws fits, loses screen-time privileges as a result, and then feels even more victimized, as if the consequences of his own actions are some kind of betrayal by his parents and the universe itself.
He thinks the world is horrible, and everything he experiences only reinforces this belief.
I worry about this child. I worry he will grow up with this attitude, and that that instead of living a life where he feels blessed and grateful for the good things he receives, he will forever believe himself to be doomed.
The problem with pessimism
I’m not proposing here that everything will always work out and that nothing will ever knock this young man down or throw him off; I would never want to give him that impression. Life will most likely deal every single one of us challenges of all kinds: with respect to our own health or the health of someone we love dearly, with respect to our finances or to our relationships.
And yet, though we all have our challenges, we don’t all approach life the same way. Some of us are quite happy most of the time, despite the tough hand often dealt. Others are like that young man, perpetually gloomy regardless of what’s happening.
For some people, their mindset is such that life is simply a difficult experience. Their focus is dominated by the things that upset them, to the point that the world and our being seem to them to be defined only by negativity.
When good things happen, they dismiss them as haphazard bits of chance, a temporary relief from the general rule. When something appears lovely, they reinterpret it to cast it in the worst possible light, as phony or banal. Even if they can’t fully dismiss the positive things, they see them as having very little value. Good things are taken for granted as their due, not that they’re worth much; meanwhile, tragedy is proof everything is and always will be lousy. As a dear friend of mine would say, good is neutral, and bad is horrible. (She does not ascribe to that wisdom, but she understands it.)
Since they’re always waiting for the universe to make them miserable, they don’t give themselves a chance to experience happiness.
The beauty of optimism
It’s not hard to understand the origins of pessimism. Life is obviously full of stumbling blocks and heartbreak. There is cruelty and dishonesty from the universe on a steady basis. There can be biochemical issues at play, upbringing, and hard life experiences, any of which or all of which may leave a person with a dark and dim view of existence.
However, I would like to tell you something that I have been thinking about lately, in the hopes that it may help those who are seeking a new direction.
Right now, an incomprehensible war is raging in Ukraine. I cannot tell you how much I pray every day for all those trapped in such an undeniably devastating situation.
Optimism is surely difficult for many of us to comprehend in such circumstances.
Yet, a woman I know recently left her family for a week and traveled with a group to Moldova. She’s a medical clown, and she wants to do what she can to cheer up the children who are currently refugees there.
She must be an optimistic person to make this endeavor. She must believe in her heart that it will make a difference.
A pessimist will tell you that nothing you do matters, that a group of clowns means nothing beside the destruction of war. It is the optimists who are donating their clothing, money, and time. They’ve seen all the same things that the but they’re making the choice to believe that their good cheer and well-meaning antics will help in some way.
Surely, for the kids whose lives have been turned upside down, it is a good thing to be entertained – to shift the focus from misery to good spirits and levity, which are the heart and soul of childhood. I also hope that experiencing loving kindness, after the terrible cruelty they have faced, will restore some of their faith in humanity.
What is optimism?
I have always considered myself optimistic.
Optimism for me is believing that that the universe is being masterminded by a loving God and that things, if not understood in the present moment, will be more comprehensible in the future.
It is believing that since the future doesn’t exist yet, why not imagine that it can be good?
Since I took ill, I have found it harder to approach the future with a positive mindset. But on the most rigorous days, filled with terrible challenges to my mood, being optimistic is the only thing that gets me through.
I’ve always said that the jacaranda trees that bloom purple in Israel every May are a reason to be alive. They are eternally present; I count on that, look forward to it, and trust that nature will prevail. Indeed, every sunrise and sunset are reasons to be optimistic that there’s some order and reliability in the universe.
Perhaps optimism means something different to you than the inevitability of spring. Whatever shape it takes, I hope you keep striving towards that image of happiness, and that you aren’t ever too discouraged to leave room for hope.
After all, without hope, we would sit forever in the darkness, sure that it will never lift. And why do that when instead we could be walking towards the light?