What’s So Great About Being An Optimist?

Destin, Florida’s snow white beach and emerald water on April 1, 2004. Should we be optimistic that BP’s oil leak won’t change the color of the water or beach?

What’s so great about being an optimist? On the surface, I’m not so sure it is great. You see, an optimist often times gives the impression that s/he is not facing reality. As I write this, BP has a major “oil leak” in the Gulf of Mexico. I have heard “optimists” saying that it’s not as bad as many are proclaiming. The optimists make statements about how we don’t know the effect such a spill of this size will have, so maybe the “pessimists” are wrong with their predictions. Well, yes maybe! But how is this kind of optimism helping us solve the problem. The only problem it seems to be solving is the one that BP has with public relations.

I’m a pessimist and I say wind will never help me power my car!

Well, the purpose of this post is not to discuss the problems in the Gulf of Mexico with BP’s oil leak. These problems are only being used as an example where optimism, in my opinion, was inappropriately manifested. Also, I don’t want to give a negative review or view of optimism. I just want to separate and unite the use of optimism and reality. I think too many people use, or should I write, misuse, optimism too much. When I was teaching, I remember many of my colleagues, including me, would often try to say something “nice” about the academic performance of our students. Many of the students deserved the optimism we expressed, but there were always a few who weren’t deserving and frankly, I think we did a disservice by giving them an optimistic assessment. Looking back on it, I think we were somewhat dishonest with our assessment. OUCH!

Ok, by now you’re probably thinking this is a pessimistic post about being optimistic. Optimistically speaking, I hope it isn’t. :-) You see, just because I think many overuse or misuse optimism, that doesn’t mean optimism isn’t the preferred way of thinking compared to pessimism. Some view optimism as a simple-minded point of view when considering our world with all of its crime, wars, famine, injustice, etc. As mentioned before, optimism often leaves an impression of the optimist not facing reality. Well maybe, but not necessarily. It’s not realistic to pretend there is no pain, war, injustice, etc. and it is simple-minded to ALWAYS be optimistic. Of course, it’s also simple-minded to always be pessimistic.

How should we think and act when it comes to being optimistic and/or pessimistic? How about being a realistic optimist? An optimist who realizes that life will have suffering, injustice, etc. There are many who live or have lived an optimistic life and did so under remarkable and pessimistic conditions. Consider the life of Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years of his life in prison, Viktor Frankl who was a Holocaust survivor and Mother Teresa who for over 45 years ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying. These are a few examples of well-known people who remained realistically optimistic in pessimistic conditions. Frankl said that the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps were often not the physically strongest, but instead were those who were optimistic about life and found reasons to live with dignity and integrity while horror and death were all around them.

Is this tub half empty or half full? :-)

A realistic optimist has a positive outlook on life and does not go through life with her/his eyes and mind shut. A realistic optimist makes a choice to keep her/his eyes wide open, see life for what it is AND live with hope – no matter what the circumstances may be. Those that are realistically optimistic teach us that in order to live an optimistic life, one must adopt optimism into her/his daily life by choosing to be realistically optimistic day after day, month after month, year after year until life is transformed into one of constant hope.

William Arthur Ward, an American scholar, is given credit for the following quote: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” I think a realistic optimist would simply take note of the direction of the wind, make appropriate adjustments and expect the boat to move in the desired direction .

I’m “realistically & optimistically” looking forward to your comment. :-)

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