I used to think that optimism meant always looking on the
sunny side of life, that optimists were those incredibly annoying people who
made “glass half-full” declarations when it was so damn obvious that the glass
was half-empty. You know, those clearly deluded
Hakuna Matata, o-bla-di/o-blah-da, “no worries, man” people who were out
there delightedly making lemonade out of lemons.
I used to think that optimism was something you were born
with. (And clearly I wasn’t.)
I was wrong. On all
counts. Optimists are not the brainless
Pollyannas I thought they were. They are
(as the research I recently did on this subject makes very clear) confident,
resilient, self-empowered people who believe good things can happen—not that
good things will always happen, not
that good things are meant to
happen ... just that good things have the possibility of happening. And here’s what
separates optimists from, well, dreamers: Optimists believe that they can help make these good things happen, that
they can have a significant impact on their future, that they are the authors
of their lives (and not the victims).
I was also wrong about optimism being a congenital trait. It turns out that optimism can be learned, which, in itself, is an optimistic statement.
Given my new understanding of the situation, I would like to make two
1. I am proud to say I am, indeed, an optimist (even though
I wasn’t born one and even though I came from a family who, when seeing an
entirely full glass would figure it was either about to shatter or it was put
there by someone trying to fool them into thinking everything was OK ... which
it most assuredly was not).
I believe I have helped (and will continue, forever, to help) my daughter inhabit a world in which good is possible.
2. I believe that optimism—as correctly defined—may be
the single most important attitude, trait, behavior, way of seeing and being in
the world that I can help instill in my daughter.
Oops. And one more
proclamation, as I’m on a roll here:
3. Because I am an optimist, and I believe I have some
power over how things turn out, I believe I have helped (and will continue,
forever, to help) my daughter inhabit a world in which good is possible if you embrace
that possibility and take responsibility for that possibility and work hard to
make it happen.
These days, Lizzie and I are both volunteering at a free
meals program for the homeless in our city. This is an act of optimism. It’s
not just that we think, with the few hours a week we devote to the program,
that we can help make a difference in some people’s lives. Yes, we do think
that. It’s also that we exist within a
community of volunteers and activists who also believe they can help. So we are surrounded by optimists. More than that—and this is a huge life
lesson for both me and Lizzie—the people we serve, the homeless folks—often
show themselves as optimists. It’s easy
to be an optimist when life is pretty good. Not so easy when you live under a bridge and carry what you own on your
Yesterday Lizzie and I were serving and talking to a particularly
malodorous, grizzled older man who had come for a hot dinner. He was—like many of the diners we serve—just the sort of guy you’d avoid eye contact with if you encountered him in the
street. And that would be a gross
misjudgment. He was a gentle soul.
And, against all odds, he was an optimist. He had just finished his meal, and as Lizzie
and I looked on, he hoisted his overstuffed, ragged pack on his back, straightened
up and gave us a big, mostly toothless grin. “You don’t know how much lighter this pack feels now that I have a full
stomach,” he said.
He had opened himself to the possibility of something good
happening. We helped.