The Angst of Optimism (aka It's a Hard Time to be an Optimist)

I stopped reading newspapers years ago. At the time, my job required that I read four different publications (in two different languages) before I got to the office at 8:00am. Keeping up with domestic and international news was critical to my job, but detrimental to my personality. You see, I am an optimist. Which means that I prefer to filter out the negative and focus on the positive. This isn’t a conscious choice, but an inherited gene. Like the color of my hair and my height, my sunny disposition is something I was born with. One that has me trust in positive outcomes, find the silver lining and see the good in people. Research shows that optimists enjoy better physical health, greater coping mechanisms and are overall happier.

But in my experience, optimism is rough.

Because the worst pain happens not when you are already in pain but when you are in a moment of joy and the pain hits you as if from nowhere. A surprise attack whose shock hurts as much as its sting. That’s what being an optimist feels like: sunshine, sunshine, sunshine, SLAP. WTF?!? I am never going to fall for that shit again. Aaaaw, look, there’s a beautiful butterfly! And a rainbow! Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine, THWACK.

That’s why pessimists (I imagine) have it easier. They are pragmatic, bracing for the worst, aware of the clouds lurking behind the sun. They must endure the occasional hardship, but have the benefit of being prepared for its inevitable arrival. In fact, research shows that pessimists live longer. (That’s the optimist in me, reminding you that everyone has a valid point-of-view. Also the cynic in me, reminding you that research can be contradictory. I am a swinger, remember?)

These days, being an optimist is harder than ever.

The news, which I spent years successfully avoiding, swirls about like a plastic bag in New York City on a windy day. In it lies proof after proof that people are not fundamentally good, that this a hard time to be alive, and that it - the all-encompassing it - is not OK. But I am an optimist. So all the proof in the world cannot change my innate belief that people are fundamentally good, that anytime is a good time to be alive and that it - the all-encompassing it - is OK (if not in this moment, then soon enough).

Still, the duality creates an intrapersonal conflict - my positive Pollyanna at war with my pragmatic persona. To make the peace, I feed them both. I read the news now, but do so briefly and selectively (CNN’s morning newsletter is my favorite). And I let my rainbow-seeking-self do her thing (she just saw one yesterday, actually, peeking through the clouds over the East River).

If tolerance begins at home, then this seems like a good place to start.

Karen Gurwitz1 Comment