Every now and then I get accused of something truly awful: Being an optimist.
I object (strenuously) not because the real story is that I’m a pessimist (I’m not) but because the very premise of a categorization of optimist versus pessimist is grounded in passivity.
The assumption in the very asking of the question is meant to inquire as to whether or not, generally speaking, you believe your life is going to go well (or get better) or that it will go poorly (or get worse).
What concerns me is that the question leaves out entirely the matter of what it is I do to contribute to the outcome.
In other words, it’s a question premised on passivity.
“It gets better”
Last year I wrote about a concern I had with the otherwise inspirational videos circulating then on the internet as part of the It Gets Better project, designed to give hope to young people who are victims of violence and discrimination associated with sexuality and gender identity. My concern was that the title expressed a troublingly passive optimism. It only gets better if we strive to make it better by standing up against violence and looking out for one another (something we need to get much better at).
Optimist? Pessimist? Who cares
“Everything is going to be okay.”
“I just know it’s going to work out.”
“I really feel like this is going to be a good year for me.”
These unequivocally optimistic statements aren’t much better than their pessimistic counterparts:
“Everything is going to fall apart. I just know it.”
“Nothing ever goes my way, and nothing ever will.”
Whichever way you lean, none of it matters absent an active engagement in building the conditions from which good things might grow.
What matters way more than attitude is what you do. Not so sure things are going to work out? Who cares? Concentrate on showing up and making an active contribution to producing the best possible outcome. Think things are going to go great? Fine. Just don’t fail to do what’s needed to help make them so.
What does it mean to get active?
It means making the phone call, doing the research, calling the friend, signing up for the class, making the appointment with your boss. It means asking for help and more help and more help after that. It means bringing up the conversation with your spouse or friend or coworker about the thing that’s been bugging you for eight years.
There’s a lot in the world we can’t change. But we can get caught focusing so intently on how we feel about those things that we’re not able to shift our gaze enough to see and act on those things we can influence. Worrying about being an optimist or a pessimist (or a pianist or a Dadaist, for that matter) amounts to not much more than a distraction.
Getting active means uncrossing your fingers and putting them to work, building the pieces that amount to a life.