My life, as yours, has its ups and downs. Needless to say, this is not going to be the lead story tonight on CNN, nor is it a BFO (Blazing Flash of the Obvious); it’s just a simple fact. The extreme positives and negatives of our day-to-day existence often merely reflect somewhat momentary glitches in what is (hopefully) a relatively smooth flow.
At least in theory.
In practice, some people hang onto negativity longer than one would think necessary to have been justified by the causal event. And some others remain upbeat regardless of the circumstances. It should go without saying that the one group is baffled by the other. We even find the need to label the one over the other. The positives often refer to their opposites as “wallowing in their misery,” while the negatives label their counterparts as “Pollyanas.” Suggesting, of course, that the negatives enjoy — perhaps even relish — their negativity, while the positives are glassy-eyed and clueless. Neither is a rule.
But you’ve got to love optimists and pessimists, if only because they are identical except for two tiny things. Note these definitions from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary:
Optimism: a feeling or belief that good things will happen in the future : a feeling or belief that what you hope for will happen
Pessimism : a feeling or belief that bad things will happen in the future : a feeling or belief that what you hope for will not happen
Bad Things vs. Good Things. Will vs. Will Not. That’s it.
You might argue that these aren’t tiny things. Maybe so; we can discuss this later, if you wish. To me, the more important common phrase in both definitions is “what you hope for.” And here I take a degree of umbrage with the definition of pessimism, because if that definition is valid, I have never known any pessimists and doubt they exist. While I know, and have known, many people who hope for good things to happen, I don’t know anyone who at her/his core hopes for bad things to happen. (I am leaving out of the mix anyone who has ever hoped for something bad to happen to someone because of a sense of vengeance. That is an entirely different topic.)
The fact of the matter is that there is a wide middle ground that is equidistant from optimism and pessimism; it is called realism, and I am firmly in that camp. Let’s go back to the dictionary:
Realism: the quality of a person who understands what is real and possible in a particular situation and is able to deal with problems in an effective and practical way : the quality of being very much like real life : the quality of seeming to be real
Man, I love the phrase ” the quality of being very much like real life.” In my case, I am someone who always hopes for the best but is prepared for a negative result. The degree of such preparation depends largely on the parties involved who can effect the result, and my experiences with them. If you think of a bar with optimist on one end, pessimist on the other, and realist in the center, I reside somewhere between realist and pessimist — even though my soul cries to be leaning in the other direction. Experience, however, drags me the other way.
The term I prefer for this location is “practical cynic,” and is a not a term you will find in any dictionary. My intelligent-and-slightly-off-the-wall sister, Zonker (don’t ask), once told me her definition of a cynic, but it diverges enough from the accepted definition that I choose to modify the word. Again, from the dictionary:
Cynic: a person who has negative opinions about other people and about the things people do; especially : a person who believes that people are selfish and are only interested in helping themselves
Simply, Zonker’s definition claims a cynic is someone who is tired of being disappointed. Hence, my choice to coin the term practical cynic. There’s no implication of pessimism or optimism, just a clearly emotional response to one’s experiences which are rife with unwanted outcomes.
I am definitely not cynical when it comes to certain people/groups, and demonstrably so with others. So, to some extent, are you. To illustrate, I have a small cadre of family and friends who can always be counted on to deliver. If they say they will do something, it happens; I have no doubts, and am not the least bit cynical or pessimistic. I wager you have a similar group.
On the other end of that spectrum — and here is where I believe you will at least commiserate — any time people need something and our elected officials are the ones to effect the change, I might as well have the word “cynic” tattooed on my forehead.
But being tired of being disappointed doesn’t deter me from hoping for the best outcomes. I just know in my heart of hearts that hope, when not tempered by realism, can be a killer. And it isn’t a matter of “hope for the best but expect the worst.” With me, it’s more about not being surprised by a negative outcome, and thinking ahead of contingencies. This is called planning. And planning is never a bad thing.
There’s a plethora of studies on both optimism and pessimism, and while I haven’t read any in some time (yes, I have read many of them), all concluded that those who lean toward optimism generally have betterlives — physically as well as mentally. Martin Seligman, considered a leading authority in positive psychology, has been lauded for his book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”, which claims negatively oriented people can redirect their thought process to the positive. The book is a good read and I found it helpful when I read it many years ago. But as much as I tried implementing Dr. Seligman’s techniques, they didn’t stick with me 100%.
As with so many other things, life gets in the way. Circumstances, events, decisions made by others, combine to help create evocative internal reactions that bring me back to practical cynicism. But I’m not certain it’s negative to be realistic, particularly if one hopes for the best. It might not hurt to ignore the lessons of experience, but how does it help?
Although I cannot verify the quote, I once heard that when Mark Twain was called a pessimist he responded by saying that he wasn’t one; he was “an optimist who has not arrived.” I think that’s what I may be, an optimist who has not arrived. And who probably never will because, after all, my life is a journey, not a destination. And the journey’s road has not always been smoothly paved.