|Linda: I am a recovering pessimist. I grew up in a family that had a basement freezer crammed with food, and cases of canned goods stacked against the walls. All this hoarding of food was preparation for the inevitable economic or political disaster that my parents, who lived in so much fear, were certain would occur. I grew up hearing stories about my grandfather’s assault on an army officer who had taunted him with anti-Semitic remarks. As the story goes, he fled and deserted the military, leaving Russia to emigrate to the United States. There were stories about the pogroms and violence that occurred in the old country, particularly on Easter Sunday, when angry Christians took it upon themselves to punish the “Christ killers.” There was also a steady stream of stories about all of the relatives that perished in the holocaust because they didn’t leave Europe in time. My parents’ well-meaning caution was always: “The same thing could happen in the United States, and don’t you forget it.”
When I left home for college, I feared that I had been admitted by mistake, and I didn’t think I could actually graduate. I expected failure. I expected to fall in love, only to be left by my beloved. I had no idea that my attitudes were pessimistic, even a bit paranoid. I just thought my ideas were realistic. By studying psychology and human development, I came to understand that we all form protective beliefs, and that these beliefs can be modified. It was exhilarating to consider such a possibility! I experimented and was delighted to discover that it was actually possible for me to change my thinking! With a concerted effort, my rich imagination that had been catastrophizing, started to envision successful outcomes for the scenarios I had been anticipating.
So much of my happiness now is a result of my efforts to put my inner pessimist in his place. When he sneaks onto the scene and starts spinning his fearful scenarios, I know that he is just doing his job to protect me by preparing me for trouble. But these days I talk back. I say things like: “That may or may not happen. Thank you for sharing, but I choose to believe that things will turn out well.” I’ve had losses and tragedy in my life. Every life has to contain its share of joys and sorrows. I have come to trust that it is possible to make a full recovery from some ordeals that we may experience, or at least a partial recovery from the even most devastating blows. To waste precious life energy worrying about what might happen is unproductive and can even be self-fulfilling. I now know that I have choices. I still have to exert effort when pessimistic thoughts arise. But with experience, it has become easier over time, to trust that things generally do work out and frequently not in the way in which I expect.
Some people see optimists as “Pollyannas,” thinking they are in denial about reality. Of course optimism can be taken too far. But those that criticize optimists are often pessimistic themselves, and believe that they are stuck with their attitudes for life. Optimism as a life view, is a much more harmonious way of living in the world. Despite some negative experiences, I see people as being basically good, the universe as a friendly place, and nature as trustworthy. So much of my energy that used to be used defensively with worry has been freed up for more creative pursuits.
So if you think that your beliefs and attitudes are fixed, I challenge you to reassess and to dare to believe in the possibility of transforming the darkness of pessimism into a more hopeful outlook. Working with our attitudes and beliefs is an essential part of cultivating the art of joyful living. But don’t take my word for it; give it a try, and see for yourself. Who knows? You may be in for a surprise, a good one!