Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Obligatory Optimism

Tonight I’m off to the third of a three-part small-group study on “Balcony People.” Balcony People are the optimists, the cheerleaders, the people who believe the best of you and bring you up when you’re feeling down. The alternative is to be a “Basement Person” – a nit-picker and a back-biter, someone who is cynical and pessimistic, determined to ferret out the basest motives for any action. (The ground floor is apparently completely vacant – you have to be one or the other.)

The Biblical basis for the study is sound, and I don’t think one has to be a pep-rally leader to cultivate habits of thankfulness and charity. But I find myself exhausted at the mere idea of inhabiting a world of relentless optimists, where one’s doubts and hesitations would invariably be met with a chorus of “That’s okay! You can do it! You can do anything!” (Exclamation points, I believe, are the only punctuation used by Balcony People.)

I am an optimist. Perhaps for that reason I’ve always preferred the company of pessimists. There is something restful about them with their moderate expectations, their cautious approach to life. Of course, the optimist/pessimist distinction is overly simple – perhaps we should speak of optimisms: there is optimism related to one’s expectations for the future. My latest invention is going to make me a million dollars. My secret boyfriend is going to leave his wife and marry me. And then there is optimism related to one’s circumstances. My cup is half full, and really I don’t even want more than half a cup because I’m not that thirsty anyway. Both these forms of optimism may vary depending on whether we’re dealing with situations or people – the person who finds reasons to be thankful for the things she cannot change may also have a razor-sharp eye for hypocrisy or a foolproof sense of when she’s being duped.

As an optimist, I’m keenly aware of the deficits inherent in my condition. I would not make a good physician – I am far too apt to dismiss worrisome symptoms. I don’t like to borrow trouble – I assume that everything will turn out okay, and mostly it does. This habit works well for me in ordinary life, but it would be dangerous in a family practice, where the patient’s minor complaints usually turn out to be nothing – except for the times when they’re not.

Pessimists are prepared for the worst. They’re the ones we optimists turn to for supplies of bottled water when disaster strikes and all we have are flashlights powered by useless rechargeable batteries.

Pessimists are alert to signs of deception. They’re good to have around when we’re tempted by a pyramid scheme that sounds too good to be true.

Pessimists are brave enough to address problems in their relationships before they’re too entrenched to be overcome.

Pessimists are brave enough to acknowledge when the problems in their relationships are too entrenched to be overcome – and they’re capable of cutting their losses when they do.

Pessimists know that the emperor has no clothes and they aren’t afraid to say so, even when surrounded by optimists like me who keep squinting hopefully, sure that we’ll see embroidered silk robes if we just look hard enough.

Behind every enthusiastic Balcony Person there’s probably a pessimist who takes on the thankless task of fending off leeches and con artists, gently nudging the BP away from his most quixotic plans, preserving the illusion that people are inherently good by quietly steering clear of those who aren’t. They’re easily underrated, those pessimists, and as a dyed-in-the-wool optimist, I won’t be the one to run them down.

62 comments:

slouching mom said...

Well, thank you for saying that, because I am a lifelong pessimist. Though my pessimism prevents me from entirely believing that you enjoy pessimists.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I surround myself with optimists. Only optimists.

Jess said...

I like this post because I have aspects of both, and I have never considered myself an optimist or a pessimist, and now I have a term for what I am. I am on the ground floor.

Gwen said...

I think the ground floor is more full than your bible study is letting on. But what's the room called for the delusionally "Jesus will make everything perfectly wonderful!" people? B/c my mom is in permanent residence there, and sometimes the ladder up is a bit rickety.

bren j. said...

I've always preferred to consider myself a 'realist.' Does that make me a Ground Floorer? Really, why isn't there a ground floor?
Too much pessimism is annoying, too much optimism makes me nauseous.

WONDERWOMAN said...

I had always thought of myself as an optimist till I became good friends with a real optimist. I started finding myself getting worried all the time saying things like "oh I'm not sure that will work, well if we do that this might happen" and so on. I realized I become an optimist around pessimists and vise versa. But like yourself being around pessimists makes me feel calmed as well.

Janet said...

I am a pessimist. Luckily I married an optimist and I can sometimes wear his comfortable Optimistic Shirts around when he isn't home.

I like the idea of being an optimist but, much like Slouching Mom and her disbelief in your enjoyment of our kind, I'm just too pessimistic to think it's a sustainable way of living. I'm glad you prove me wrong.

Mad Hatter said...

It's like in Harry Met Sally. You know, when Harry tells Sally that she is a high maintenance person who thinks she is a low maintenance person. She's the worst kind there is. That's me: I'm a pessimist who thinks she is an optimist. The results are truly frightening. Just ask my husband.

Kimberly said...

I'm an unwilling optimist. I WANT to be a pessimist. In fact, I'm pretty sure that volume aside, the glass has a good chance of being poisoned. But I'll drink it anyway, just in case.

Cyndi said...

I don't know which category I fall into. I would say I am cautious. Thanks for your thoughts.

Sober Briquette said...

I think it's optimistic of you to credit the pessimists with preparedness. I believe plenty of them are simply hanging out in the basement thinking about what the damp is doing to them.

Sarcasta-Mom said...

As a basement dweller, I appriciate you pointing out that pessimisim isn't always such a bad thing.

cinnamon gurl said...

I was thinking about this kind of thing today. I think I've cultivated an optimistic outlook to preserve my sanity (ie combat my anxiety). I thought about this while I bought more cans and considered just how many canned beans and tomatoes we've eaten over the years. But I just can't bring myself to worry over every single item that touches my or Swee'pea's lips. I just have to hope for the best.

That said, I suspect I may have a natural inclination toward pessimism. I remember another post of yours when you talked about defensive pessimism or something like that,which is totally my approach in matters not related to environmental toxins. I think that if I can imagine everything that can go wrong, there will be less chance of them happening.

All that to say, I'd really like to hang out on the ground floor. Squatters' rights.

Magpie said...

I think I'm a first floor. Not ground, but not balcony either. The glass is more full than not.

Beck said...

I'm very pessimistic - and so I'm always being surprised when things DO NOT go as badly as I thought they might. It's sort of pleasant, all told.

Suz said...

I'm a pessimist married to an optimist. It's a good match.

Veronica Mitchell said...

I agree with sober briquette - you may have an overly optimistic view of pessimism. Pessimists are also perfectly capable of saying, "It's all going to go wrong anyway, so why bother."

Of course, I am a pessimist. And I've always sympathized with Jonah, who finally grumpily prophesies to Nineveh with the terse, "In three days this city will be destroyed."

Kyla said...

I think I'm both. I can handle my half full glass, but I can also prepare for the worst. Maybe I'm an omnimist. ;)

bubandpie said...

Gwen - But what's the room called for the delusionally "Jesus will make everything perfectly wonderful!" people? The torture chamber?

Bren - If you call yourself a realist, that means you're a pessimist. (In my observation, anyway.)

Sin - Yes - defensive pessimists are the ones with the well-stocked emergency kits. The other kind are just gloomy Guses.

flutter said...

are there livingroomists?

Patois said...

Thank you. It is truly rare that the praises of me and my ilk are sung so eloquently. Now step back from that balcony before the railing gives way and you plummet 42 floors to your demise.

You're welcome.

Bon said...

i love it when you parse and analyse personalities.

if i buy the dualism inherent in this very fun analysis, i am a pessimist with an optimist for a partner. every now and then he hates me, because i pick sound and immediate holes in his most ridiculous flights of fancy. every now and then i think he has ridiculous flights of fancy. but mostly we're a fine balance...we bring each other to the ground floor.

that, or we're the livingroomists flutter mentioned. :)

niobe said...

Moreover, there isn't much room for anything except flowerpots on the balcony. While the water heater, the furnace, and the electrical system are generally in the basement. (I have a very literal mind)

Kathryn said...

I think I am right down the middle. Strange how that can be. Maybe what that really means is that I am just terribly moody. Everything is peachy one minute and the next we are all going to hell in a handbasket.

nomotherearth said...

Well Bren J beat me to my comment. I rather prefer the term "realist" to "pessimist". Pessimism, to me, infers that one is always looking to the negative side. I choose to hope for the best, while simultaneously being prepared for the worst. It is "cautiously optimistic".

Alpha DogMa said...

Pessimistic. And too damn cranky to even justify it.

Chaotic Joy said...

I am a wholehearted pessimist that longs to be an optomist. I am married to an optomist that says the same as you Bub...People who say they are Realists are just Pessimists in denial. I suggest that to an optomist anyone who isn't perpetually seeing a sunny future is a pessimist and that's why he says this. But enough with the cyclical talk.

I thank you for your post applauding the virtues of pessimism, although I am not sure I buy it. I do buy that a pessimist and an optomist make for a happy marriage. At least in my case.

bubandpie said...

Joy - Nobody's harder on pessimists than a pessimist, I guess. Nice hat!

Angela said...

On the good days I am an optimist
On the bad days I am a pesimenst
Maybe I am bipolar, just kidding

painted maypole said...

ahh... those damned rechargable batteries... i was just lamenting how crappy they are today. they are so good in theory...

And yes, I think we all need a bit of a ground floor mentality... an optomistic outlook with a dash of realistic pessimism thrown in.

mamakie said...

I'd like to say I'm an optomist, but I'm in the process of recovering from the mess made by a total optomist, which I had to participate in cleaning up. From that experience, I suddenly find my optomism about the general nature of others (along with what they say they can do) tarnished. So the actions of another have brought me down to the ground level.

Great deep thought for a Tuesday....

Florinda said...

I'm definitely on the pessimistic end of the spectrum, but compared to some people I know, I'm a total blue-sky optimist at times. I think perseverance as an optimist takes a fair amount of denial - but I say that as a pessimist, so keep that in mind, please. But sometimes I think being a pessimist is just easier.

This is a great post. I suspect there have to be some people in between the basement and the balcony, though...

Major Bedhead said...

As Toby Zeigler, of the late, lamented West Wing said "I don't care if the glass is half full, I'm just happy there's a glass."

I am definitely a pessimist. I'm not dour, I'm not bitter, I'm just cautiously skeptical about everything. My husband, on the other hand, is a cockeyed optimist. It can drive me a bit crazy.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Well hello, fellow optimist! There aren't many of us around, eh?

The glass is half full. That's great! That means I can have something to drink!
And even if it's half empty, there's enough to sate my thirst until another glass appears.

Julie Pippert said...

I'm a naive pessimist. I want to be optimistic, in fact initially I usually aim for optimism, but am usually not too surprised when it doesn't go right. :)

My inner girl scout rules and I am always prepared for every eventuality when ever leaving the house, even as much as I doubt we'll need it and I'll feel silly for lugging all this along. LOL

I prefer a nice balance of both, or people who balance both, and I'll forever be grateful to you for opening my mind to the positive power of negative thinking.

In the end, though, I find gentle pessimists (rather than aggressive ones who want to suck out your soul) to be as restful as you describe.

Maybe because they are often introverts and demand nothing of me in my quiet times. :)

Lisa b said...

I was a little worried when I started reading that it was going to make me feel badly about my pessimistic self.
I think it takes an optimist to paint such a lovely portrait of us pessimist. Thanks.

-The Shiny Happy Mama- said...

I'm on the ground floor, but I take trips to the balcony and the basement every now and then. I have friends that are both optimists and pessimists. I am married to an optimist and often bring him back to reality whenever his quixotic tendencies strike. Does this make me an entire house???

radical mama said...

I've never felt so good about being a pessimist! :)

Andrea said...

CAn I be a backyard person? It's nice out there. You're not too far above the street so no danger from falling, there's light, trees, maybe a few flowers, a breeze--I'll stay in teh backyard.

Redneck Mommy said...

I'm a pessimist. It was the lone thing I inherited from my mother other than her weak chin. (Side note: Why couldn't I have got her spectacular rack instead?)

Ahem.

Boo, however, is the eternal optimist. Very annoying.

Makes for some good conversation...(or loud arguments.)

Laural Dawn said...

So I would describe myself as an optimist, but awhile ago someone told me that he thought I was a pessimist at heart and really just wanted everyone to believe I'm an optimist.
That threw me for a loop.
I am still not sure how I feel about that.
I do believe we choose to be optimistic or pessimistic - even if at the heart of things we doubt.

DaniGirl said...

Oh wow, how interesting that there are so many self-identified pessimists hanging around out here!

I am a dyed-in-the-wool optimist, so relentlessly optimistic that I've taken to calling myself an infernal optimist. Everything will be fine. FINE I tell you, and don't you even try to tell me otherwise. La la la I can't hear you! And if you'll need me, I'll be over here with my head in the sand, thinking about how blissful oblivion really is.

Tuesday Girl said...

I think I am more of a pessimist but I like to think I am an optimist.

Becky said...

I would like to think that I am a realist, and in many ways I am, but when my optimism kicks in I often set myself up for some serious disappointment. For me it is often an internal battle between logic and hope...

Nevertheless, I really appreciate your take on the optimism/pessimism issue. It's not an issue of right v. wrong or good v. bad. I'd be interested to hear what you learned last night.

bubandpie said...

Becky - It was an interesting conclusion to the series - they were sermon tapes based on the book of Philemon, and the idea in the final sermon was that we have a responsibility to be agents of reconciliation - which means that if we have friends who are not on good terms, we need to get involved in bringing them to reconciliation, even if that means confronting them about their wrongdoing.

I can't help but think that such a task would come more easily to someone who ISN'T little miss sunshine. Apparently all the optimism and up-up-with-people stuff is just preparation for the final blow.

kittenpie said...

It's funny, I think of myself as an optimist in most situations, but I turn pessimist sometimes to protect myself, I think, from disappointment.

Mary Joan said...

I was born a pessimist, much to the chagrin of my incurably optimistic mom, who did not appear to have any anxiety or depression in her nature. I must have felt someone in the family needed to worry. Almost nothing is ever as bad as I anticipate it might be. However, I am an optimist about people, never giving up on anyone I have been close to. Three of my daughters are optimists like their dad; the writer is more like me.

mom huebert said...

I didn't quite comprehend the extent of my pessimism, but you make it sound like a good thing. And that makes me feel more optimistic. Thanks.

Damselfly said...

So...pessimists have a place in the world, then? ;)

I think my FIL would be a Balcony Person for sure. I have never, ever heard him complain or say anything bad about anything or anyone.

AnneK said...

My mom is an optimist and dad a pessimist. In our marriage, I am the pessimist and husband the optimist. Still, I am the one who gets screwed over by others. I don't know why.

Lawyer Mama said...

I think I'm on the ground floor too. I think I'm realistic in my expectations but ultimately I'm hopeful.

ewe are here said...

I suspect I tilt more towards the pessimist side of the scale... but that's not to say I can't be highly optimistic. ;-)

Aliki2006 said...

I'm an optimist who is sometimes prone to fits of pessimism--is this possible?

edj said...

Hmmm...I think that you make the point for the ground floor--those who combine the best of both. (Or I suppose you could qualify by combining the worst of both!)

Julie said...

Yes, but can we please talk about how strange the choice of "balcony" is here -- there seem like so many better metaphors for optimists than calling them balcony people. It's not, like, strange enough to strike you as poetic but just strange enough to make you think, "hmm. they couldn't think of anything."

Am I wrong? : )

Brook Ann ( the Great ) said...

I know why you have 54 comments on your post, as of when I wrote this, because you are fascinating, articulate, and just happen to address something that I have been seriously thinking about lately. Am I am optimist of a pessimist? I have always considered myself to be an optimist, but lately, I don't know.

Susanne said...

I have always considered myself to be optimistic. I do this because if I wouldn't carry a big sign with "All will be well!" on it everyday I'd go and wither away on a rock. If I gave up that hope I'd totally crumble.

So maybe I'm not that dyed-in-the-wool optimist that I always thought I am. I also tend to be more optimistic around pessimists and more pessimistic around optimists...

Mimi said...

I'm tempted to say I'm a pessimist, but the more I think about it, I tend to adopt the opposite position to what I find to be the prevailing drift. So right now Pynchon is going through a kind of hard time and I'm always like, "what was the best thing that happened today?" But I can be very pessimistic too.

bubandpie said...

Mimi - I tend to adopt the opposite position to what I find to be the prevailing drift. Hubby too. You NTJs, you.

Momish said...

If a realist is a pessimist, then I'm the pessimist (how this post fits nicely with mine today, B&P - we are in sync! But this is about you, not me.)

I keep many optimists around me (like my mom - not that I can get rid of her, mind you). I love hearing them say, "Yeah sure, buuuuuuuuuut".

I really love those realistic optimists who talk in positive options instead of impossible absolutes. Does that make sense?

I say we all meet on the ground floor and then blow up the elevator for good.

Steve said...

I'm all balcony; I may even be a roof sitter. As for the other side though, I really don't enjoy the company of pessimists. I think I enjoy them in a book, or maybe a movie, but life? ugh...

Kristen said...

I always appreciate your views on the optimist/pessimist continuum. I probably pretty obviously fall into the pessimist camp and grew up with guilt and shame over that, mostly from optimists telling me I should change. Your take on it is refreshing.

Lucy said...

What a great post! I am a pessimist, although I married an optimist. We need each other. I'm like the anchor that keeps his balloon from floating away into the sky, he's like the bouy that keeps my anchor from falling all the way to the bottom of the ocean. Not that I can't be optimistic, if I choose to be. However, I've found that if I expect the worst, I am seldom disappointed, but I am sometimes pleasantly surprised.

Thanks for such a rose-colored view of pessimists. I think we get a bad rap.