Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is Optimism?

I had an argument yesterday about this question.  My friend equated optimism with idiocy.  To him, optimism was synonymous with Pollyanna-ism:  "A belittling and often insulting term for believing in a good world where everything works out for the best all the time" (  I see his point, but that's not what optimism means to me.  Perhaps both optimism and pessimism have active and passive forms:

Passive optimist:  You don't have to do anything because generosity and kindness will somehow triumph.
Passive pessimist:  You don't have to do anything because incompetence, stupidity, and selfishness will always triumph.

Active optimist:  You look for alternatives, other ways of seeing, explaining, and solving problems.  Choose your battles.  Tackle problems one at a time.  Even when things do not improve, your passionate actions might inspire others, and you probably have more fun.
Active pessimist:  Be indignant.  Complain and whine about incompetence, stupidity, and selfishness.  You can see a better way - that's why you're so frustrated.  But although you tend to see the worst in everything, sometimes your indignation causes you to try to try to change the world (but never yourself).

Passive or active, pessimists are a pain to be around.  They don't even get along with each other.  Oh dear.  I seem to be terribly pessimistic in my opinion of pessimists.  Let me change that.  Maybe just as winter helps us appreciate summer, we need the cold, dark pessimists to appreciate sunny optimists. 


  1. Hi Lil,

    For me, the question is what are you being optimistic or pessimistic about? I am optimistic about the ability of humans in general to solve their problems. Perhaps, I am wrong, but it's seems like a better strategy than giving up. I once went to a debate at Stanford about Reagan's Star Wars program. The anti- side said that it would be dangerous, impractical, costly, and ineffective. The speaker said in response to the counter-argument that "pessimists have been wrong before" that so have optimists. When it comes to supporting crazy enterprises that have the potential to destroy people and our humanity, I try to be as pessimistic as I can --- which is also a kind of optimism, as I think about it now. love, Adrienne

  2. Shadrack wrote me with this comment: "I just knew you were going to vilify we pessimists: it never fails! Fortunately, I always anticipate the unfortunate and so am prepared with a rebuttal. In addition to the aforementioned anticipation, and the resulting planning in depth* for which we are famous, pessimists
    also benefit from our expectations** of disaster. We live in a constant state of pleasant surprise at life's rewards and nonchalance at its expected penalties. Indeed, in the original Western school of pessimistic thought, the Stoicism, both of these virtues are cultivated in one's daily morning meditations on how awful the rest of the day is likely to be. As Marcus Aurelius said "Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful,
    violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men." It's all uphill from there!

    * For the catastrophe behind the obvious disaster.
    ** I loath the modern decay of English wherein "anticipate" has been
    conflated with "expectation". I shall only relinquish this distinction when they pry my copy of "The King's English" from my
    cold, dead hands!