By: Annabelle C. Lee
If you've come here expecting this to be about why optimism is the best ideology and is superior to realism and pessimism, you've come to the wrong place. I claim to be (and believe I am) an optimist, but this article is a critique of my past and current ideology, not a place for me to convince you of my beliefs. I've lived a long time thinking optimism was better than realism and pessimism, but I've been wrong in many areas. I sat down at my computer today to explain my journey through the process of learning what works best for me. I don't know what works best for you, but maybe this will give you a little information about the not so happy-go-lucky side of an optimistic outlook.
What is Optimism?
You probably already know the answer to this question, but just for the sake of clarity and being thorough, I'll explain what I mean when I reference optimism in this article. I am using the definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary that defines the word as "an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome". That's what I've been doing for a long while - anticipating the best possible outcome in every situation. Now that you understand exactly what I'm talking about, get ready for me to absolutely flame this ideology.
Why Optimism is Toxic
I believe wholeheartedly that an optimistic worldview is what's best for me and my general happiness, but I've come to understand (as of very recently) that it can affect me and others very negatively. There are three major ways in which I've seen my optimism lead me into bad situations that were otherwise avoidable.
First, anticipating the best possible outcome has oftentimes blinded me to the worst and the just-okay outcomes. A pessimist's main argument is that if you always expect the worst, you'll never be disappointed. I see what they mean in that regard, and while I don't agree (it seems to me that pessimists spend a very long time being disappointed while they wait to see whether or not they'll be disappointed), I see where they're coming from. When hoping for the best and getting the worst, my first reaction is to search desperately for the good in the situation.
"Yeah I just crashed my car, but now I've learned a valuable lesson."
"I got a D on this assignment, but I can use this as an opportunity to meet with the professor and show them that I care."
"We're in the middle of a pandemic, but at least I can use this time to grow my relationship with God and write more."
These 'silver lining' findings are not bad by any means, but what I've learned recently is that sometimes God doesn't want you to ignore the bad things. Sometimes you have to look straight at them, process them, and accept them. Instead of telling myself that the car accident was really a good thing, maybe I should just let myself be upset. I don't have to wallow forever, but letting myself be sad about things that are inherently sad things is healthy and necessary for growth. I still need to hope for the best outcome (that's ingrained in me at this point and isn't going anywhere anytime soon), but when that worst outcome comes, I have to be okay with it. Searching for the good in all things helps me maintain my joy. Ignoring the bad in all things leaves me in ignorance and stunts my growth. I've done my fair share of both searching and ignoring.
Second, I've learned that sometimes people don't want to be cheered up. They want to cry, scream, and be fully and completely sad for a little while. Earlier this year, the pastor at my church preached a sermon in which he described how communities and churches must come together in times of suffering. It completely changed how I looked at helping people through hard times. This verse in particular hit home for me:
"Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." Romans 12:15
When the people I love are happy, I can and should celebrate with them. We should rejoice together because God gave them something beautiful and they're excited about it! The second part of the verse is the part that I really struggle with.
Weep with those who weep.
My pastor spoke that phrase again and my eyes were opened. I am called by God to empathize with the hurting, love them, and weep with them. My desperate attempts to remind sad people of happy things, make them laugh, or help them find the good in their sad situations were unbiblical. When I'm upset, I like to find what God wants me to learn, cling to something I can be happy about, and find joy again as quickly as possible. My second core value - second only to Serving the Lord - is Finding Joy. That is not the case for everyone! Some people's second core value may be understanding suffering, growing through difficult times, experiencing the bad and good parts of life, or who knows what else! When someone comes to me clearly upset about something, the best thing I can do is set aside my personal worldview, try to understand them better, and weep while they are weeping.
Lastly, my optimism has been destructive at times because it feeds into the false idea that I know better than God. When I am unhealthy, I try to handle things on my own. When I am healthy and my relationship with God is solid, I look at a difficult situation and pray about it. I usually pray something like this:
"God, what am I supposed to learn from this?"
"How should I handle this situation?"
"Why did you do this to me?"
David cries out to God a lot in the Psalms.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest." Psalm 22:1-2
Yikes! I believe God wanted us to read the Psalms, see how David deals with anguish and suffering, and learn this valuable lesson: it's okay to be upset. When David is in turmoil, he begins praying. He asks God why he's struggling. He often times seems to be yelling at God. The Psalms are so very human.
God knows what is best for us and does what is best for us 100% of the time. When things don't go how I wanted/expected, I immediately start diminishing the suffering, trying to handle things by myself, and shoving any emotion that seems slightly negative out immediately.
If sadness was wrong, God would never feel sadness.
If anger was wrong, God would never be angry.
Why after learning this do I still cling to an optimist worldview?
I don't believe that finding the good in bad situations is always bad. Staying sad when we're meant to be growing is not healthy. Crying out that God has forsaken us and then never asking Him what we should be learning is not healthy. Here are a few examples of how I've been trying to change my optimism to be healthier:
Instead of: "This isn't really bad at all!" I tell myself: "This hurts, this sucks, and I hate this, but I see what God is doing."
Instead of: "I don't want my friend to be upset, so I'm going to talk to them about all of the things we can be happy about." I remember: "God is putting my friend through this for a reason, and it's not my place to tell them they should be focusing on other things. I need to pray with them, weep with them, and pray for them."
Instead of: "God wouldn't want me to stay upset about this, so I'm going to ignore it and focus on happier things." I tell myself: "God would want me to grow from this, so I'm going to talk to him about it and focus on it until I've learned and grown."
These are just a few examples, but these small changes have transformed my faith. Most of the findings I've written about in this article are recent, and I'm still working through all of this. Understanding something and living it out perfectly are not the same, so please know that while I've learned this, I'm still working on it. Optimism is a part of who I am - it is ingrained in my personality, my ideology, and my faith - so it won't be going away any time soon. However, I am taking my first few steps to becoming the healthy, happy, and honest optimist God has called me to be.