This holiday season you may encounter people who wield the words optimism, pessimism, half-full and half-empty as though they know what they're talking about, when they don't. You yourself might be such a person. Here's a test:

Which of these stories is about the true optimist and which is about the true pessimist?

1. Sharon works at Walmart and has three young children with a guy who has been unemployed for six months, is drinking more than ever, is increasingly cynical about even looking for work, and increasingly nasty to her. Money is getting painfully tight, but Sharon isn't worried. She's sure things will turn out fine. She remembers to count her blessings every day and not to complain. Her plan? None really, other than to keep on keeping on. She doesn't need a plan. She's optimistic. After all, things could be a lot worse. Indeed, she is very pessimistic that anything else she could try—leaving her job or partner for example—would be anything but a step in the wrong direction.

2. Rebecca also works at Walmart, has three children and a partnership that isn't working any better than Sharon's. But unlike Sharon, Rebecca says she sees the writing on the wall. She's very pessimistic that her status quo is sustainable. Rather than counting her blessings, she's trying to keep fresh her resolve to make a switch. She plans to break up with her partner, move in with her parents for a year, go back to community college and get a teaching credential. Will she ever find another partner? Will she find a teaching job? She's optimistic. To muster the courage to change things, she has to be.

The answer? They're both optimists and they're both pessimists but in opposite ways.

The serenity prayer helps us make sense of the difference between Sharon and Rebecca, and between two opposite uses we make of optimism and pessimism.

Sometimes, like Sharon we decide that we need the serenity to accept things as unchangeable; sometimes, like Rebecca we decide that we need the courage to try to change things. We crave the wisdom to know what we can and can't change, but once we have a hunch, we allocate our optimism and pessimism to motivate serenity or courage, or as they're called back East, yin acceptance of what is, or yang insistence on change.

To muster the serenity to accept things, be optimistic that things are fine and pessimistic that you could improve upon them. To muster the courage to try to change things, be pessimistic that things are fine and optimistic that you could improve upon them.

Notice that the half-glass of water is a uselessly ambiguous metaphor for distinguishing between the optimist and pessimist, at least if you don't know whether the glass represents the status quo or some alternative. Sharon counts her blessings. Her status quo is a glass half full precisely because she has decided that, compared to the alternatives, it's the best: the alternatives are glasses half empty, deficient compared to her status quo plan.

For Rebecca it's the opposite. The status quo is a glass half empty; her freshly planned alternative is half full, an improvement she's optimistic she can pull off.

Optimism and pessimism are inseparably relative terms. Just as you can't talk about high except in relation to low, long in relation to short, and heavy in relation to light, you can't be optimistic about one thing without being pessimistic about its alternatives.

If you don't understand this, and instead treat optimism is a stand-alone virtue and pessimism of as a stand-alone vice, or otherwise mangle theses power-words' meanings, you'll stumble in confusion, easily bullied by people who wield the terms recklessly, relatives at the Thanksgiving dinner table for example who call you a pessimist because they're pessimistic about the plan you favor, or the proud political "optimist" who, pessimistic about alternative political ideologies calls you a pessimist for not subscribing to his grand political vision.

There. Consider yourself vaccinated. Happy Thanksgiving and may you pick the right plans to be pessimistic and optimistic about.

For yet another aspect of optimism and pessimism, here's a song I wrote a few Thanksgiving's ago, a pessimistic appreciation of the status quo because for us passing through middle age, the best is not necessarily yet to come.

Downhill From Here


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