Why Does Optimism Feel So Weird?

Why Does Optimism Feel So Weird?


When you have low self-esteem, optimism doesn't come easy.

It doesn't feel that way to everyone. It didn't feel that way to my old college roommate, who saw every rained-out Sunday as a dazzling opportunity to stay inside cleaning closets and watching old movies while eating avant-garde ice-cream sundaes crafted with weird kitchen scraps — raisins, rock salt, Ritz-cracker crumbs.

She used to say that, having spent her high school summers laboring on a tomato cannery's assembly line, compared to which our current chores, classes and studies were glorious luxuries about which one must never dare complain.

She also said that when envying anyone else, one must ponder exchanging lives with that person: not simply cherrypicking certain facts or qualities — his aptitude for math, her car — but shouldering his or her entire past, present and future, heartbreaks and asthma and all. These imagined exchanges, my roommate said with a solemn smile, always remind us how lucky we really are.

When we first met, I often wondered why my roommate always saw the bright side instantly when I could not, and only saw worst-case scenarios: a single blemish portends a massive, worst-ever outbreak; a late bus means a missed class and thus a failed exam.

Then I figured out why: My roommate didn't hate herself.

Her mother, whom she called her best friend, also didn't hate herself.

In matching white sweaters and sneakers, they ploughed through life with its sunshine and struggles, sick and well, solvent and broke, and didn't hate themselves.

White sweaters evince at-least-average self-esteem, because wearing white means trusting oneself neither to sweat through or spill things upon it, leaving embarrassing stains, and/or, if stains occur, to successfully wash them out.

And even average self-esteem breeds optimism, because it means having enough confidence to think (to know, as my roommate would say) that, come hell or high water, one can handle almost anything.

It means believing — "knowing" — one has resources: intelligence, social skills, patience, prudence, humor, training, grace, physical strength.

For those with decent self-esteem, the question is never whether or not, just how.

By contrast, pessimism is a telltale symptom of self-hatred. Find the pessimist — the performer who calls a half-full theater empty, the bus passenger who assumes every overheard cough is tubercular — and you've found someone without confidence.

You've found someone who thinks he or she cannot talk, think, work or power some way through any predicament and thus must always fall victim — doomed to lose, fail and be quelled by people, systems, society, money, molecules, machines.

Find a self-hater and you've found someone who automatically assumes the worst, who cannot even indulge in the momentary luxury of fantasy: of pondering possible strategies and less-grotesque alternatives — say, while counting to ten.

We who struggle with self-hatred find it nearly impossible, almost forbidden, to picture ourselves winning, persevering, even passing.

So when others tell us to think positive, we laugh. Not happily, not gratefully, but bitterly, because our pessimism undermines the very idea of affirmations, as studies suggest.

I will not tell you to think positive. That is — perhaps, as yet — too much to ask. Instead, I propose that we pause. And spend one second simply withstanding our urge to think the worst.

Then one more second. Three.

The urge is super-strong because we have known it so long, maybe our entire lives, but can we hold it off for five ... six ... nine, however possible, and think Perhaps ... ?

Perhaps, as an educated adult, I can successfully follow this map. Deliver my speech to that audience. Change my major. Find other friends.

Perhaps, having survived thus far in this world, I can endure this pain. Solve that problem. Get better. Find gold.

Perhaps I will not fail. Perhaps it will be fun. Perhaps I cannot turn myself into a total optimist, but

Perhaps I will emerge from this on roller skates, wearing a feather boa, beating drums.

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