I am not a natural-born optimist. At best I like to think of myself as a realist, at worst, a pessimist. It’s easy, ever so easy, for me, to look on the dark side of life, to think the worst of people — I am rarely disappointed, usually proven right. History shows that things turn to shit, all you have to do is point to Russia, to South America, to Africa, to the ozone layer, the overfished oceans, ridiculous hurricanes, Senate too scared to stand up to a petty tyrant, sports’ stars salaries are getting out of control while teachers’ salaries can’t compete with exotic dancers’ salaries (or so I’ve heard), etc., etc., etc.
While my cynicism wasn’t getting out of control yet, about three decades ago, I was already far from an optimist. Communism was corrupt from within, like diseased rut at the core; capitalism wasn’t taking people’s soul and humanity into the equation, and everything in between was sort of like a wet newspaper. I could feel myself becoming disappointed by people, but worse, not just in a general sense, not collectively, but on a one-to-one basis, a deadly thing for a writer. If I become apathetic and no longer interested in people, why should I continue writing about them?
The glass wasn’t half full, it wasn’t half empty. Water was in the wrong container.
Nevertheless, though I tried not calling myself a pessimist, preferring a gentler, less jarring word realist, I was far from an optimist. This is cruel world, people would rather screw you than help you, heroes are far and few in between and people are naïve. I would have been quite content going on like this for the rest of my life had I not run in head first into the love of my life.
Actually, I didn’t run into him. I sort of accidentally stumbled near him, in his direction, by first becoming best friends with his older sister, Amy, who went to high school with me. Jeff was just a little brother (literally, he was my height) who hung around and had a sharp wit and red hair.
Jeff grew a foot over the next few years, moved to another state, graduated from high school, and kept in touch with me through letters. We fell in love through those letters, and now, more than 25 years into a great marriage with two fantastic kids, Amy is still one of my closest friends. But the main reason I want to be more of an optimist has always been Jeff.
My husband is not just a naturally optimistic person (without being naïve), he’s also a morning person. While I’ve always been a night owl, he begins to yawn around nine to nine thirty in the evening, but getting up at five to six o’clock in the morning and singing little songs and dancing little dances is not a problem for him. (Although early on in our marriage I have had to suppress a strong desire on many, many occasions to throttle him. Gently and with love, naturally.) He is also kind, funny, considerate, thoughtful, smart and kind. I realize that I said that Jeff is kind twice, but that’s because it is a quality I admire in him more than any other. It is a rare and beautiful quality. A lot like his optimism.
All the studies, all the successful people say the same thing — get up early, cultivate optimism. You’ll get more done, you’ll live longer. Whaaat? You mean I will not be able to conquer the world if I wake up at the crack of noon? This is common sense, as is looking on the bright side of life, being grateful for what you have and not taking your life for granted, living in the moment. This kind of change of character, however, requires a constant vigil, and so much, so much energy. Meanwhile, I am so, so tired.
But the fact is, optimists are buoyed by their own optimism. They can study problems for longer periods of time, which allows them to solve them, on average, more frequently than pessimists. They also tend to live longer, as they look forward getting up each morning. Really, it’s a bit of a Catch-22 for me.
However, it’s a dilemma that I am willing to work on, because Jeff is worth it.