“I have a dream….” boomed Martin Luther King. Today he is hailed as a visionary who sparked a whole civil rights moment that changed American history. Like Martin Luther King, the optimists of this world inspire others to march into a better future. They bring in innovative ideas because they are hopeful enough to fiercely believe in their visions. They remind us that even when times are rough, there is always a silver lining.
Despite these strengths, it is important to remember that unmanaged optimism can lead to naivety. It is perfectly encapsulated by the archetypal image of “The Fool” found in tarot cards. A happy, young boy can be seen proudly marching into the world, full of innocence and optimism. However, his eyes are looking so far into the sky that he doesn’t notice that right in front of him is the edge of a cliff. If he walks on any further without carefully observing his circumstances, he is going to fall down. Hard. This striking image tells us that a person who does not resolve their naiveté will eventually get burnt by the world. This, if left unresolved, can lead to disillusionment.
As a passionate optimist myself who chronically believes in puppies and rainbows, I have learnt over the years that you need to use your optimism wisely. I have compiled here some tips to help other optimists make best use of their personality trait. Note that the following advice is tailored more towards what I call “strong optimists” rather than to subtle optimists.
1) Balance your optimism with “getting real”
Strong optimists do not only see the glass as half full, but as mentioned they tend to be dreamers. They envision all sorts of futures because they see them as genuinely possible. This “can do” attitude can be uplifting, but it is not without its warnings.
It is great to have a dream, but it is called precisely that because it does not exist in this world yet. Creative visions come in an instant, but manifestation is bound by the constraints of time and energy. Your naive optimists are the ones who start a new hobby hoping to be a professional in a few weeks. They are the ones who announce that they have a million dollar idea which they believe will make them rich by next month. Obviously, this is a sinking disappointment waiting to happen.
To those who identify themselves as the people above, I’m very sorry to say but achieving any dream takes time, dedication and hard work. There is a need to first ground ourselves in reality to know where we are starting from, and which steps to take. Only then can we start to accurately calculate how much time and effort it will actually take us. Remember that your vision is your north star, but you need to know where you are currently on your map.
Learning about the constraints of time and energy will probably be a trial and error process. Your plans will constantly be overly ambitious and frustration will be felt. Each time you do get impatient and worry that things are not progressing as quickly as you hoped they would, do not see this as a sign that you have failed. Instead, congratulate yourself as you now know to give yourself more time in the future. Remember to keep a growth mindset. It might even be worth journaling how long things take for you, as optimists’ sense of time can get quite distorted. By all means continue to optimistically hold your goals in mind. But after you project to the future, remember to come back to present reality.
2) Accept that the world is full of both light and darkness
Over time, I’ve discovered that some of the strongest pessimists I’ve met were actually disillusioned optimists. They simply could not accept that there were awful things happening, whether it be within their own lives or with the terrible state of the Earth. They had problems letting go of the idea that the world should currently look like something else.
The disillusioned optimist must understand that even though the world will get better everyday, it will also get worse. We have better healthcare than ever before, but its commercialisation means that millions of people who really need it never get it. We have mobile phones and the internet to keep us all connected, but our privacy is now easily invaded. It is simply the yin and yang of life, and it will always be that way.
All this doesn’t mean you have to throw away your optimism. You can certainly choose to focus on the bright side of life, and continue to strive for a better future. However, this simultaneously must be done by also accepting life’s darkness. Even if you try and run away from it, the ugly side of this world will squirm its way into your life, shocking your system time and time again until you are forced to accept its presence.
In recent times this was seen with the election of President Trump. Many liberals were horrified and spent weeks mourning the outcome. Their optimistic vision of a better world was shattered. Some have still not accepted it, and you can see their anger and pain as they talk about politics. However, to not accept a disappointing reality is to be eternally stuck in the past. To say, “this shouldn’t have happened” will never do you any favours, because it just did and you can’t change that. A much healthier approach would have been to say, “Ok, Trump happened, I accept. Now what are our next steps?” . Acceptance followed by healthy optimism can keep us flowing and moving into the future.
3) Learn to accept pain, discomfort and disappointment
Some optimists have a view that there is a “perfect” version of their lives, one with never-ending happiness, success and freedom from any discomforts. When pain inevitably hits, whether it be emotional or physical, disappointment quickly ensues. Consequently, the optimist may quickly descend into a victim mentality crying out, “how could this be happening to me?!”.
Well, it’s happening because that is how the world works. Yet, it’s hard for optimists to accept this sometimes. This can lead to a desperate attempt to escape from the discomfort and pain they feel. Disembodiment happens as people escape into their heads and distract themselves to lessen the blow. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, this kind of suppression can lead to depression.
We will always, always, have to deal with pain. To deal with this fact of life, remember what the Buddhists say: pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Suffering only occurs through denial of the present moment. It can be transcended through surrendering and accepting the now. Even uncomfortable feelings can be felt from a place of peace if one is truly centred. In this way, you aren’t creating resistance towards what is occurring within you.
Obviously, some types of discomfort are easier to deal with than others. Some people live day-to-day with excruciating chronic pain. Yet, often it is precisely these people who are the most centred, because they are forced to find a way to be at peace with it. In fact, it is the minor pangs of hurt that keep people in an unhealthy mental state, as they still can run away from it. The probability of temporary distress increases if optimists don’t let go of the idea that creating a trouble-free Garden of Eden is possible. In acknowledging that your life always will have pain, the pressure to try to get rid of it will be lifted and moments of suffering will lessen.
To start the rehabilitation process there is a need to get back into our bodies. Techniques such as mindful breathing, body scanning and meditation will help you melt into your uncomfortable sensations. Remember that pain and discomfort can be very healthy reminders to assess whether we need to avoid things and choose another path. We have it built into our systems so we don’t make errors such as touching a very hot stove twice. If an optimist feels pain because their positive expectations aren’t met, they can use the pain constructively to reassess their circumstances. If they try to avoid feeling it, they may end up making the same mistakes over and over again.
Choosing to abandon our utopic vision of the world actually doesn’t make us more miserable, it makes us happier. As a result we set more realistic goals so we can achieve our dreams, aren’t as shocked when disappointment hits, and are more likely to find inner peace by accepting pain. Finally, I have focused this entry on optimists, but we must also not forget the pessimists of this world. They too, have their strengths and weaknesses. We need the pessimists of this world to remind us to take a reality check now and then, and they need us to show them that change is in fact possible. Together we create a unique balancing act that is part of the human experience.