A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. ~ Winston Churchill
One day many years ago a good friend and I were walking along the seawall in West Vancouver. It was one of those wonderfully warm April/May days we can get in Vancouver, when the sun shines warm enough to trick us into thinking the rain has trickled away and Spring has arrived for good. And then comes June.
Anyway, this friend and I were walking and talking and enjoying the respite from the relentless rain when, out of the blue she asked me if I’d ever been depressed. I answered without even having to take the time to think about it.
“Once.” I said. At which point my friend promptly started laughing, long and loud.
At first I felt quite hurt. The depression of which I was speaking was deep, dark and long, lasting over a year and my friend’s laughter trivialized a very difficult time in my life.
It slowly became clear, however, that her laughter had erupted as a result of a misunderstanding. Actually, less a case of misunderstanding and more a case of differing perceptions. My friend is a pessimist and I am an optimist.
I have had some very difficult, challenging and heart-breaking times in my life, as has my friend, but the pivotal difference between us is how we perceive these times. I view life – the good times and the bad times – as transitory and as opportunities for growth. This doesn’t mean that I don’t oftentimes cry and crumble with pain, or chew my nails with worry. What it does mean is that after I’m finished crying (or sometimes while I’m still crying) I’m looking inward to learn what is being illuminated for me.
When Oprah asks me which five books have influenced my life, Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter, will be at the top of the list. When I first turned the pages and entered the world of Pollyanna Whittier, I felt like I had come home. The filter through which I viewed the world had been put into words so clearly and succinctly that it shifted me forever. Pollyanna became my grounding stone if I ever became unbalanced.
This does not mean that I don’t experience periods of deep pain, frustration, anger or any of the other ‘negative’ emotions. I have and will continue to. I have lived through a dark night of my soul when even just to breath became a very conscious effort. Being an optimist is not a get out of jail free card.
However, even while falling into the black mired abyss I never once asked, “Why me?” Not once. The question I asked over and over and over again was, “Why?”
I could write an entire book on this time in my life (in fact I am!) but a critical factor in how I found my way through that tar black forest was the lessons I learned as a child from Pollyanna. I also know that optimism is a life skill that can be learned, no matter what glass you were born holding.
I have identical twin boys, now twenty-one years old – mirror image twins actually. Where one has a cowlick to the right, the other’s hair swirls to the left. The only reason Patrick doesn’t write with his left hand is because his brother kept grabbing the crayon from him and putting it into his right hand. This turned out to have unforeseen benefits as it made Patrick fairly ambidextrous – which really has nothing to do with being an optimist or a pessimist, but still rather interesting…..
The one big, defining difference between my two boys as they grew was that one was a natural glass half-full kind of kid and the other a glass half-empty kind of person. Mirror image twins even in their basic outlook in life.
This trait was also noted by the very kind and grandfatherly psychiatrist who then headed up the ADHD clinic at BC Children’s Hospital. He gave me some very sage advice when the boys were only five years old – to take every opportunity to guide my young pessimistic son into the World of Optimism.
That little, often frustrated, little boy is now a healthy and happy optimist in his own right. And my pessimistic friend who once wondered aloud if I were ever depressed is also well on her way to walking with her glass more full than empty. You just have to ask the right question – “Why?” Instead of, “Why me?”
What question do you ask?