Friday, March 22: I have been continuing my meditation practice, while simultaneously reading Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, by Matthieu Ricard. This week, I was intrigued by the chapter: “Optimism, Pessimism, and Naiveté.” As I read and meditated on this, I couldn’t help looking at myself and trying to determine if I’m a pessimist or an optimist.
I’ve always called myself a pessimist because, when presented with an obstacle or challenge, I usually think about the worst things that could happen. That way, I tell myself and others, I’m prepared for the worst. If the worst doesn’t happen, then I’m pleasantly surprised.
For example, now I’m starting to prepare myself for leaving Oman in 3 months. On April 1, I need to put my car up for sale. I keep thinking, Oh no, what if I can’t sell it for what I need to sell it for? What if I can’t get enough to pay off my loan? What if I have an accident before I can sell it? What if something major goes wrong with it in the next couple of weeks?
As you can see, I’ve thought of a number of obstacles I could encounter. But instead of letting myself become engulfed by worries, I’ve made a plan and written it on my calendar. I must go to the leasing company and find out what the loan balance is and find out if it’s possible for a buyer to take over the payments. I must go to the Toyota dealer and get an estimate of the value. And then I must advertise it. Finally, I thought of the worst things that could happen. If I wreck the car, it’s insured. If I have to spend money to fix something major, then I just have to do it. And if worst comes to worst, and I cannot sell it, I can ship it back to the USA.
When I read this chapter in Happiness, I started wondering if I really am the pessimist I have always believed myself to be.
According to Ricard, “An optimist is somebody who considers his problems to be temporary, controllable, and linked to a specific situation. He will say, ‘There’s no reason to make a fuss about it; these things don’t last. I’ll figure it out; in any case, I usually do.’ The pessimist, on the other hand, thinks that his problems will last (“It’s not the sort of thing that just goes away”), that they jeopardize everything he does and are out of his control (“What do you expect me to do about it?”). He also imagines that he has some basic inner flaw, and tells people: ‘Whatever I do, it always turns out the same way’ and concludes, ‘I’m just not cut out to be happy.'”
When I read this, I thought: Maybe I’m not quite the pessimist I think I am.
I continued to read on with curiosity. Ricard goes on to say: “For an optimist, it makes no sense to lose hope. We can always do better (instead of being devastated, resigned or disgusted), limit the damage (instead of letting it all go to pot), find an alternative solution (instead of wallowing pitifully in failure), rebuild what has been destroyed (instead of saying “It’s all over!”), take the current situation as a starting point (instead of wasting our time crying over the past and lamenting the present), start from scratch (instead of ending there), understand that sustained efforts will have to be made in the best apparent direction (instead of being paralyzed by indecision and fatalism), and use every present moment to advance, appreciate, act, and enjoy inner well-being (instead of wasting our time brooding over the past and fearing the future).”
The optimist uses several tools to live his life: HOPE, RESOLVE, ADAPTABILITY, SERENITY, & MEANING.
Ricard goes on to note that psychologists define HOPE as “the conviction that one can find the means to attain one’s goals and develop the motivation necessary to do so.”
The optimist has RESOLVE; she doesn’t give up quickly. “Strengthened by the hope of success, she perseveres and succeeds more often than the pessimist, especially in adverse conditions.”
Optimists are ADAPTABLE: When they encounter what seem to be insurmountable obstacles, they react in a constructive and creative way, while pessimists tend to “brood over their misfortunes, nurture illusions, dream up ‘magic’ solutions, and accuse the whole world of being against them.”
An optimist, even in meeting with temporary failure, is “free of regret and guilt feelings” and able to maintain SERENITY while trying to solve the problem.
Finally, the optimist sees the potential for transformation in every human being, giving MEANING to human life.
So, Ricard says, “The ultimate pessimism is in thinking that life in general is not worth living. The ultimate optimism lies in understanding that every passing moment is a treasure, in joy as in adversity.”
I don’t see myself as a hopeless person; conversely I see myself as HOPEFUL and ADAPTABLE. My problem is in maintaining SERENITY in the face of obstacles. Often I get annoyed, irritable, worried, depressed and angry when I’m faced with obstacles. The only positive is that these states of mind come and go like fireflies on a summer night. But ultimately, I have enough confidence in myself to believe that I can solve any problem that is thrown in my path. I never feel like life isn’t worth living; neither am I ever willing to play the victim.
I know a number of people in Oman who are absolutely miserable; they’re true pessimists. Never do they try to make the best of their situation. They see their situation as hopeless, that they are stuck here under the university’s dictatorship, that they have no other options, that they don’t have a country they can return to. They don’t take walks in nature or try to get out and explore the beautiful country. As far as I can tell, these are choices they make. Every day, I believe people can take small steps to change their lives. An optimist can see this easily; a pessimist cannot.
So, which am I?
Early this morning, my dear friend from high school, Rosie, lost her beautiful niece, Megan, to stomach cancer. I didn’t know Megan very well, though I’d met her on several occasions. I do know my friend and her sister Janet, Megan’s mother. Their family is close-knit and loving, and they are fighters. I’ve known this family almost my entire life and I know what they’re made of. Megan herself, in the face of being diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer, went to battle for her life. She wrote a blog about her struggle with cancer: This is Our Fight: We’re fighting cancer, fighting for the life we dreamed of.
My own insignificant struggles were put into perspective by Megan’s death. While I have been struggling daily with a horrible job and thinking about the upheaval of moving back to America in 3 months, this beautiful and talented young woman was facing the ultimate struggle, for her life. This morning, she lost that battle, but during her struggle she was able to keep an optimistic outlook. To me, that’s amazing.
I wonder how optimistic I would be in the face of the ultimate struggle: with death. I really don’t know. But I certainly admire a person like Megan who met death with courage and the certain conviction that SHE, if she had her say, would choose life.