Optimism allows you to be joyous, even when the end result is uncertain. It pushes you to climb to heights that others would say are impossible to reach. It enables you to trust more, to hope more, to make yourself more vulnerable.
Yes, sometimes being an optimist is the best thing in the world. But sometimes? Sometimes I wonder if optimism does more harm than good.
Because sometimes, optimism sucks.
Trust me, I know.
In general, I’m a pretty upbeat person. I hope for things which are theoretically impossible and I bounce back easily. I don’t know whether to credit these traits to having been hand-fed happy thoughts by my parents, or my religious education watering my soul with some nice, nutritious blind and non-blind faith, or a genetic inclination to look on the bright side.
I tend to think my happy self is just due to a horrid memory for adverse events (or just a horrid memory for things in general). Whatever the cause may be, normally everything is dandy.
Until the inevitable happens.
I don’t get the job. I don’t get the grant. I don’t get the guy. The friend I’ve confided in shares my secret. The person whose health I’ve been praying for passes away.
I’m left standing on the curb, waiting for a bus that never comes.
At those times, I doubt the utility of optimism. Of hopeful thinking. I understand Barry Schwartz, who said that the secret to happiness is low expectations. I understand some of my friends who prefer realism over idealism.
Because if you don’t dare to hope, you’ll be ok. When you have low expectations, failure is a tad disheartening but not crushing. Because, after all, your goals were placed at a reasonable level.
But when you’re an optimist, and Life Happens? Well, you find yourself confused and on the way home from the drug store with a new tube of waterproof mascara and a bar of chocolate. And a box of tissues. You definitely need the box of tissues.
Because even optimists get disappointed. Optimists in particular get disappointed.
And deep inside… somewhere in my brain or my heart or my gut (I’m still unsure), I have this tiny, rational, pragmatic Rochel who braids her hair neatly and jumps up and down and waves her arms and yells for attention. She cautions that I may get hurt. That I may fail.
She tries reasoning with me and convincing me that as long as I don’t trust too much, my confidence can never be betrayed. That optimism is not worth the risk.
It’s not worth the fall.
But the happy-go-lucky part of me traps this little Rochel under a cup (causing her voice to become muffled and distant) and decides to hope anyway. To try anyway. To immerse myself fully in whatever intimidating experience or relationship or attempt at success I’m facing and go for it anyway.
To just close my eyes and hope for the best and jump in. And often, whatever I’m hoping for works out. And life is glorious.
But sometimes, it doesn’t.
And every time my hopes are dashed, the feeling of disappointment strikes me. Deeply. Due to my belief in everything, (and, once more, my tendency to forget negative experiences) the disappointment is often so unexpected and so intense that it is nearly tangible. Corporeal. I can hold the feeling my hand and stare at it and study it and know that I’ve met Disappointment before, but never quite so intensely.
And I gather the mourners to eulogize the optimist within me. Because the proverbial cup of water has suddenly changed. It is the exact same but entirely different. What was, one moment ago, half-full is now half-empty.
And the feeling is just as bad as the little Rochel trapped under her cup warned it would be. The reality is so different from my expectation. The contrast is too great.
And that disappointment lasts. It subsists for a day or two or four. But then slowly, the feeling of disappointment fades. I can’t grasp it in my palms anymore. It becomes more transparent. Lighter.
Life Happens. And then it moves on. Whether I’m ready or not, it continues. And that feeling becomes more and more distant.
And as I prepare for the next step, I frequently wonder… should I continue being the optimist? Is it worth it? Perhaps I should begin being a little more realistic?
Perhaps being a pragmatist would hurt less.
So far, the answer has always been yes. Yes. It’s worth it. And I continue doing the same things over and over again: I trust too much. I get too hopeful. I make myself too vulnerable.
Because right now, things are good. Right now. Things are worth trusting. Whatever happens in the future will happen, but right now, why not hope and believe and express?
Either way, the result will be the same. So I might as well live while I can.
And sometimes, G-d helps out. He’ll send a moment which reminds me what life is all about. Like last Shabbos.
The children repetitively apparated back and forth from the shabbos table to the kitchen, each time more drenched after having immersed themselves in the sink. And I watched as one stood on his toes in order to peer over the table edge and slowly, cup after cup of water and wine were spilled into one another and overturned upon his head.
And then my cup, which definitely still had a good five ounces of water in it, was gone as well. And there was laughter and there were soaking wet shabbos-shirts and there was a baby who slipped in the water on the floor.
And there was joy.
Because to these kids, it didn’t matter whether the glasses were half empty or half full. They didn’t care in the slightest. They weren’t analyzing the effects of how scrutinization of the level of the water and decisions about the direction the water was pointing might affect them and their lives and their futures.
They just saw a glass with water and knew that it could be fun. They just… lived. Because children are the true optimists.
Or… no. They know that optimism is overrated. Children are the true realists.
They know that there is no such thing as a glass which is half anything.
The glass is always full. It may be not be filled with water. It may not be filled with wine. But it is always filled with potential.
It is filled exactly the way it should be.
To end off with a blessing, because this blessing is related and makes me uber happy:
When Jews toast each other, we say ‘L’chaim’ – To life. One of the responses to the salutation is ‘L’chaim V’livracha’ – To life and blessings!
Another explanation for those words are ‘L’chaim V’leiv Racha’ – To life and a soft heart. Because as we go through life, we naturally become harder. Become more cynical. Become more… practical. As I said, we bury our optimism, slowly but surely.
Our vulnerable hearts suffer ischemia.
After all, our trust is often betrayed. Our hopes are often dashed. Our unfulfilled dreams leave us feeling dejected.
So we give each other the blessing – V’leiv Racha – may you regain and maintain your softness. Your belief. Your childlike instinct to believe in the future, in G-d, in the people around you.
May we all experience the revival of the dead tissue of our hearts to that which they originally were. To that which they are, deep within. Whole. Alive. And optimistic.