Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out. ― John Wooden
Sick Because of Optimism?
The other day I received the strangest insult… I was accused of being an optimist. How odd, I thought to myself; just how pessimistic must one be to view optimism as a character flaw?
I repeated the story to my sister later that day on the phone, “Who would consider using ‘optimist’ as a derogatory term?” I asked. But then I recalled a memory, an event that happened more than 35 years ago and something I had not thought about in almost as long… my grade 8 teacher called me a Pollyanna. It was meant as a put-down and that is how I had taken it. If you have not read the children’s book by Eleanor H. Porter (1913) or seen the Disney film (1960), Pollyanna was an extremely optimistic orphan girl, who played the ‘Glad Game’ which helped her maintain perspective and remain positive. Nevertheless, I had been insulted and did not wish to be viewed as a Pollyanna. Reflecting upon the interim years, however, I realize that I have often been accused (and sometimes praised) for my optimism and tendency to look for the silver-lining when confronted with a negative situation.
The Pollyanna Principle
As it turns out, there is a theory referred to as the Pollyanna Principle, based upon Porter’s character. According to Wikipedia, “Research indicates that at the subconscious level, the mind has a tendency to focus on the optimistic; while at the conscious level, it has a tendency to focus on the negative.” Apparently, the principle does not apply to those who suffer from anxiety and depression – those so afflicted may have more negative subconscious thoughts, such that they recall negative experiences in greater detail than positive ones.
Should I take being optimistic as an insult? Perhaps, insofar as when I received my disease diagnosis I chose not to do a lot of research into my illness. I have a fairly obscure autoimmune disease called scleroderma. When I looked it up on the internet I didn’t like what I saw, so I chose to expect my disease would manifest in only its mildest form and left myself completely in the care and advice of my doctors. It is impossible to know if being a little more pessimistic and questioning my doctors would have made any difference, but like the ostrich, I could very well be accused of burying my head in the sand while the pessimist may have done more research and been more proactive in understanding their disease.
The label of optimist seemed to indicate that I was not a realist, when in fact I identify more closely with being a realist than an optimist. That being said, I sense the two need not be mutually exclusive. For example, mine is not the first serious illness in my family. Over the years of fears and alarms I have evolved in my thinking; rather than panic at bad news as I once did, I consciously decide not to worry until I know there is something to worry about. In my experience, things often worked out better than one might have first assumed upon receiving concerning news. My mantra had become to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Of course, being a serial procrastinator, I have often slipped-up on the ‘worst case’ preparation aspect of things!
Does optimism indicate the development of a stronger connection between the conscious and subconscious mind? I haven’t the slightest clue. What I believe at this point is that it is a gift that has gotten me through some tough times and has sustained me throughout my illness. Does it mean I am always happy or that I never get angry or irritable? NO, DEFINITELY NOT! Like most people, I have been through some dark times in my life: anger, sadness, anxiety and even a period of depression in my youth. When I think about it, the beginning of the end of that depression so many years ago was a vivid dream. It was as if my subconscious spoke so strongly that my conscious mind was forced to take notice. I am beginning to see that I may well be an optimist and that optimism has helped me through and gives me hope now.
This is a new Blog, and it is my first. I have been encouraged by several people to share my experiences so I am going to give this a try. My idea is to explore concepts such as being sick or disabled with optimism, being sick because of optimism, or the growth or loss of optimism through experience. I would also like to share details of my illness and my journey seeking better health, a stem cell transplant or a remission of some sort. I think it will be therapeutic to articulate these thoughts, but my great hope is that it will help others in some way on their journey.