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Optimists and Their Kryptonite: Why Blowing Sunshine Doesn’t Always Work

Just because I normally see my kombucha bottle as half full doesn’t mean I don’t get sad when it’s empty. 

Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

A large portion of optimists I know tend to be funny, super friendly, or both. One friend said she’s the funniest on social media when she’s depressed or going through muck. 

Another posts closeup pics of calm objects and events even though her life is falling apart behind the scenes.

I belong to the optimistic lifers club. And I married a pessimist. Of course I didn’t know he was a pessimist when I walked down the aisle, but I figured it out pretty quick. 

He says assuming the worst makes more sense because then if the situation turns out better than he thought, it’s like a Christmas bonus.

Okaaay… I see what you’re saying. But the negativity….

Two-and-a-half decades later, he continues to call himself a realist. At the end of the day, who’s right? And at the end of the next day, does it matter?

Optimist: “The glass is half full.”

Pessimist: “The glass is half empty.”

Realist: “Yep, that’s a glass alright.”

Engineer: “The glass is twice as big as it needs to be.”

Idealist: “One day, cold-fusion from a glass of water will provide unlimited energy and end war.” 

Accountant: “Does the glass really need all that water?”

Quantum Physicist: “The glass has a 50% probability of holding water.”

Philosopher: “If no-one looks at the glass, who’s to say how full or empty it is?”

Mom: “Who put the glass here?”

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The Optimist’s Kryptonite

I used to think being an optimist was better, happier, and more logical than the other option. 

  • Why would it ever be a terrible thing to operate as little miss congeniality? 
  • I see silver linings in almost everything; why not share them? 
  • There’s so much negativity in the world—wouldn’t everyone like to be reminded of the bright spots?

Over the past few years I’ve learned how the downside of optimism can tend to be… umm… I don’t know… confusing? Annoying? Misguided?

My kryptonite might look like humor when bad news hits, denial when tragedy strikes, or withdrawal when shame rises. And that’s just when I have to deal with my own junk. 

When someone calls to tell me they’ve been diagnosed with a non-curable disease, my old reaction might have included all the upsides, pointing out how at least it’s not terminal, and gently recounting the things we still have to be thankful for.

Seems logical in the moment, but ouch. Does my optimism get in the way of being able to sit with someone in the middle of their misfortune?

And when my friend calls to tell me her dad is dying, I don’t need to follow my, “I’m so sorry” with, “At least he lived a good life,” or, “At least he’s going to heaven.”

Sit in her grief. 

Shut your mouth. 

Let it be awkward.

Some of you might remember my story of having a miscarriage before our first son was born. The first thing one of my friend’s said was, “Well, at least you know you can get pregnant.”

*sigh*

I know she was trying to look on the bright side, but it didn’t help. Pretty sure that’s when I vowed to never try and cheer someone else up with, “Well, at least….”

In the past year I’ve been intentionally paying attention to my emotional intelligence. Do you know yours?

noun “The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

… to recognize my own emotions and those of others.

… to communicate effectively and empathize with others. 

Do I recognize the emotions of my friends and let their sadness soak awhile? Or do I interrupt and plow through with a bible verse, blowing sunshine and telling everyone it’s all gonna be okay? Am I able to empathize with others without trying to cheer them up or change the subject?

I need to remember that masking my emotions with happiness and positivity isn’t genuine or productive. And when I read how emotionally intelligent people employ negative and positive emotions intentionally in the appropriate situations, I knew I wanted to be more like them. 

Sitting with friends and family in their grief might not come naturally for those of us who tend to deal with awkward situations with humor or unicorns and rainbows. Some of us need to practice the art of leaving space to be sad for a bit. Giving ourselves permission to go there could feel unnatural, but giving our people space to grieve and process is crucial.

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Not in Front of, Next To

A short while ago a small bomb got dropped in my lap. In an attempt to show support during this rough patch, a friend offered these words:

“I have been dragged through Jesus’ lovin’ circumstances… not like Job, but close enough. There is no rhyme and no reason. I am not offended at anything we have in common.”

Their attempt worked. Not cheering me up, not offering a joke, and not showing me the bright side felt perfect. And though I chose not to share my angst with this person, the solemn encouragement resonated. 

I didn’t need anyone to pull up a chair in front of me, stare me in the eyes, and tell me what I already knew.

  • I already knew God was still on the throne. 
  • I already knew I was eventually going to be ok. 
  • I already knew I still had a boatload to be thankful for. 

But when someone pulls up a chair by my side and stares straight ahead with me, I know I’m not getting a lecture or well-meaning advice. I’m getting a friend. 

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Optimistic, Pessimistic, Humanistic

Does being optimistic make me more fun to be around and help me live longer? Maybe. 

Does being pessimistic make my husband more realistic? Possibly.

Would our world be better if we all flexed to the middle and chose to be more humanistic? Yep. 

I’m writing this from the heart of the redwood forest, and I love the strong confidence of these beasts. They’re not worried about all the chaos in the world. They just stand tall, rooted and growing.

I don’t think it matters if you’re naturally a pessimist or an optimist. What matters is how you operate with the personality God gave you, how you treat people, and how you continue to grow. 

I still have so much necessary growth. I pray I never get to a point where I think I have it all figured out. I want to be like these redwoods: rooted and growing. Confident and curious. Established and advancing.

No matter your translation preference, may we all keep Romans 12:15 in mind:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (NASB)

“When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow.” (TLB)

And if you need to chat, find a friend with an extra bottle and pull up a chair. I might be an optimist, but I won’t be offended by anything we have in common. 

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