Monthly Archives: October 2013

In Defense of Realism

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(Yeah, I put a picture of Mark Twain up.  If you google “famous realist”, his name is one of the first to come up.  Explains why he’s one of my favorite authors, and why I love his quotes.)

Anyway, here’s a thing that happened.  And some other stuff.

In 8th grade French class, we were learning the words for “optimist” and “pessimist” (“optimiste” and “pessimiste”, quelle surprise!).  My teacher asked us to answer with which way we would describe ourselves, and after 10 responses of “je suis un(e) optimiste” before me, that familiar seat dripped down my neck.  Most people who know me probably would not describe me as an optimist.  I don’t love everything, or everyone.  That sounds exhausting.  But I didn’t want to be a pessimist, either, and I don’t really think I am one. 

When the teacher called on me, I shrugged.  I told her that I didn’t see the glass as half-full OR half-empty.  I just thought that there was half a glass.  Just the facts, please.  “Ah,” she said.  “Tu es une realiste!” 

“Uh…oui?”

So there I was, the only realistic in a class full of optimists.  I probably should have been used to that feeling by then, but for some reason, I don’t know that I ever was, or ever will be.  I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo.  A nerd, without any of the hobbies that normal nerds seem to have (which is another subject for another post).  But this time, it felt like I was weird AND wrong.

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of messages from all over the place that optimism and positive thinking are the be-all-end-all for how to do life.  And, to some extent, I get it, or, at least, I get the intentions.  Positive thinking can lead to positive things.  If you think you can write an awesome paper, you’re more likely to be motivated to do so, but if you think you will write an awful paper, you will probably not try very hard.  Higher expectations=more potential for better results.  And I generally agree that thinking negatively about everything all the time is a harmful practice.  But!  There are a lot of things that a positive attitude can’t fix.  And, let’s be honest, loving everyone and everything all the time is exhausting, and impossible.

Let’s say you find out you have terminal cancer.  Can being an optimist cure that cancer?  Not so much.  Can it help you deal with it more productively?  Maybe.  But sometimes, in order to do that productive positive thinking later, you need to feel really angry or sad or terrified first.  You need to throw things at a wall or sob uncontrollably for 29 straight hours.  It’s cleansing, I swear. 

In fact, that kind of stuff helped me deal with my last breakup.  Yes, I get that a breakup is not as bad as cancer.  But let me up the ante a tiny bit.  While going through said breakup, I was also going through a fairly deep depression and some anxiety attacks after moving back to a state I didn’t feel I still belonged in, to a grad program I felt out of place in, and was now, as I saw it, being rejected by the person I had most relied on in the few months prior.  I was in a pretty bad place, and positive thinking couldn’t really get me out of it (and I would argue that it can’t help most people who are clinically depressed).  If anything, it made things worse.  Why do I feel like this?  I would wonder.  Why are other people able to get over these things easily and move on?  Why am I not as strong?  And on and on.  This cycle of questions would usually cause me to feel worse about myself and my situation, because I thought that by not handling it in the “positive” or “strong” ways I saw or read about others doing, that I was doing it wrong. 

But here’s the thing.  There’s no right or wrong way to deal with a breakup.  Or with grief, for that matter.  (Okay, killing someone would probably be the wrong way, but I think you know what I mean).  Whatever way YOU need to deal with it is the right way.  If pretending to be doing fabulously works for you, do it.  If weeping publicly helps, weep publicly.  And if burning pictures of your ex, punching holes in your wall, and writing angry notes helps, to hell with what others think about those things, just do them.  As long as you are not somehow hurting someone else, you can pick whatever stages of grief you want in whatever order you want them.  You can add your own stages, like numbness or nausea or obsessive nail filing.  There are no rules, and no one can tell you that there are. 

I also hear a lot about thinking positively so that larger social changes can take place.  Again, this seems logical in some ways.  You have to recognize positive things in order to know what direction to go in.  But once we get into the realm of politics and government in our country, blind optimism seems not only stupid but ineffectual.  It’s great to recognize the good things people do, and to consider those things newsworthy.  But to stay positive is to ignore the suffering of many, whether it be through genocide, poverty, or unequal rights.  The job of a realist is to know the facts, to examine the details of the situation.  We don’t exist to annoy people, or to bring everyone down.  But in order to know what you CAN accomplish, you also need to realize what you CAN’T.  You need to set goals that are realistic so that you can meet them and be encouraged to do more.  If you set impossible goals, you will most likely be disappointed and eventually give up.  Humans have limitations.  We tend to think of that as purely negative, but being aware of those limitations means you can strategize.  You can work around them.  You can find other people whose strengths are in your areas of weakness.  We need to recognize that there are problems, and know what they are before we can fix them. 

People tend to call me and others who criticize our country/government out as pessimists, or as folks who hate America, which annoys the heck out of me.   There’s a great Twain quote out there for this:”Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”.  Yes, that.  You can love your children without supporting every choice they make, every jar of paste they try to eat.  Being critical sometimes doesn’t make you a bad person, or a negative person.  It makes you a realistic person.  And sometimes those realistic people are the ones who know how to fix shit.

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