What’s in the Glass?

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. – Antonio Gramsci

When someone asks whether the glass is half empty or half full, I quite honestly have to say “I don’t know”. I mean, it depends on whether you just filled the glass halfway or had it full to the brim and drank (or spilled) half, right?

So I’m not sure how to answer the question of whether I am an optimist or a pessimist; possibly a little of both and it probably depends a lot on the day (similarly, I can score as an INFP or an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs, depending on how I answer a few of the questions). Like most people, there are days on which my glass is half, if not more, full (my glass runneth over) and other days on which it seems there is only the slightest bit of condensation on the outside of the glass.

What has kept the glass looking a little fuller is the ability to smile. I come from a family with a quirky sense of humor, and that ability to appreciate the absurd as well as laugh off some of what happens has helped the various generations even during some not-so-great life events. With humor comes resiliency, and we’ve been called upon  to be resilient a few times. Henry Ward Beecher once said, “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs; jolted by every pebble in the road.” Had he been born a century later, he could have been talking about some of my relatives.

A few years ago, my grandma (who was 81 at the time) fell while trying to cut down a tree in her backyard so that my 40-year-old aunt, who lives with her, wouldn’t get hurt doing it. She broke her hip and underwent surgery. Of course, when people are that age, falls are a bit worrisome. My mom freaked out and called all the relatives in Phoenix frequently.

When all was said and done, Grandma made it home from the hospital and carried her walker across the living room, putting it in the corner and out of her way.

A few weeks later, my mom and I went to Arizona to see her. I had a newborn at the time – her first great-grandchild – and, as she sat him on her still-tender lap, he farted. “He shot me!”, she gasped. She’s still alive, at almost 89, and is still just a bit nutty.

While I think that humor can be a form of optimism, I believe that optimism is a kind of bravery. I love it, for example, when I hear of cancer patients’ families and friends, proudly exclaiming that they are going to “kick cancer’s ass!” It’s a somewhat humorous thing to say (at least it puts a funny image in my mind), and even if cancer ultimately wins the fight, the fact that the patient and his or her loved ones went after it with a winning attitude makes the situation, I think, at least a tiny bit more palatable.

On the other hand, I see a correlation between pessimism and fear.

I was walking back to my car with a couple of friends and we were talking about being easily startled. One of them guessed – correctly – that something traumatic had happened to me when I was a kid. Without going into details, I learned from a very young age that this was something that could happen at any moment, so I walked on eggshells for several years, living in dread. Over time, I learned that it was also somewhat unpredictable and that I had little control of the situation. So during those years, I believed that my life would always suck and I could do nothing about it.

Thankfully, I outgrew the situation but carry the ghosts of childhood trauma with me. I became a more or less functioning adult, with a family, a good job, a house, and great friends. Occasionally, I will react viscerally to something and expect the worst but end up being relieved when nothing really happens. The next time I’m in the situation, I may have a little more faith that things will work out better, and because I’ve been there before, I’ll have the experience to back up this belief.

And that, I believe, is true optimism.

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