A friend of mine said something a couple of months ago that has really stuck with me. He’s a real straight-shooter … he’ll always give you the truth, not something to make you feel better. But he said this: “I am an optimist because I am a realist.”
So often, we think of optimists as idealists, but he contends the opposite. That to have a grasp on reality means seeing it for what it is, and eschewing both the overly rosy AND the worst-case scenario.
In Hannah Arendt’s classic book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” she begins by addressing this dynamic, writing, “This book has been written against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith.”
The presidential election of 2016 was traumatic for many people. First, it wiped out any trust we had in polling. This is significant. Polling has been a way of predicting the future through scientific means. It was not woo-woo, it was based on historically-based patterns and good old-fashioned math. Nonetheless, most models failed, and our trust in polls was eradicated.
And the election was traumatic because a candidate said many things that historically, would have doomed his campaign. And yet, via the electoral college, he won. It was a reckoning with who we thought we were as a country.
With trauma, our psychological response is to make sure we can’t be hurt again. The problem is, our brains don’t always use the healthiest mechanisms to do so. Superstition can weigh heavily, especially the superstition that says optimism decreases the chances of success. How often do we say, “I don’t want to jinx this, but ….”
With trauma, we may go a step further. We tell ourselves we will prepare for the worst. Sometimes, this “preparation” simply means we are spending time being worried and miserable for now reason. Other times, it may even increase the chances that the bad thing will happen, as it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As a church, we used to do this with our budget. Because in the early years there had been a financial trauma, we would create budgets that always forecast the absolute worst possible situation, spending the most money and receiving the least money. We would then be forced to pass a deficit budget, even though we hadn’t experienced a deficit in years. A few years ago, we realized we needed a budget rooted in realism, based on prior year’s experience. We moved into faith, not superstition. (Side-note: it’s budget time again. If you have not turned in your pledge, please do so right now. Help us to responsibly plan for next year!) https://forms.gle/24VPzfxw7sMBj3nc7
It is difficult right now to be an optimist-realist. We have little trust in the polls, and we are being inundated with threats about the reliability of our elections and the peaceful transition of power that has defined our democracy. After going through the trauma of seeing so many “unbelievable” things the last few years, we may be tempted to succumb to superstition, and to preparing ourselves for the worst.
But just as the negative can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, so can the positive. Speak of the strength of our country, speak of your expectation that the majority of U.S. citizens want fair elections, spirited but non-violent debate on issues, and ethical leaders. As we used to say in marketing, “Assume the sale” – do all the work that is necessary now (phone banking, serious conversations about voting with family members, having a plan for voting), but do so with the optimism that so many others are doing the same.
Be an optimist-realist.