Monday, January 30, 2012

The Art of Optimism

Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon

"...I've found that there is always some beauty left--in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself, these can all help you.  Look at these things, then you find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance.  And whoever is happy will make others happy too.  He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery!"
--Anne Frank, from The Diary of Anne Frank

An elderly gentleman in our neighborhood recently passed away.  In his obituary, it indicated he had been a member of the Optimist Club.  I had never heard of this club, but found the idea intriguing.  So, I started thinking:  am I a glass half-full or a glass half-empty kind of person?  Would I be a candidate for membership in an Optimist Club?  In actuality, the real Optimist Club is a service oriented club where adults work to empower young people by mentoring them in service opportunities.  But what if it were a club where membership was based on attitudes?  Would you be able to gain membership? Something to think about.  And to entertain yourself while you are debating if you yourself are an optimist, here are a book and two movies you may want to try.

I took this book off my shelf and re-read it this week because of its title:  The Optimist's Daughter,   This novel by Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972.  It is the story of  Laurel, an adult woman living in Chicago, who travels to be with her aging father in New Orleans, where he has gone for medical treatment.  Laurel's mother passed away previously, and her father has married a much younger woman named Fay.  Laurel's father passes away, and Laurel travels back to her small Mississippi hometown with Fay.  Fay is a shrill character, and seems incapable of any depth of understanding.  Laurel, meanwhile, explores her childhood home, stumbling across many memories, and coming to some realizations about her parents, and herself.  Was Laurel's father really an optimist?  The story indicates he became one during her mother's illness.  Do we put on a false optimism when faced with difficulties?  As I re-read this novel, I concluded that it really isn't about optimism as much as it is about the difference between the past and our memories.  Welty concludes that the past is impervious--that it just exists and "can never be awakened."  Memory, however, " the somnambulist" and wanders into our lives "demanding its rightful tears."  Laurel's journey home is a journey into not only making peace with her past, but also taking possession of her memories.  This is a wonderful book and is a quick read.

Reading about the Optimists' Club also made me think of optimism in entertainment.  Pollyanna comes to mind as an optimistic character, as well as Little Orphan Annie singing "The sun will come out tomorrow."  What about more recent offerings?  Several years ago, Will Smith starred in "The Pursuit of Happyness."    This movie portrays a down-on-his-luck young father (real-life Chris Gardner) who, in the midst of extreme financial difficulty, loses his girlfriend and his home.  On the streets with a young son in tow, he works hard in a competitive internship to make a better life for himself and his son.  The odds are stacked against him, and this movie has some tense moments as Chris tries to keep his son safe on the streets of San Francisco.  The acting is solid and the movie is based on a true rags-to-riches story. Overall, it is a story of someone who succeeds out of sheer hard work and determination...and this message has resonance today.

I also enjoyed the 2011 movie, "Larry Crowne."  Tom Hanks plays Larry, who loses his job at a big box store.  Divorced, facing foreclosure, and unemployed, Larry seems to have as good a reason as anyone to be depressed.  The thing I found so admirable about the character is that he remains open to new things despite all of the bad things going on in his life.  He starts taking classes at a community college and is accepts a rather unlikely offer of friendship from a fellow student. He works hard in his classes and applies the things he is learning in his life. Larry takes a job at a diner.  He had been a cook in the Navy, and really didn't want to return to that line of work, but wasn't afraid to do what was necessary to stay afloat. There are so many times during this story where Larry could complain or get upset, and yet he stays positive and works his way through difficult circumstances.  Despite what could be depressing subject matter, this movie succeeds as a warm comedy, with a delightful group of supporting characters.

So, back to the whole glass half-full/half-empty thing.  I don't necessarily think I am pessimistic.  I prefer to think of myself as a realist.  Sometimes it is easy to confuse the two.  I think, as a young Anne Frank advised, if we recognize beauty in life we can keep our balance.  Cultivating optimism is worthwhile, and I do admire those whose optimism seems genuine.  If you aren't feeling particularly optimistic right now, watch a movie about someone who is, and see if it is contagious.  What are the things you do to lift yourself when you are feeling low?  Good luck this week being more optimistic!  You can do it!


  1. I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me! (thanks SNL) There is much truth to this idea. Henry Ford said "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." Attitude dictates a lot of your success in life I think.

  2. Thanks for sharing the Henry Ford quote. There is a lot of truth to it!