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Can Too Much Optimism Blind Us?

Updated: Jun 22

TW: Fleabag Spoilers Ahead; Death; Grief.


The British tragicomedy television series, Fleabag helped me tone down my optimism level, to perceive reality for what it is. It acknowledged the ugly truth of life and I couldn’t have loved it any better for that. One of the many scenes of this show which stayed with me was when Fleabag while grieving her mother’s death tells her best friend, “I don’t know what to do… with the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it.” to which her best friend says, “I’ll take it. No, I’m serious. It sounds lovely. I’ll have it. You have to give it to me.” And later in the story, the best friend dies. It broke my heart but it made me face something which otherwise escapes my thought process because it is difficult to think of.

Even though growing up I got over my rose-tinted dreams, I still find myself clinging to a happily ever after against my conscious belief. And I think it has something to do with our fear of acknowledging the difficult truths of life. To save our perception of happily ever afters and sometimes to save it from getting any worse than as we see it, we deny the naked truth dancing in front of us.

Art by @ratsandlilies.art on Instagram

How often do the phrases “It will get better”, “You will be okay” leave our mouths when someone we know is grieving, without us really being aware of saying them? The words – better, okay are such relative terms, they might not mean the same thing in the minds of the consoler and the griever. What outrages me is the assurance that these phrases carry; for the person saying it and the one being addressed both know it to not be true but neither acknowledges it in the fear to make things any more uncomfortable. While I agree with what grief therapist, Meghan Devine says in this regard, as mentioned in Anna Sale’s essay, How To Make Your Small Talk Big. She says, “It was great to hear somebody tell me what I already knew to be true. It was a validation of reality.” This was when she was grieving the loss of her partner and came by a local bookstore owner while in line for coffee that he told her, “This is going to take a lot longer than anybody will tell you before you start to feel normal in any way again”. We inadvertently try to escape things from which there is no escape.

Roxane Gay in her piece The Case Against Hope says, “I don’t traffic in hope. Realism is more my ministry than is unbridled optimism.” Optimism, until it stays within the realms of reality, can do wonders. But once it starts to lose the sense of reality, the tables turn. Too much optimism leads us to the path of willful blindness. Ignorance is one thing but choosing to remain ignorant toward something because it is convenient is willful blindness. If we are willfully blind when a situation gets worse, we are standing in the way of making it better. If we choose to not see the wrong, how are we then to do what is right? So, between optimism and pessimism, we should be choosing realism.

Image by Alex Farfuri/Moment, via Getty Images

The saying “Hope for the best but be prepared for the worst” never gets old. And the preparation of ‘the worst’ can only begin once the possibility of ‘the best’ is put aside. If optimism stands in the way of our seeing things for what they are, then it isn’t optimism – it is denial. And the comfort it entails is transient. Do not fall for hope, instead perceive the real picture and then choose to be on its side.

The thing with viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses is that once you put them on, either you get obsessed with how everything looks or you are scared of what it might look like if you took them off. The next time someone tells “It will get better”, I want to add that “It will but not always.” At this point, I am reminded of what Kurt Vonnegut said to a graduating class “Everything is going to be unimaginably worse and is never going to get any better.” It is utterly pessimistic but it forewarns us. I am not trying to imply that things will always get worse by this. I am trying to be open to the possibilities that it could get better and worse.

Abstract Flower Art by Ann Powell

Many successful people are optimists and their stories are driven by the faith they carry. And I believe in the power of optimism but we need to be cautious that it doesn’t mislead us. Once the rose-tinted world around me melted, the glaring reality burned my eyes. If there is a choice of never having to take those glasses off, I do wish to make it. I do not wish to shelter under denial just to feel safe. Even with moist eyes blinking more than usual and blurry vision I am trying to see the picture for what it truly is.

References:

  1. nytimes.com/2021/05/01/opinion/sunday/covid-lockdown-social-small-talk.html

  2. nytimes.com/2019/06/06/opinion/hope-politics-2019.html

  3. ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_the_dangers_of_willful_blindness?language=en

  4. theemotionmachine.com/when-too-much-optimism-blinds-us

  5. calmmoment.com/wellbeing/why-blind-optimism-is-bad-for-you

  6. mashable.com/2017/08/25/dark-side-of-optimism

  7. hbr.org/2011/05/be-an-optimist-without-being-a

  8. bbc.com/worklife/article/20210427-how-optimism-bias-shapes-our-decisions-and-futures

Rushali Thacker (she/her) claims to have her unwavering love for sunsets, ice cream, and mountains. She'd be more than willing to spend her life in the mountains reading, writing, soaked in music, and never having to miss a sunset. You can find her on Instagram.

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