Resiliency or optimism?


Today, in the wee hours of the morning as I sat drinking my cup of coffee, I stumbled upon an old blog of mine, kept between 2008 and 2011. It was quite entertaining. In it, I found myself making a multitude of dramatic statements about things I considered to be absolutes. Among them was this little gem:

“I’ll always be dramatic, I’ll always be a pessimist.”

The first part is indeed true. I am, and always will be, a bit of a drama queen. But that second statement made me cringe a bit, especially since I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. Since I’ve been into dictionary definitions these last couple days (at school, all my classes discussed the dictionary definition of the word ‘art’), let’s see what the dictionary says about pessimists!

Pessimism: A tendency to stress the negative or unfavorable or to take the gloomiest possible view. The doctrine or belief that the evil in the world outweighs the good.

Now, to be fair, let’s look at what Mr. Webster says about optimists!

Optimism: disposed to take a favorable view of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome. 

So what I’m wondering now, is, can you be both? Or neither? I, like many people in the world, do have a tendency to stress the negative in difficult situations. I get caught up in worrying about work, or the outcome of my efforts, personally and professionally. But, with the exception of a few depressive episodes I’ve been through, I don’t generally get stuck in front of the gloomiest possible view for too long. I may entertain it for a few days, grumbling about the situation and feeling like it’s impossible to improve… but. But, I always manage to improve it. Or, I at least manage to make an effort to do so. I have never believed that the evil in the world outweighs the good, and I can’t imagine ever deciding to think such a thing. It just seems… impossible. There is good everywhere! And beauty!

But on that positive note, I’d like to say I struggle with the idea of optimism, too. I’m often annoyed by overly cheery people, I feel like they’re simply not being realistic! I also dislike sugarcoating anything, or looking at a bad situation through rose-colored glasses. What the hell is wrong with looking at a bad situation and saying to yourself, “this is a bad situation”…? NOTHING. (Unless, of course, you get stuck there, trapped by your own statement, your own view.) But we’ll get back to that in a minute. I want to continue with my explanation for distrusting optimism: I suppose there isn’t anything inherently wrong with choosing (or simply being hardwired) to always look “on the bright side”. But, when you do, I can’t help but bemoan the fact that you’re missing HALF THE VIEW. It’s easy to “stay positive” when you don’t see all the gory details, or, when you ignore them or discount them. However, I believe there’s valuable information there, stories that need to be told, voices and truths that need to be heard and considered. If we always look on the bright side, we ignore half of existence, and we deny ourselves depth of experience.

The view I’m preferring to take these days is one of resiliency. Completely facing the truth of a situation, however negative or unfavorable, and accepting it. Not trying to change it or see it in a different or better way. Accepting reality, however ugly it is, and moving forward with your efforts anyway. Despite the conditions, despite how terrible or frightened you might feel, despite the fact that failure is a real possibility, but knowing that it’s not enough to stop you or make you step backwards. So now… what does the dictionary say of resiliency?

Resilient: Able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens: able to return to an original shape after being pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.: springing back; rebounding.

I’m not sure why that’s not the definition of optimism right there. To me, real optimism is getting stuck somewhere terrible, facing defeat or loss or seemingly endless struggle, and then finding the courage within you to pull yourself up and out of it. Finding the courage to choose to look on the bright side and hope for the best even though you know about all that other shit that could very well happen, or already has happened, or is still happening.

Yesterday marked the first day of a new school year for me. I teach middle and high school art in an urban district. Last year, our school was an absolute mess. I won’t go into details, but imagine the most chaotic school environment you can and then times it by five, and that’s how our school was. I crawled into a shell last spring in attempt to protect myself, and didn’t come out for a couple of months. Still, even while in shell mode, I continued to plug along (it wasn’t until the last month that I really went into burnout mode). I frequently visited another art teacher down the hall whose sense of humor I appreciated in my worst moods. I would angrily blurt out all of my frustrations for a few days, and then come back the next week to run over new ideas with him: I figured something out! I’d say cheerily, this might actually help! He once asked me if he could bottle my optimism for himself, but I laughed, assuring him I wasn’t a true optimist, and that bottling any energy of mine would result in at least a touch of madness.

And here’s the truth about all of my little ideas that I excitedly shared with him throughout those months of seemingly endless chaos and failure: none of them worked. Not really. Not the way I’d dreamed they would in my head. I’d come up with a packet or a plan or a project that I was sure would get the bad kids in line, and the good kids back on track. For a handful of kids, it worked, but for the large majority, it was another “no go”, another failed plan. And after each defeat, I’d slip into darkness for a few days, certain I was done, certain I was going to give up, certain I was the worst teacher ever, counting the days until my teaching career was over (there’s that drama I was bragging about before). But I couldn’t. It wasn’t so much a choice. Something in my brain, or perhaps in my heart, simply would not allow me to throw in the towel, no matter how tempting it was. The gears would start clicking again, and I’d come up with another possible solution to the myriad of problems I was facing. I cannot tell you how many times I went through this cycle of trial and failure. Heehee.

I can tell you that I ended the year burned out, not sure I could return after having faced such chaos, disarray, and personal defeat. Even this past Monday, despite being “ready” in my mind, I was not ready in my heart, or in my body. I was terrified. I imagined all the madness from last year, and I imagined it happening all over again, certain I wouldn’t have the nerve to go through another year of it.

And yesterday morning, sitting alone in my classroom before my first class? My veins flooded with excitement and possibility. I scurried around the room, nervous, but happily decorating, tacking up my color wheel and elements posters, hanging up inspiring quotes for the kids to read. A positive outlook returned to me; after two months of storminess and doubt, I again had hope that things might be different this year, and better.

It’s only been two days, and the honeymoon period has not yet come to an end, but, things will be different this year. I’m not sure I’ll feel more successful as a teacher (or for how many more years I’ll be a teacher), or if the school as a whole will be a more peaceful and positive place, but I do know that some part of me has shifted. For over two months, I stressed the negative, I took the gloomiest possible view. But. But! In the end, I chose to let it go. Now, I’m not recommending that anyone stew in their own negative mental landscapes for months on end, but don’t ignore them either. There IS valuable information there, and often truth.

Does that make me a pessimist? The fact that I got stuck in a negative place for a while? The fact that I value experiencing negative emotions? Or does my choice to let go of those negative fantasies and choose the positive outlook make me an optimist?

I’ll take neither. Both have qualities that are potentially foolish or annoying, or just plain useless, and I’ve never been keen on labels for any reason. But I will say this: I am very much impressed with reality. I have my ideals, and hopes and dreams, but reality is beautiful enough for me. This is something I learned four years ago when I was dating someone who was a total optimist: Because he lived in a dream world, and because he looked at everything through rose colored glasses, he missed so much of the beauty that made (and continues to make) my heart sing. Reality is luscious if you look at it closely enough (I can largely thank Ecuador for teaching me that). It is an astonishing thing that children in my classroom choose to have manners or work hard or stick up for someone else when it might mean getting made fun of, or when it’s a real possibility that there’s no one at home teaching them how to do the right thing, but they figure out how to do it anyway! That is beauty to me. The absolute joy I felt today when I got several “Thank you’s” in a row while handing out worksheets resulted in my blurting out to the class how much I LOVED all these good manners! Every other child said thank you, and enthusiastically. Yes, I am surrounded by negativity at school, and, yes, I see all of it. And, yes, sometimes I get trapped in it. But the light is always shining, too, and unless we’re turned to a corner, it always comes back to us.

I had one difficult class today that woke me up out of my own little dream, and I remembered: things will get difficult again this year. I am going to want to give up. I am going to have days that feel like they’ll never end. I’ll want to scream and cry and feel sorry for myself. I’ll question my ideals, and my sanity. I do not know for how long I will choose to be a teacher in the city schools, as I struggle to accept much of the new education reform, and I’ve always hoped to have my own business one day. But I do know this: while I AM teaching, I want to do my best, I want to do my part, I want to give something worthwhile to these kids… and because of that, I know I’ll manage to pull through every rough patch I encounter this year. Just like I always have (even when I used to call myself a pessimist!).

So, if I refuse to call myself a pessimist or an optimist now, what can I call myself? Hmmmm… Perhaps this: A resilient realist who chases her ideals, and with full knowledge of how seemingly unreachable or impossible they might be to achieve (in this lifetime, anyway!), but chasing them anyway. Why the hell else would I be here? Why would any of us?


PS: Because I tend to dramatize the negative, especially when it comes to my own abilities, fear not! According the the NYS teacher rating system (which isn’t very nice), I’m “effective”!! YAHOO!!!

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