Optimist, Pessimist or Realist

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Are you an optimist, pessimist, or realist?  I have a good friend who always says that he leans towards being a “guy whose glass is half-full.”  I guess he is a pessimist.  I know I am married to an optimist, because whenever I say anything negative about anyone, she will provide a contrasting optimistic perspective.  I tend to believe that I lean towards pessimism.  I like to think that I am a realist.  When someone asks me if my glass is half-full or half-empty my answer will depend on whether my glass is being filled up or emptied.  Nevertheless, I suspect many would find that my blogs reflect a rather negative view of life and humanity.

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Climate Change:

Pessimist: “The end is near; the end is near.  We have destroyed the world with carbon pollution, and it is too late to do anything about it.  Nature magazine published a study which shows that Global Warming stated as early as 1830 CE.”

Optimist: “There is still time to do something about climate change.  Humanity has faced disasters before, and we always overcome them.  They thought that we would destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons, but we learned to use other strategies to deal with our differences.”

Realist: “Maybe we have just been lucky.”

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Corrupt Government:

Pessimist:  Politicians since the days of Plato and Socrates have always been corrupt.  There is no such thing as an honest politician.  Lying comes naturally to all politicians and the truth is only an inconvenience for most of them.  Politicians have become worse and worse over the years in terms of lacking morality and ethics.  They will always do what is expedient and they are all amoral.”

Optimist: “How can you make such a blanket generalization?  There have been many good politicians and many or them are very honest and moral.  Look at Marcus Aurelius, Rómulo Betancourt, Thomas Sankara, Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew, Jimmy Carter, and Muhammadu Buhari.  These men were all honest leaders who fought for the welfare of their people and did it selflessly.  They were capable, incorruptible leaders who made a real difference in the lives of their followers.

Realist: “You win some and you lose some.  On the whole, it would seem that we have more leaders like Trump than we do leaders like Gandhi.”

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Education:

Pessimist: “Pouring money into education is a waste of time.  Kids are learning less today than they did in the early days of public education.  Half the kids in school are bored.  Teacher turnover is at an all time high and classrooms are chaotic.  Parents do not support teacher discipline anymore.  Schools have become jails for most students who would rather be home.  Kids today do not see the value in education because parents do not.  Schools are just factories for the more privileged to come out and get the high paying jobs in society while the rest of the pack will work for Walmart or McDonalds.”

Optimist: “We live in a more educated society today then even twenty years ago.  Education has been responsible for raising the standard of living the world over.  People are living longer than ever because of scientific advances in hygiene, medicine, and public health.  Without education, we would still be dying in our mid-forties instead of in our mid-seventies.  Kids today learn different things then when we were in school.  They are more visually literate, and computers have been a new tool that students today are using to change the world for the better.”

Realist: “We seem to take two steps forward and one back.  For every pro about education today, there is a con.  For every pro about technology there is a con.  We need to have a broader perspective on change that will enable us to embrace new ideas and let go of old ideas that no longer work.”  We simply keep adding pages to school textbooks without taking any out.”

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I could go on and on with examples of the quite different outlooks that life provides us.  Who is right?  I doubt that we will ever really know.  Many of the old sayings exist to provide us with some direction on how to live.  A friend of mine tried to convince me that writing should be positive and inspirational.  His motto was, “You catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar.”  According to my friend, people will ignore writing that is too dismal and negative.  It is his opinion that writers should provide a path forward to growth and development.  I told another friend the other day that “hope without action is hopeless.”  It is not enough to just hope for change, you need to do something about it.  I like to think that my writings provide a path forward.

Nevertheless, we are all familiar with the concept of being too “Pollyannish.”  Someone who is too Pollyannish always sees the positive in everything.  Pushing the envelope on optimism they become extremists who see a bright spot in every dark endeavor.  We sometimes refer to these people as wearing “rose colored” glasses.  A realist would argue that sometimes a bright spot does not exist.

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My writing instructor, Dr. Wedin informed our class a few weeks ago that the story of Pollyanna, a 1913 novel written by American author Eleanor H. Porter, has been grossly misrepresented.  In common usage, a Pollyannish person is someone who is too unrealistic about life and its difficulties.  I decided to watch one of the many movies based on the novel and found a quite different interpretation of young Miss Pollyanna.  One that I assume was more in line with the novel.  In the movie, Pollyanna is a young girl who faces her share of joys and unhappiness.  However, remembering what her father told her, she always tries to find a bright spot in life regardless of how difficult things may be going for her.  Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centers on what she calls “The Glad Game,” an optimistic and positive attitude she learned from her father.

As a man who has leaned strongly towards pessimism for most of my life, I found myself admiring Pollyanna’s attitude and efforts.  They say pessimists live longer lives but optimists live happier lives.  There is something about pessimism that wears one down and tires others out.  Friends, family, spouses, siblings, and children all have a difficult time being around someone who is relentlessly pessimistic.  Just as hope without action is useless, pessimism without a plan to change things is depressing, gloomy and dreary.  Would you rather be around a pessimist or an optimist?

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But what about our third choice?  Would you want to choose a realist for a life partner?  Is this the Golden Mean that the Greeks worshipped?  I think not.  The problem with being a so-called realist is twofold.  The first problem is that realism must be based on a foundation of facts and evidence.  Herein, you can immediately understand the problem.  It is difficult if not impossible to obtain evidence that will prove irrefutable and reliable.  Life is full of lies, half-truths, unsubstantiated facts and impossible to find evidence.

The second problem with realism is that it is not useful without a path forward or some means of making sense out of reality.  Knowing reality is meaningless if you cannot do something about it.  Finding the best path forward always involves a number of decisions that go beyond the facts.  For instance, if I decide that my car needs a new engine, will it be more cost effective to purchase a replacement engine or buy a new car?  You might be able to work out an equation to make this decision, but I guarantee you that there will be several unknowns in your equation.  Every unknown impacts the outcome of your decision making.  Then of course, there are what we call “unintended consequences.”  Charting the unknown, even realists must go into mysterious territory.

So we arrive back to where we started.  Would you rather be an optimist, pessimist, or realist?  I would love to hear your comments on this question.  Please feel free to send me a reply.

Only send optimistic comments though.  😊

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jane Fritz
    Apr 11, 2021 @ 16:54:07

    Nice post, John. However, it strikes me that your arguments against being a realist are being made by a pessimist! I don’t buy them. Throughout most of my life I thought of myself as an optimist/realist, but the state of the world in the past few years has made it increasingly difficult not to be pessimistic about the direction mankind seems to have chosen. Self-serving greed wins out over compassion and the common good way too often.

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  2. Wayne Woodman
    Apr 12, 2021 @ 14:13:28

    I think you get Realism a little incorrectly in your final analysis and maybe confuse us with Fatalism. I think of myself as a Realist and realize that Reality has a way of improvising at times to throw a wrench in the works. However, I simply accept that as Reality, adjust and move on. Realism is based on facts and evidence but is also aware that life sometimes has different plans. SO the strength of a Realist is to be able to recognize this, adjust and move on.

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Apr 18, 2021 @ 13:59:16

      HI Wayne, thanks for the feedback. I will have to look up what I said and apply your thoughts to it. I had not thought of fatalism and I think you are right. I like to think of myself as a realist but I think I may often cross over into Fatalism. I wonder if Pessimism plus Realism can equal Fatalism? Would unintended consequences not identified be part of a realism perspective?

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