Optimist, Pessimist, or Something Else

“God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.”
Paul Valéry

An optimist expects things to work out for the best. A pessimist expects them to work out for the worst. A pessimist must bear the burden of persistent worry. Even when life is good, the pessimist anticipates a turn for the worse. The best moments can be spoiled, or missed entirely by a worrisome, pessimistic outlook. The pessimist has the consolation of frequently being right, because life will bring us plenty of what we don’t want, but the price they pay is anxiety, sadness, and perhaps depression.

From the pessimist’s point of view an optimist is fooling him or herself, because bad things do happen. The natural course of events is not necessarily the course we would choose. An optimist, however, has faith. It may be faith in him or herself to turn around a bad situation. Or it may be the faith that whatever happens is an opportunity to express or be attuned to God’s will. (For “God’s will” you could substitute the phrases “the Tao” or “natural law” if you prefer.)

From a strictly practical point of view, optimism is a wiser choice, because it allows us to give up worrying. A pessimist may be right, but is usually miserable. When we face life optimistically, even when bad things happen, we can feel relatively OK about them, because we assume that conditions will improve.

Faith requires the ability to trust. A person of faith trusts that an acceptable outcome can be fashioned from any circumstance. Such a belief can arise from one’s own confidence. In this case, trust is placed in one’s own ability to adapt, survive, and thrive, even in adversity. On the other hand, the trust may be based on a belief that good will triumph over evil, or that the world or spirit will naturally help us attain a higher good. Faith may rest upon trust in God. This faith in God usually includes the belief that God loves us and wants us to succeed.

This can get tricky, because if we take this personally, what may we think when bad things happen to us? Does it mean we have sinned and we are being punished? Does it mean that God doesn’t love us anymore? If our faith rests upon the assumption that we are favored by God and He will take care of us and protect us if we do His will, we are on shaky ground when things go wrong, which as our pessimistic friends will tell us, they surely will.

Perhaps a more solid position would be an openness to whatever comes our way with a sense of equanimity. When we assume a position of non-attachment, we can observe the world as it is, without a filter of optimism or pessimism. When we meet with fortune or misfortune, we can accept it, not as proof that the world or God is for us or against us, but as an expression of the way things are. Any event is the result of the causes and conditions that led up to it. Some causes and conditions may be within our control. Many are not. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. But if we can accept the premise that there is no winning and losing, that life is just as it is, we can stop worrying about losing and quit keeping score.


As events unfold this week, observe your process. How much energy are you giving to worry? Check your body for signs of tension and stress. Is your stomach in a knot? If it is, notice the quality of your thoughts. Are you engaging in anxious thought? Remind yourself to breathe more slowly and deeply.

Practice sitting with an open mind. Cut off the ruminations about problems. If you have a solution to a problem, write it down, but resist the inclination to repeatedly work over your problems when there is no apparent solution. If you are unable to fix a problem, practice accepting conditions as they are. Sit with your awareness of reality as it is without resentment that it is not as you wish it would be.

In a separate process, ask yourself, “What is the lesson in this experience?” “What can I learn from my life today?”

Practice letting go of concepts of the self as a limited entity. Ideas of self or ego as a separate entity are illusion. Consider that your trials in life may be an opportunity to transcend your notions of the self.

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© 2001 Tom Barrett