It’s hard not to be impressed by Volodymyr Zelensky’s optimism. Or Ukraine’s generally. They face such odds, such crushing brutality, such patent injustice; and yet he – and his people seem infected by it – continues to broadcast hope and confidence and optimism. For him it’s when Ukraine prevails, not if it does.
Is their confidence well-placed? Is there really any hope?
Optimism can be ridiculous at times. A compulsive form of denial and pollyannarism.
Many leaders in history have been like Zelensky. Mandela and Churchill come to mind (although the latter was also a renowned depressive and pessimist!).
When is optimism realistic? When is pessimism sensible? And where does reality sit – somewhere in between?
Nothing personal, but first I’m going to pour cold water on pessimism, sorry. Before optimism gets critiqued in Part Two.
Pessimism stifles possibilities and too often feeds depression. According to American psychologist and educator Professor Martin Seligman, “Depression is the ultimate expression of pessimism.” And it doesn’t have to be: it’s an attitude that can be harried out of the room. Depressives will decry this, and say depression can’t be helped, it’s imposed from without, it’s chemical, it’s situational …
There is validity in this, and I truly don’t mean to diminish anyone’s struggle with it or aggravate their vulnerability to it. But I will quote a piece relevant to the issue.
This is Martin Lloyd-Jones, influential twentieth century Welsh Protestant minister and medical doctor. He counselled people should wrestle with depression (and, by association, pessimism), to bully it out of the mind:
We must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us … the main trouble in this matter of … depression [is] that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self … Most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself … You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul, “… what business have you to be disquieted?” You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself, “Hope thou in God.” Instead of muttering in this depressed unhappy way.
If you can!
A pessimistic mindset needs to be recognised, and consciously and determinedly dealt to. Professor Seligman agrees (with Lloyd-Jones), that we can change our mode of thinking:
The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last … will [happen again, frequently], and are their own fault. Optimists, confronted with the same hard knocks, … think in the opposite way … defeat is just a temporary setback … Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge, and try harder.
Mandela knew this, and overcame. So did Churchill, a depressive. Perhaps Zelensky will too, but only future events can vindicate his optimism, and confirm him as a Churchill or a Pollyanna. Because unwarranted optimism can be problematic too. (On which, and for an unpacking of ‘pollyannarism’, don’t miss Part Two.)
Meanwhile, reflect on these:
Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. (Nelson Mandela)
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. (Winston Churchill)
The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present; … it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
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