Pollyanna Part Three: Choosing Gladness

Very well, to complete this tri-series – which began as one but became three – let me lift the trophy and call it a famous rubber, the best of three.

I downplayed pessimism here, and up-played optimism here (with reservations); and now, third, to deflate any derision inherent in the dismissive term or label, ‘Pollyanna-ish’.

Optimism, of course, can be excessive and simply a denial of reality. Such a disposition is sometimes termed pollyannarism, after the children’s book Pollyanna (written by Eleanor Porter in 1913) and the subsequent 1960 movie.  When we think of a Pollyanna, we might think of someone who is foolishly optimistic or excessively happy.

But the book doesn’t really present Pollyanna in that light at all. It tells of a little girl orphaned when her father, a minister, dies. Her only relative is an unpleasant and severe aunt in Vermont who takes her in. But Pollyanna is an optimist who somehow manages to find a bright side to everything. Her favourite word is “glad,” and she plays something she calls a “Glad Game”, in which she tries to find something in every situation, no matter how bad, to be glad about.

For example, when she arrives in Vermont she mistakes the servant who meets her for her aunt. “Oh, Aunt Polly,” she declares, “I’m so glad you’ve come to meet me.”
“But I’m not your Aunt Polly,” says the servant. “She stayed home.”
After taking a moment to absorb this, Pollyanna beams and replies, “Well, I’m glad Aunt Polly didn’t come to meet me – because now I can still look forward to meeting her and I have you for a friend besides!”

Pollyanna’s cheerfulness eventually begins to transform her aunt into a pleasant and loving person, and, in fact, the whole town becomes a different place because of Pollyanna.

The real question of the book is — what is the substance in Pollyanna’s optimism?

The book was written from a Christian perspective, and there’s a tender chapter in the middle in which the town minister is discouraged, to the point of resignation. Things haven’t gone well at church, and people are critical and divided. One day he rides into the forest to ponder things; his spirits are lower than they’ve ever been.  Pollyanna is playing in the woods; sees him and notes his depressed expression.

“l know how you feel,” she says, as they talk.  “Father used to feel like that too … I reckon ministers do a lot.  My father grew mighty discouraged until he found his rejoicing texts.”
“His what?”
“Well, that’s what father used to call ‘em.  Of course, the Bible didn’t name ‘em that. But it’s all those that begin, “Be glad in the Lord”, or “Rejoice greatly”, or “Shout for joy”, and all that, you know – such a lot of ‘em. Once, when Father felt ‘specially bad, he counted ‘em.  There were eight hundred of ‘em.”
“Eight hundred!”
“Yes.  That told you to rejoice and be glad, you know; that’s why father named ‘em the ‘rejoicing texts’.  Father said that if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it …”

That’s pollyannarism.  See – a slightly different spin than the modern idiom tends to give it.  We learn that her cheerfulness wasn’t really an air-headed escape from reality into the fanciful world of contrived positive thinking. It was instead a simple childlike confidence, learned from her father, trusting God and rejoicing in all life’s ups-and-downs. Seeking things to be thankful for even in the least promising of situations. (She is paralysed in a fall from a window.)

This is a bar all eyes might fix upon.  Optimism, generally, and pollyannarism specifically are a hopeful, tentative confidence based on gladness or gratitude for any little thing we can identify, and a God who “works all things for the good of those who love him”, despite how those “things” might look (Romans 8:28).

There is sound cause for hope in the direst of times.

Ken F

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