My Saturday morning walk was graced with beautiful weather. It was 28 degrees. The sun was high up and proud, radiating from above magical warmth to sun-deprived mortals such as myself. And as if out of respect for the good job the sun was doing, there was a searing quietness that dripped in the air. The sky was blue, so blue that I could see my own reflection outlined in the sky.
These kinds of days are far and in-between in Melbourne…even in summer so I drank it in as much I could. I went up the walkway near my house which runs along the railway tracks. I have a thing for railway tracks and so for me it was already a perfect walk.
Then I spotted a white butterfly frolicking atop a yellow flower. The contrast was so intense that I instinctively stopped to watch. There was so much goodness in that simple scene that the corners of my lips naturally curved into a smile, and the defensive brace I sometimes put on my heart every time I walk out of the house melted away. Lovely things went through my mind.
I am an optimist by nature. In the past, my optimism tended to lean more towards the naïve but the older I get, the more I’m growing into a more cultured and defined optimism – or maybe optimism is the wrong word entirely.
Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend and she feels optimism is the opposite of realism. We agreed to disagree 🙂
My dictionary defines optimism as “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favourable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favourable outcome.” It doesn’t mean you ignore the other side – the unfavourable side – but simply that your focus is on the possibility of things turning out alright.
However, the same dictionary has a second entry for optimism – “the belief that goodness pervades reality.” This is a more problematic definition because it’s not true at all. Goodness is not spread throughout all parts of our reality. We fight off negativity and disappointment almost on a daily basis. We often have to work hard to have any sort of sustained goodness. It is not freely floating everywhere we go. And to make it even more complicated – it is not a thing apart from us. We do goodness.
There is nothing wrong with being realistic. But, we need to remember that reality is made up of our responses to life. We as individuals and collectively, make up reality – what we do, what we say and how we behave. And because we are a mixture of good and bad, reality reflects what we are. Real life is not a string of lovely goodness nor is it a string of heartbreaking sadness. It’s a mixture of both.
I believe there is a way to be optimistic about life without enclosing oneself in a flowery cocoon and losing touch on reality. In fact, the very existence of optimism depends on a reality that is unstable, unpredictable and unreliable.
Optimism is the exercise of hope and therefore, must be rooted in something more tangible than our own feeble grasp on reality because the thing is, you can be optimistic and still have bad things happen. The only difference is the tone and type of attitude you have as you deal with those bad things. This is what optimism is for – to chisel the attitude and provide a cushion for the mind when disappointment hits. Without it, we easily succumb to disillusionment and despair. And this goes beyond superficial positive mantras. It’s an optimism that is born out of hope.
Watching that butterfly made me realise that it was far removed from a scene in the African Jungle, for instance, where the lion hunts down its prey; sinking its teeth into the vulnerable prey, killing it instantly. The two scenes are as different from each other as night and day and yet they are both reality.
Being optimistic doesn’t change reality. But it may very well change an individual’s reality because how you see something often determines how you respond and act.
I hope you’ll remember that the next time you see your white butterfly on a yellow flower.