SummaryWith optimism, believe that God asks each of us to do something we are uniquely qualified to do and with gratitude accept the tools he gives us to do it.
This New Year’s I resolved to read at least six old classics unfamiliar to me. I started with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe which, after I’d grown accustomed to the somewhat archaic language, proved both fun and inspirational.
Next up on my list was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Devils. I’d read several of his novels and taught Crime and Punishment in several of my AP Literature homeschooling seminars, but as I was hacking my way through the thicket of Devils, I wondered what had possessed me to choose a novel nearly a thousand pages long and filled with a myriad of characters and confusing names. Written 150 years ago, this novel about Russian radicals and revolutionaries has much to say to our own time, but the story isn’t exactly a walk on the sunny side of the street.
Meanwhile, I daily look at various online news sites for ideas for articles I write for other publications. Two hours or so a day, I read about the mess and ugliness in our political and cultural realms. Not much sunshine in this endeavor either.
I needed a change, some sort of reading to brush away the dark clouds and brighten my spirit.
And that’s when I met Pollyanna Whittier.
The Girl and the Glad Game
I was reading Rachel Hollis’s self-help book, Didn’t See That Coming: Putting Life Back Together When Your World Falls Apart, for review for the Smoky Mountain News.
At one point, Hollis is talking to a friend, Greg, and apologizes for sounding “a bit like Pollyanna.”
Greg asks if she’s read Pollyanna, and when she says no, Greg explains that he has overheard his wife reading it to their children. He then says, “Pollyanna turns a negative into a positive at least a hundred times in that book. That’s not something to be ashamed of, that’s something to be proud of.”
And so I went in search of Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna and added a third previously unopened classic to my list of conquests.
Reading about this orphan girl who comes to live with her Aunt Polly and who brings with her the ‘Glad Game”, which Pollyanna introduces to an entire town, gave me some much-needed good cheer. No matter what their circumstances—loneliness, illness, severe disappointments—players of this game must think of something to be glad about.
By the story’s end, even the hard-hearted Aunt Polly has a conversion, telling Pollyanna, “The whole town is playing the game, and the whole town is wonderfully happier….”
I’d always heard “Pollyanna” used as a derogatory term applied to someone who is blindly optimistic, but as I explored this novel I began to wonder whether many of us don’t possibly qualify as blindly pessimistic.
Maybe we need a new pair of glasses.
As Catholics, we are surely meant to be glass-half-full people, believers who trust in the ultimate mercy and love of God, and His plan for each one of us.
Of course, we are also called to practice the virtue of prudence, a concept we might roughly sum up with that old adage, “Expect the best, prepare for the worst.” The man driving around on four bald tires may believe his car will get him to work no matter what, but sooner or later one of those tires is going to blow. We need to take some sort of realistic and prudent approach to all situations.
Nevertheless, optimism accompanied by realism beats pessimism hands-down. As David Isaacs writes in Character Building about optimism: “It means concentrating on the positive aspects of a situation rather than on its defects.
We must stress, however, that permanent optimism is possible only when we realize that God expects from each one of us something that no other individual can do, and provided we ask his help, everything can work to our advantage.”
Solzhenitsyn’s Glad Game
Sometimes we play Pollyanna’s game in retrospect. We look back at our lives and realize that a period of suffering—a failed business venture, the death of a loved one, the betrayal of a friend—has made us stronger and better than we were.
Here is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminiscing about the time he spent in the Soviet Gulag:
“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”
What is that reflection if not an example of Pollyanna’s Glad Game?
Undergirding optimism is gratitude.
Offering thanks, even in the midst of tribulation, acts as a bulwark against pessimism. That appreciation maybe for something big like a promotion at work or for something small, like a glass of wine that rounds out the day. Whatever the case, feeling grateful can act as a tonic to optimism.
For whatever reason, about six months ago I began offering up a prayer of gratitude every morning, usually while drinking my first cup of coffee. It’s pretty informal. I just thank God for another day, for my children and grandchildren, for other members of my family and for my friends, and for allowing me to be a part of this whirling miracle we call Planet Earth.
I live alone and usually say my gratitude prayer aloud, and every day the words of the prayer are different, but I’m grateful for the mysterious entrance of this prayer into my life. That time of prayer and remembering the names and faces of those I love kicks off the day with an upbeat mood. I only regret that I developed this habit so late in life.
The Saints and Optimism
Saints like Joan of Arc, Father Damien, Bernadette Soubirous, and Pope John Paul II all suffered trials here on earth. All the saints underwent some kind of hardship and pain, physical or spiritual. And each brought unique personalities to these battles. Just like the rest of us, our wonderful saints could be kind or querulous, charming or abrupt, humorous or sour.
But all of them had at least one trait in common: hope in heaven and a risen Lord. And what is hope if not another name for optimism combined with realism?
A final note: It happens that I am writing these words on Easter Sunday. Surely the great miracle of this day, the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His promises to us, is in itself a wondrous reason for optimism.