I recently spent a few days reading the original 1913 novel “Pollyanna” and it's sequel “Pollyanna Grows Up”, both written by Eleanor H. Porter about young girl whose insatiable happiness greatly affects the citizens of a small town. (Yes, I'm a nerd, and what else is new?) And despite the fact that this young girl is clearly the hero of the stories, it made me reflect that nowadays when we refer to someone as a “Pollyanna”, it isn't usually meant as a compliment, but as a mild or backhanded insult.
Our current society seems to view robust and irrepressible optimism as a weakness, and dismisses it as coming from someone who is too silly, inexperienced or gullible to understand the “real truths”.
But I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what optimism is. Optimism isn't about ignoring reality and living in a fantasy of rainbows and unicorns. In fact it requires great strength of will and of character. It isn’t always easy, and it certainly isn’t passive. Optimism is a fierce battle of consciously choosing the perspective that is going to best serve you in your life.
I don’t think Pollyanna was simple and naive to reality. I think she was a badass who bent reality to her will. And here’s why:
1. She is a victim to nothing and nobody. No matter what happens to her, she takes it on her own terms, and on her terms only. She takes full responsibility for herself, and doesn’t wait for anyone else to tell her how she is supposed to think or feel. She decides what she wants, and then tries to get it, guilt and shame free.
2. She wholeheartedly and genuinely assumes the best of other people, which often is enough to entice others to give her their best. Her enthusiasm and passion for life are as contagious as the measles, which often persuades others to follow her lead. And even when they don't, well, see #1.
3. Pollyanna is not pretending to be an optimist. She is not foolish and unsophisticated about the way the world works. Rather she is more powerful than the world and literally (ok, figuratively) bends reality to her will. Whatever happens to her, she finds a way to look at it in a way that serves her and that gives her the feelings she wants to have.
4. She never accepts that her optimism is unfashionable or silly. She cannot be bullied or lulled into the pernicious pessimism of being a “realist”, and never pretends to be someone she is not. She faces the objections of others almost constantly but never even considers being embarrassed about who she is or what she wants.
5. She wisely gives herself the gift of believing that she is going to get what she wants. Most of us are terrified to do this. We think admitting that we want something is flirting with disaster, because if we “get our hopes up” it will hurt if we don’t end up getting it. So instead we stop trying, giving up on our dreams and desires, and give ourselves the hurt of not getting what we want even before we don’t get it. Pollyanna thinks hurting ahead of time, “just in case”, is a silly, naive thing to do.
6. Sometimes Pollyanna doesn’t get what she wants. Because, you know, that is just life. But she doesn’t throw herself into a fit of despair, convinced that her preconceived ideas of how things “should” have turned out are the only possible right answer. Instead, she takes stock of her new circumstances, and reevaluates what she now wants to do, given the new facts. There may be some brief sadness as she processes things, because sadness is a normal part of life and is sometimes worth honoring. But she doesn’t waste time on lengthy naval-gazing regret and self-pity that serve no purpose. She just feels what she feels, then adjusts her goals and perspective toward what she wants now.
7. Pollyanna fully acknowledges the things that happen to her, good and bad, and never pretends things are different than they are. But instead of indulging in continued (and useless) frustration and pessimism over the things she cannot change in her life, she focuses on the thing she always has control over – her thoughts and feelings – and gives herself exactly what she needs to feel the way she wants.
Chuck Norris might be able to take out all of his enemies with a look, but Pollyanna does him one better, and turns all of those enemies into friends and allies.
Pollyanna is exactly the kind of leader I want to follow. She sets the example of how I want to live my life. I don’t want to “protect” myself with pessimism. I don’t want to think that an excess of sarcasm and cynicism are enjoyable or fashionable. I just want to get what I want. And what I want is to be happy, and satisfied, and excited.
Pollyanna tells me that I can have that. Right now, today, no matter what else is going on. Which I think is pretty shrewd, savvy, and wise.
So go ahead. Call me a Pollyanna. I love getting compliments.