You can break all personality types down into one of three categories: glass half full, glass half empty, and WHAT THE HELL’S IN THIS GLASS? I ORDERED GIN! You might think the first group are the ones you would most like to surround yourself with. Wrong. Unflagging positivity can be grating, and you really won’t know this until you have it in your life on a regular basis. I don’t trust irksome folk who are always upbeat – in my limited experience of them, they are either inconceivably dull, or sneak out at night to put cats in wheelie bins. I don’t trust anyone who is happy all of the time.
Irish people tend to have a healthy mix of optimism, pessimism and acceptance – they can be positive (hell, in summer we are the largest consumers of ice cream and paddling pools per capita in the world*), but with a healthy dose of sobering cynicism (“Sure what did we expect?” we say as we shiver in our paddling pools eating ice cream in July).
Optimism makes the world go round. It’s what makes bright people buy lottery tickets on a weekly basis, despite knowing that they have a higher chance of being struck by lightning than actually winning the jackpot. It’s opening your letterbox and hoping for something other than bills and pizza flyers, even though you haven’t ordered anything from Amazon so you know it’s unlikely. It’s losing your job, but realising that you hated it anyway, and that this might be the kick up the backside you needed to find something else. It’s one long, lingering hope that tomorrow will be at least as good as today, but hopefully better. It’s also responsible for some of the most irritating and well-worn idioms we hear when well-meaning folk don’t know what else to say; “Every cloud has a silver lining” (yes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still rain on you), “Plenty more fish in the sea” (what? Have you not read about the ever-growing problem of overfishing??), “What’s for you won’t pass you”, (thanks, but that was my bus that just flew by). I could go on as there is an optimistic motto for every occasion – in fact if you’re really lucky, you may meet someone in a post office queue who speaks entirely in such jargon.
I think we’ve established that I err on the side of sarcasm, which is the friend optimism loves to hate, but secretly needs. Humour is important to most of us - in one way or another - and pessimism tends to abound in comedy. You won’t find many stand ups who trade in optimism, because the currency of comedy is usually reassurance in one form or another. We watch sitcoms and comedians because we want to laugh and remember that our lives aren’t so bad after all.
Oscar Wilde put it succinctly when he said “The basis of optimism is sheer terror”. We are optimistic because often the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. We want the weather to be good on our holidays, that job interview to go well, and the doctor to call back and tell us the results were negative. But of course, sometimes our optimism is not rewarded, the ultimate example of which is currently being felt on a global scale after the inauguration of the most infamous man-named-after-a-fart in history. Trump’s accession to the US Presidency briefly turned us all into that third personality type – the glass wasn’t half empty, it was suddenly full of rancid milk. All at once the entire world’s optimism evaporated and we were left floundering in the dust, glued to the news and wondering how on earth this happened? But the most interesting and wonderful thing about optimism is that (because we are human), it cannot be obliterated completely. It will always, always reappear in a different guise. Over the last couple of months since this seismic political shift, we have seen the rise of a new optimism which is here to stay. The formidable women’s marches all over the world; closer to home, the repeal movement, taking the homeless crisis into our own hands and a very tangible new politics where we are all standing up to be counted. Our glasses are filling back up again and we are making sure that tomorrow will be better…. Hell, let’s all go play the lotto and buy ice cream.
*this statistic has no basis other than my imagination.
Originally published in Image Magazine, May 2017