What is it that you are hoping for? Maybe you want to become a world class runner or an Olympic swimming champion. The current doctrine of ‘you can do anything you want to do’ implies that you will be able to do this. Sadly, if I wanted to be a world class runner, you would just see me waddle down the street; it would be good because hopefully I would get fitter and of course people seeing me try to run would laugh, but however optimistic I would make my ambition, it is not realistic. Perhaps I should strive to be that Olympic swimmer?

To go or not to go

Imagine the situation, you are driving in your new sports car up to a junction and there is a little traffic, so you pull out and drive off. Now you drive up to another junction, this time you are feeling optimistic, there is a little more traffic and so you pull out into a small space and are surprised when you are hit. Now imagine you are driving up to a junction, there is traffic and you think I can’t do this, you close your eyes and put your foot on the brake. You are frustrated and worried, the man in the car behind you gets frustrated. You try again, again you put the foot on the brake. The man in the car is now joined by others and they are starting to press there horn.

Helping others through sport

The other day I watched Sports Relief, where many people had done remarkable things in the hope that the money they raised would go towards helping many disadvantaged people thoughout the world.

Optimism in the face of adversity

One example of the remarkable for me was Jo Brand, who, like me, was a mental health nurse and recently she gave me a compliment, so I was particularly interested. What she did was walk from the North Sea through to the Irish Channel, across the Pennines. On one of the days the wind blew a lorry over, a short while later it was recorded that she was blown over. She got up and continued, then a few days later ended up in Liverpool. I got to thinking, was this her optomism in action? Personally I found it interesting that she became angry with the people around her, they did not take this personally but recognised her enormous effort. Her motivation was to raise money, she visited a couple of places along the way, like a MIND Day Centre and spoke about what a difference they were making. Another thing that struck me was that she had surrounded herself with a team of professional advisers, so her optimistic outlook was tempered with a realism and this helped her raise a lot of money for the cause.

Overcoming the odds

Another example was that of Eddie Izzard, who did 27 marathons in 27 days for the same cause. He picked 27 in celebration of the 27 years which Nelson Mandella spent prison. Another man who used an optimistic outlook, which resulted in a major change in society. His position was optimistic and realistic, placing challenges on people to change.

Another man who was the ‘voice to the voiceless’ was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a man of faith who believed people were inherently good despite seeing issues in society. He was to change his mind, when a couple of his Priests disappeared and were found dead on rubbish dumps. He spoke about injustices, he challenged the dictators to change and the soldiers to change. He received threats and his response was ‘if they kill me, I know I will rise again in the people of El Salvador’. In the same speech he declared forgiveness for those people who were going to kill him. A very short while later they shot him as he was giving communion to a number of nuns. He bled and died, but his legacy continues right through to today. This was his optimism tempered with reality.

What about the pessimists?

Turning our thinking to the skeptic or the pessimist, who will not try things, are they destined to fail? I hear you answer ‘yes’, but the real issue is the question. There are those who are pessimistic and realistic and this enables them to approach life in a constructive way, planning for things that may go wrong so that they become right.

I found it interesting, however, when I thought of optimists I could think of real life examples, when I thought of pessimists I could think of very few examples. Tony Hancock, the comedian who eventually committed suicide. Other pessimists were a few depressed people I had cared for, but their pessimism was only real when in the depth of their depression. Students who had failed exams, however, this group in particular can be seen to operate in realistic pessimism and complete further studies and then passing exams.

So which is better the doctrine of being an optimist who will win through, a pessimist who will never achieve or do we need to become realistic optimist or realistic pessimists, or even allow ourselves the options of being all three – realistic optomistic-pessimists – giving ourselves the ability to use either gift in our struggle for wholeness.

David Rawcliffe, MAPP


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

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