What do you do when the situation is beyond your control? How can optimism help you when the future if loaded with uncertainties?
At the height of the Second World War millions of people found themselves incarcerated in prisons and detention camps under very trying circumstances. In these trying times they found themselves confronted by some of the questions we posed above. There were two types of people in the detention camps and the prisoners. Theses were the survivors and the victims. Research shows that people, to a large extend self selected into one of the two groups. And each group had defining characteristics, of which optimism was one.
The victims, most of whom never left the camps alive, had two major defining characteristics. The first of these was incorrigible pessimism. The moment they were captured they resigned themselves to their fate. They concluded that life as they previously knew it was over and there was no future. Thus they became prisoners of war as well as prisoners of circumstances. Having convinced themselves that there was no future they folded their arms and prepared to perish. Often times their pessimism was a self fulfilling promise. They demised fairly quickly.
The second characteristic of those that perished was excessive optimism. These were the people that said to themselves and to others, “Don’t worry, by Christmas we will be out and home.” Christmas came and went and they were still in custody under even more severe conditions because the conditions worsened as the war escalated. Then they would say, “By Easter we will be free.” But again Easter came and went and they were still prisoners and detainees. Soon their “optimism” faded and gave way to despair and heart break. Once despair set in death soon visited their door steps.
How did their “optimism” fail them?
There is a great difference between optimism and excessive hubris. What these people had was not optimism but excessive hubris that was not anchored in reality. True optimism does not condone the brutal facts of the current reality. Your future begins now. And NOW is your current reality.
True optimism is anchored in hope. Hope is defined as a desire with an expectation of fulfillment. Without a desire there is no hope. And without an expectation there is no hope. The danger with excessive hubris is that it ignores the facts and therefore breeds actions that are out of sync with reality.
The true optimist must be possessed of those two commodities-desire and expectation. He does not confuse two things. These are the faith that he will prevail in the end, and the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of the current reality.
Faith that one will prevail in the end is a commodity that one can never afford to lose. The focus is on the end, and not necessarily the path and the means to that end. True optimism acknowledges that the path may be bumpy and thorny, but expects that in the end the desired destination shall be reached. It based on a realization that the current reality is real but transient. It is a leg on a journey and not the destination of the journey. This is some kind of nuanced optimism that is called FLEXIBLE OPTIMISM.
The problem with excessive hubris is not the confidence or the belief or the faith. The danger stems from unrealistic time tables that give rise to unrealistic expectations. When expectations are dashed the heart easily grows weary. Whereas the man of excessive hubris was declaring, “We will be out of prison by Christmas”, which was a time table over which he had no control, the flexible optimist was saying, “I do not care how long it takes. I know that in the end I will be free.” Consequently, one hypnotized himself into some sense of false security whereas the other faced his daily challenges in a balanced way. What matters is not how things may appear now, but what the final outcome will be.
There are many things that we may never be in control of, like the timetables that faced the prisoners of war. However, there are a few things over which we have absolute control. The faith that things are going to turn out in our favour in the final analysis is a precious commodity that no one and no situation can rob you of. The most vital of the human freedoms is the freedom to choose one’s thoughts, dreams, expectations and desires. Even prisoners can not be stripped of these freedoms.
Since no one can take these away from you, only you can impose limits on yourself.
The worst form of dispossession is self dispossession and this occurs when people focus excessively on the possible negative outcome and its consequences to such an extent that they become paralyzed in the present. This also occurs when people have such excessive hubris that they begin to ignore current realities and behave as if these do not exist to their own detriment.
Flexible optimism is the balance between the two. It is summarised in one sentence. Retain faith that you will prevail in the end regardless of the current difficulties, but take action now to start challenging those difficulties.
The circumstances of our lives will begin to shift for better when we begin to seriously confront and challenge them with planned action.
Never lose hope that you will prevail in the end, but never condone the current reality. This is flexible optimism that saved the day for many in the concentration camps.
Be a prisoner of hope, and not a prisoner of circumstances.