What My Son Taught Me About Optimism

by Colette Sartor
Originally Published: 
LaraBelova / iStock

I’ve always worn my pessimism like a badge of honor. Optimism is for suckers, I’d tell myself. Better to be on constant high alert for the worst possible outcome so it can’t blindside you. Where an optimist might perceive a cloudy sky as a promise of nourishing rain, a pessimist anticipates an oncoming downpour that will cause a major leak in the roof costing thousands of dollars to fix, not to mention the flood in the backyard thanks to a break in the mainline due to the weight of the sodden soil that can’t absorb all the water from this storm of biblical proportions.

See? Pessimist, that’s me.

But not this year. This is the year of optimism.

My journey toward optimism began when some fantastic women writers invited me to meet with them at the beginning of January to set writing goals for the year. I accepted even though I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea. I’ve never been one to verbalize my goals and dreams since doing so might tip off the universe about what it needs to steal from me.

Yup, I know. Pessimist.

During our meeting, we decided to each come up with a theme for how to approach our yearly goals, something that encouraged us to make choices outside our comfort zones. The first theme that came to mind was “Determined Optimism” since my pessimism had been exhausting me for, well, forever. But “determined” seemed to cancel out “optimism”—it sounded so grim, so forced, next to that cheery word, “optimism,” which, lest we forget, is for suckers.

Ugh. Pessimism was too ingrained in me to even pretend to be an optimist.

So I gave up on a theme. Instead, for the next few weeks, I panicked. With no yearly theme, none that I could pull off anyway, I was sure I was destined to be as unproductive as ever. I’d never amount to anything ever.

But the optimism seed had been planted. I started noticing how much my pessimism was infecting my son. At 11 years old, he groans when a drawing he’s working on doesn’t go as planned. “It’s terrible,” he tells me even though when I look at it, I see something extraordinary. If we’re running late for a movie or if he gets a lower grade than he anticipated on a math test, he assumes the worst will ensue: We’re going to miss the movie entirely; he’ll fail math for the year. It kills me to hear my own bleak outlook coming from him and to see him so stressed about things that likely won’t even happen.

The other day, when we were driving home from school, my son said, “I don’t think I did that great on my quiz today.” His voice sounded dismal, so much like my own that I clutched the steering wheel tight. Behind me, he took a breath. “But, you know what?” he said in a brighter tone. “I’ll do better on the next one.”

I loosened my grip and glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “That’s true.”

He smiled. “I decided to try thinking more about good things this year. It’s one of my resolutions, to be more optimistic.”

Was this my child? Where had he even learned that word? “That’s a great goal,” I said. “What made you think of it?”

He told me how during a photography project that day, he’d fallen off the play set and chipped his camera lens. “The art teacher said she would take the camera apart and use it as an art project,” he said. “She didn’t get mad, Mommy, or worry that the lens was broken. She found something good about what happened. She’s an optimist, she told me. I thought that was a good way to be.”

He looked so happy as he told the story, so calm, so unlike me. I was already worrying that the school might charge us for the lens and thinking that he might have broken an arm or cracked his skull open, or worse. And yet, where I saw potential catastrophe, my son saw opportunity.

Then it hit me: Envisioning worst-case scenarios made it difficult for me to revel in the teacher’s generous response to my son’s accident. But my son, with his fledgling sense of optimism, was excited about his teacher’s proposition, the opportunity his accident provided for him to see the inner workings of a camera, which in turn encouraged his growing love of art and has led him to many calm, serene hours of drawing and sketching and dreaming about being a cartoonist or an architect.

Pessimists worry. Optimists dream.

It’s time for me to remember how to dream, calmly, serenely, from a place of anticipation and confidence. So this year, screw anxious pessimism. Bring on the optimism. If you need me, I’ll be sitting in the corner, scribbling away to finish my daily writing goals. Because, you know, I’ve got this. I can do this. I can feel it in my bones.

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