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Saturday, October 20, 2007

(More than) two sides to the coin

We got a forwarded-to-everyone-in-the-address-book e-mail from my uncle urging a boycott of the soon-to-be-issued $1 coin because the wording "In God We Trust" has been removed(!). Note that only one side of the coin is pictured.

But my enterprising husband - one of whose pet peeves is indiscriminate e-mail forwarding of unverified rumors - went to the US Mint's website to find a graphic of the new coin. The wording's still there, but relocated to the edge instead of the head or tail. He sent that info out with the "reply all" button (sometimes it is appropriate to use that).

In this case, the truth is quite literally somewhere in the middle.

While on the face of it, this doesn't seem to have anything to do with Bub and Pie's recent post on optimism (if you click through to it, read the comments too - she gets some great discussions going over there), upon further reflection I think it does. We tend to think in terms of dichotomy - optimist/pessimist, good/bad, dark/light, full/empty, heads/tails - although most things are more complicated than that. But at the same time, one part of the pair can't exist without the other - and at some point in the mix we might find those elusive things we call "truth" and "balance."

My sister and I have gone back and forth on the optimist/pessimist thing for years. She's fundamentally an optimist, I'm fundamentally not. She's definitely a "glass is half-full" person. I want to know what direction the liquid's going - into or out of the glass - before I call it as half-full or half-empty. (I actually call that being a "realist," but according to B&P, that makes me a pessimist in disguise.) I tend to operate from the standpoint of "expect the worst, and you won't be disappointed, but you could be pleasantly surprised." My husband's approach is pretty similar to mine, but I suspect he's got an underlying optimistic streak that's a little wider than mine - when I admit to having one, and that's a relatively recent occurrence. I respect people who can maintain optimism - it seems to me that it takes a good deal of perseverance, along with a sizable dose of denial. A more pessimistic outlook is just easier sometimes - it doesn't seem to ask as much of you.

I've read that one basic difference between optimists and pessimists in how they engage with the world is that optimists blame their circumstances for setbacks, but pessimists blame themselves. I know that in my case, that's pretty accurate, and one of the things that puts me on the pessimistic end of the spectrum.

I think that most people's personalities trend one way or the other on this, and that the basic tendency is probably pretty much set for most of us. But I also think we can learn to incorporate elements from the other side, and that we'll have a healthier overall outlook if we can. At the extremes, optimists and pessimists can really irritate each other, but we need each other, and each other's viewpoint. Without some ability to look on the bright side, we might never do anything; but without being able to see the potential pitfalls, we might not stop ourselves from doing some really dumb things. So once again, we come back to the mix, and the balance that's in there somewhere. I think that's more interesting than having just two sides to every story - or person, or coin.

12 comments:

  1. The idea that it takes more EFFORT to be optimistic is maybe the most revealing part. There have been times in my life where I've felt the need to make an effort to be guarded and cautious - to keep my hopes in check and to remain alert for negative signs. The one that leaps to mind is dating - in essence a dating relationship is a kind of screening process, and I find that aspect of it very difficult - it's so much easier for me just to give into the impulse to trust and hope and be giddy.

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  2. I received the same e-mail from a friend & didn't really believe it. But, being the untrusting person that I am, I went to my coin jar (because I thought I'd gotten one of the new coins). Low & behold, I discovered the same thing your hubby did - the coin has more than two sides. :-)

    Happy Weekend!

    Jennifer :-)

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  3. Bub and Pie - I suspect that the effort goes into whichever tendency is against one's natural grain. For you, it's being aware of the potential dark side, and I think your dating analogy fits that very well, since I think that's a situation that many people tend to approach hopefully. For me, it's looking on the bright side.

    Jennifer - It's always good to be skeptical of those mass e-mails. That's why Snopes
    is a must-bookmark website. :-)

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  4. Like introvertism and extrovertism, I guess optimism and pessimism are hard-wired qualities.

    I like to think this because it means we don't have to bother worrying which one we are and is it better or worse than the opposite thing. That's the way I am, baby, so deal with it!

    Mark my words, scientists will soon discover (if they have not already) that optimism and pessimism are controlled by brain chemistry or whatnot.

    I would rather be optimistic, though. It's just more fun. Fat, dumb and happy!

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  5. Working Girl - See, there's that "denial" thing I was talking about! :-). But that characterization of the optimist as "fat, dumb, and happy" leads me to think that Working Girl veers toward the pessimistic end of the spectrum.

    You may be right about the brain-chemistry thing. I'd be curious about whether there might be a correlation among the traits you mentioned; I'd be inclined to think extrovert/optimist and introvert/pessimist if that were the case, but maybe that's just me. Actually, the second pairing would be "just me."

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  6. Proving myself to be an optimist as well, it was that line about it taking effort to be optimistic that struck me. As you responded to her, the issue is which goes against the natural grain.

    I don't see denial in my optimism. In my "about" feature, I describe myself as a pragmatic optimist. It's just that the negatives I encounter don't fill my vision to the extent they do my pessimist husband.

    I don't see denial in this at all. When things go badly and I'm at fault, I take the responsibility. I see empowerment in that: if these things are only and solely the result of externals, I lose all hope of making it better!

    One of the things I note between my husband and I is that he tends to globalizes the negative, while I do the same with the positive. So if we each have a day in which three rotten things and three great things happen, that generally means that overall, his day was rotten -- and mine was great.

    Optimism isn't something I put on; it isn't a decision; it is simply who I am.

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  7. p.s. I totally believe this is hard-wired into us, but I don't believe there's any correspondance between optimism/pessimism and introversion/extroversion. They are two different scales to evaluate character; there's no more reason that they should be correlated than intro/extro should be correlated with, oh, a tendency to prefer sweet or salty treats.

    I am an introverted optimist, come to that, while my brother and my husband's supervisor are both extroverted pessimists.

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  8. MaryP - Looks like I fell right into that dichotomy myself with my correlation idea, didn't I? Busted! :-)

    I would suggest that a "pragmatic optimist" is a "realist" that trends toward the optimistic side, which challenges the idea that they're pessimists in disguise.
    My impressions of the "effort" and "denial" involved in being an optimist come from the fact I lean in the other direction - and also from my acquaintance with some optimists who "hope for the best" but don't seem to do much to make it happen. (Maybe they just have more faith and trust in the universe than I do. Perhaps that lack is at the root of my pessimistic leanings?)

    It sounds like you and your husband are a great example of balance between the two sides, and in more ways than one.

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  9. Oh, no, I really thought I was an optimist. You mean I'm not?

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  10. WG - I'm probably bringing my own pessimistic bias to my observation of the data. Only you can answer that question for certain. :-)

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  11. i love this! i am an optimist - but i also work hard and am cautious of pitfalls. Maybe because of that i am optimistic?

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  12. Kate - I suspect that your sense of optimism may come from a sense of having more control over your life, which you bring about by working hard and being conscious of pitfalls. Or it could be the other way around. :-) In any case, I'll bet you're right about them all being connected.

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