Bogart’s character Rick in Casablanca: is he an optimist or pessimist?
Rick says to Ilsa: I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world
Then, Rick gets noble and becomes a bean that matters on a hill of beans. He leaves Isla and strides into the fog to fix the craziness in his little corner of the world. Cynical Rick? A hero? What the …?
Today, Bogie leans against my kitchen wall. His eyes smolder in the shadow of his fedora, and he snarls at me, “Sweetheart, if you can’t amount to a whole hill of beans in this big crazy world, be a little mound of beans somewhere.”
“Bogie,” I say, “That’s not nobility, that’s optimism.”
Pick a hill of beans
Like most people, I want a life that matters. Having come so close to dead, my quest to live that life has some urgency. Quick! Where’s the accelerated search engine?
Okay, it’s not my destiny to win the peace prize or cure cancer. But, what if Rick was right at Casablanca’s conclusion, when he focused on one little local problem with one small impact? The movie ends before we learn its bigger consequences, but it implies he made a difference. Or is that the optimist’s view? Rick changed his pessimistic outlook and affected – the audience is audacious with hope – the outcome.
Optimistic / pessimistic ambidexterity
What next? Chemotherapy imploded my natural optimism into a pessimism so deep I couldn’t recognize positive action if it stroked my face. I entered one Friday treatment believing the best would prevail. Sunday exhaled a swirling pit of panic and despair; a chemo-induced brain makeover in thirty hours, which clung like mist over a mountaintop for a full three years after treatment ended.
The upside is my brain now operates as ambidextrous, functioning in optimism and pessimism with equal dexterity. To paraphrase Sophie Tucker, I’ve been optimistic and I’ve been pessimistic. Optimistic is better.
Guess I should thank chemotherapy for the opportunity to live as a pessimist so I can weigh both options and opt for optimism.
Risk management is a conflict competency
Optimism is more than hope, or what I call the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude. It’s also risk management, which is a conflict competency. Recent research suggests that pessimism is an advantage because optimists depend on happy endings. Is this a fair categorization of optimism?
Not all optimists treat lottery tickets as a retirement plan, just like all pessimists aren’t good savers for retirement. Where optimism trumps pessimism is the underlying belief. My optimistic self is more motivated to believe my actions might matter. So go ahead, buy the lottery ticket AND save for retirement. Integrate the inner optimist and pessimist.
Adapting to change is a conflict competency
And that’s a conflict competency; integrating the two outlooks is more adaptive than their competing for mental bandwidth. I had an example in conversation with my bio-daughter Beth.
“It scares and saddens me,” Beth said, “that my generation is the last able to do whatever we want. My son won’t enjoy that freedom.”
Pessimism reality check. History and experience suggest that Beth’s correct, everything we enjoy won’t continue. Optimism alert. Other enjoyments await.
Optimism doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to leave my grandson a better world but it’s relief from pessimism’s paralyzing fear and sadness.
What’s next? Well, which problem should I prioritize for 2014: climate change, social upheaval, or 2013’s leftover personal turmoil?
Bogie tips his fedora, glides through my kitchen wall, and is gone.
Wonderful words from optimists: (or, words from wonderful optimists)
“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” ― Desmond Tutu
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank
“Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” ― Nelson Mandela
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” ― Chinese Proverb
 “Casablanca is a 1942 film about an American expatriate owner of an upscale club and gambling den in the Moroccan city of Casablanca who meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Casablanca_(film)