An optimist and a pessimist have nothing to discuss, or else they have too much – assuming that they recognise each other.
When Dave and I met at university, oh so long ago, there were some warning signs but we didn’t read them right. If the dyed-in-the-wool optimist and the dead-in-the-water pessimist had known the truth, we might have taken flight. We might have missed the years of temperamental challenge that have proved so stimulating and so fruitful.
I do remember noticing the poster on his bedsit wall, with the quote from Heine -
Gut is der Schlaf, der Tod ist besser,
Das Beste wäre nie geboren sein.
But when he translated it – Sleep is good, death is better, The best of all would be never to have been born – it didn’t occur to me that anyone could actually agree with such a gloomy sentiment. I assumed it was an existential student pose, and as I had liked him at first handshake I decided to ignore this affectation. And when he quoted from his classics lecturer “There is nothing so invigorating as a hearty dose of pessimism,” I thought it was a joke.
No doubt he had his reasons for ignoring my Pollyanna views, that he considered “charming but unfeasible.” After all, he was an eighteen year old male, with rather more basic pre-occupations than the colour of a girl’s philosophy: perhaps he wanted to test my belief that “You can achieve anything if you just set your mind to it.”
Since then a lot of life has happened, but nothing to change our different points of view. My optimism did take a severe beating when we lost all the contents of our family home in a fire. I saw the world, temporarily, through his eyes and we clung to the same piece of wreckage. But somehow my optimism bounced back, dented but still roundish and pink and bobbing on the choppy waters of life. I learned to entertain the possibility of unhappy endings; it’s just that deep in my heart I do still hope for happy ones.
After the fire there came the second blow of breast cancer. When we heard the diagnosis, he asked me solicitously how I felt, and was incredulous that I was just “a bit fed up.”
“A bit fed up ? A bit fed up is when you have too much homework or your soufflé sinks.”
But that’s all I was. After all, my mother had had a mastectomy sixteen years before and she was still fighting fit. Why shouldn’t I do the same ? It never crossed my mind that I might die. And anyway, I knew that Eeyore would be there, supporting me through it all, even as he was ‘secretly’ thinking that the diagnosis was my death warrant. But I did understand his fears, because his mother had died from breast cancer.
Twenty years later I am still here to torment him. I add my survival to the list of other happy outcomes that I use to challenge his morbid point of view.
So we jog along – him appalled at my high expectations, me creased up at the blackness of his outlook.
“Do you want to write to someone on Death Row?” I asked him, after seeing an advert in The Big Issue.
“We’re all on Death Row. It’s just that some of us aren’t in cages,” he said.
Another time after watching a documentary, I asked him:
“What’s the answer to all this inner-city deprivation?”
“Well, ultimately pestilence, disease and famine will thin out the population. That will make things easier.”
We take delight in taunting each other with relevant research reported in the press. Last summer I accosted him with the findings that optimists have longer lives. “What an excellent reason for not being an optimist,” he said. In the autumn he read me evidence that defensive pessimists – who make contingency plans to cover everything that might go wrong - suffer less stress.
But although we both read the news, we read different stories. Every breakfast he gives a ghoulish recital of headlines that Thomas Hardy could have based a novel on – “Children die in house fire caused by advent candle,” “Couple die from gas poisoning while wrapping Christmas presents.” Meanwhile I will alight on “Kitten rescued after travelling under bonnet of car” and “Woman survives being run over by tractor.”
For every proof there is a riposte. If he drops his toast on the floor butter side up and I say he’s lucky, he will say that he must have buttered it on the wrong side.
He can be sickened by my syrupy perceptions. Sometimes I want to sock him in the jaw. When things are going badly and the troubles are mounting up and I ask him “Do you think everything’s going to be all right ?” and he says “No,” I wish he lie. Just occasionally. Just for me.
We each find comfort in our respective points of view. His pessimism protects him from disappointment. If I felt like him I’d want to slit my wrists. Shenagh Pugh’s poem Sometimes speaks for me, and this time she can have the final word:
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse…………
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.