Tragically Optimistic

August 2, 2023

I think of optimists as perpetually sunny-natured folks, always looking on the bright side of life, no matter what. The jaunty South Pacific song “A Cockeyed Optimist” is playing in my mind’s jukebox even as I type this (and it is NO fun hearing the hokey lyrics “But I’m stuck like a dope/with a thing called hope” on repeat). Pessimists, on the other hand, are eternally grouches with black clouds hovering over their heads, and “Bah! Humbug!” ever on their lips. 

Which personality type am I? As usual with me, it’s complicated, and for ages I struggled along feeling like a walking paradox—a "glass neither half full or half empty" kind of gal. For the record, I am also what they call an “introverted extrovert” (I enjoy being around people, but they drain my energy).

Why do such popular catchphrases as “Stay positive!” “Don’t worry—be happy!” “Everything will be OK!” and “Don’t give up!” ring so hollow to me during a tough time? Turns out there’s such a thing as Toxic Positivity, the insistence (against all evidence) that life is GREAT, and that all we need to do is don those rose colored glasses and we'll be fine.

I remember the day before my dad died, after suffering a catastrophic stroke. I was sitting by his bedside in the hospital, preparing to say goodbye, when in bustled a VERY cheery nurse, who snapped open the window blinds and caroled, “Come on, Mr. Cunningham!! Wake up!! You’re going to be JUST FINE!!” It was patently obvious that he would not be anywhere close to just fine, and shouting that at a dying patient seemed ridiculous to me. But I realize that, for her, being bright and upbeat in the face of sadness must have been a coping mechanism (and, to be fair, after the doctor spoke with her about my dad’s imminent demise, she was kind enough to apologize to me).

What makes more sense for my life, is to be what is called a “tragic optimist.” Tragic optimists are prepared for the ups and downs of living, and try to learn from their pain. The only way I was able to accept my bipolar disorder diagnosis was sharing my story, and helping other people share theirs. Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, believed that this search is mankind’s main motivation, enabling one to have a hopeful life even amid very negative experiences. He suggested being authentic and aware, but also accepting and grateful. In the concentration camp, Frankl could not control the evil being done to him, but he could control his reaction to it, and did not let it destroy him.

In this flawed and often scary world, we don’t have to be Pollyannas to be optimistic. We can believe that most people ARE good, and that good will triumph in the end.

So enough with the platitudes. Let’s be real. Let’s see the world as it is, and still have hope.


    I am an author (of five books, numerous plays, poetry and freelance articles,) a retired director (of Spiritual Formation at a Lutheran church,) and a producer (of five kids).

    I write about my hectic, funny, perfectly imperfect life.

    Please visit my website: or email me at



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