Glass not just half empty but cracked, too

By Mike Shearer April 16, 2012 06:31 pm

I sparred by email with Observer Columnist Jeff Peterson a while back about whether the glass is half full or half empty.

Jeff said, “I used to be cynical, but it didn’t work for me.”

He says the glass is half full!!!

(The three exclamation marks are Jeff’s. Cynics use an exclamation mark sparingly, and two or more in a row would be pure sarcasm to us.

I’m not saying Jeff is wrong, but I tend to see the glass as half empty, and I suspect the glass is also cracked. 

I don’t spend much time discouraging others from being “bright siders” because I see some benefit in it, but I could no more join their ranks than I could take up wearing golf pants or baseball caps with the bills turned sideways and skyward. I would make myself sick. 

After all, cynicism got me this far and there’s always more fodder to feed it. Just look around us. Lily Tomlin says, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.”

I read a wonderful book last year by Barbara Ehrenreich, “Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.”

What galls Ehrenreich most about the positive thinking movement, which her book looks at historically, is the complete lack of science behind the wild claims of what thinking positively can do for you and the huge multi-billion-dollar business it has become. 

She documents well enough to satisfy me that that the irrational optimism displayed by the Clinton and Bush administrations resulted in financial disaster for the nation.

Let’s think happy thoughts about the way Wall Street and the money lenders are shelling out mortgage loans that people can’t possibly keep up, and surely we’ll wish our way out of the quagmire.

The rosy forecasts of unending growth led the nation right off an economic cliff.  

Just eliminate negative thoughts, the crackpot self-help books and motivational speakers promise, and you can be successful, happy, and healthy. 

The implication inherent has always been that those who don’t succeed were failures because of their mind-sets, their negativity — never because of inequities or the greed of others or even chance.

The implication has always been, too, that those who can’t cure themselves of ailments just didn’t put enough positive energy into fighting those cancer cells. 

My favorite part of Ehrenreich’s book is where she shows that in evolution it has frequently been not the optimist but the pessimist that has survived, the wildebeest most convinced that there’s a lion nearby and ready to spring. 

Ehrenreich says, “We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

So what some people call skepticism or its ornery cousin cynicism is what I usually call realism, and science is scant in books and seminars selling plain the old Pollyanna Principle in new lingo. 

Yes, the truth is the glass that is half empty is also half full, but the wildebeest who listens too much to the pop psychologists is more likely to be lunch than the one who is almost sure he senses something moving in that tall grass over there, something he can’t see or smell yet, but something that could be a hungry lion.