I have a friend who volunteers to work with prisoners. He has a surprisingly high rate of success in helping them turn their lives around. His methodology is very simple: authentic conversation. His prison experiences are unusual and he often shares them with me. Recently he provided a most provocative inquiry: “Your deep commitment to seeing the good in all things prompted me to engage one of my inmates to talk about the spirit of positive organizational scholarship (POS). Given where he had come from and where he spent most of his teen and adult life, I was surprised to see the 24 year-old deeply engaged and curious about a life outlook that was very alien to him. His upbringing was pock-marked with series of abuses by his family and ‘friends’ who saw him as a boy-toy to be manipulated and marginalized. After sharing the concept of POS and its effects, he startled me with a simple, yet penetrating question: ‘How can I trust you when all you see is the good?'”
How would you have responded to him? This question is a much more efficient and elegant version of a criticism often leveled at the positive perspective. It suggests that to take a positive view is to be naive, to ignore or distort reality.
Occasionally they say, “You are just being Pollyanna.” This refers to the Disney movie about the girl who took a positive perspective on everything, the girl who was totally unrealistic. I have heard the criticism so many times I recently decided to watch that movie. I wanted to examine her lack of realism so I could use it to show what an unrealistic perspective really is. I was in for a surprise.
There was nothing unrealistic about Pollyanna. She had one disappointing experience after another. She felt the reality and the pain of each disappointment. What made her unusual is that she had developed the ability to immediately turn to the positive perspective. This did not make the reality of the painful stimulus go away. It made the depressive feelings that normally accompany the painful stimulus manageable. She had the rare ability to self-regulate and manage her own emotional reactions. This ability made it possible for her to envision a productive path of action when others wanted either self-defeating action (fight) or inaction (flight).
Now back to the young prisoner’s question: “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”
This question makes a normal and implicit, left-brained assumption. It assumes that to see or experience good is to not see or experience evil. It has to be one or the other. A person like Pollyanna, who experiences evil and chooses to turn to the positive perspective, sees both the constraints and the possibilities. Here is what the skeptic often fails to understand: failing to see our possibilities means we do not see all of reality. To take the positive perspective is to experience negative events and then engage in what some people call intelligent optimism. Others call it resilient hope. It is the ability to experience the pains of life and still focus on the positive.
In the film, there is a confirmed cynic. One might assume she grew up being treated as the above prisoner grew up. In her normal, self-selected independence, she is repulsed by the positive orientation of Pollyanna. Then circumstances change and she needs to lean on someone. When she has to choose, she chooses Pollyanna.
A critic might say, “Yes, but that was just a movie.”
When you and I are truly desperate for help, to whom do we turn? At such times, I do not search out the skeptics in my life. I look for people I can trust, people who can feel my pain and see my possibilities. The people I seek out are usually people of the positive perspective.
- What is the difference between optimism and intelligent optimism?
- Why does intelligent optimism lead to higher functioning?
- Why does it lead to trusting relationships?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?