I was on the yearbook committee senior year in high school. I can still remember sitting in someone’s living room looking for quotes to put under our classmates’s photos. We were laughing and having a good time matching our friends with the appropriate saying until it came to my photo. A few hems and haws and a lot of silence. I was never quite sure what silence meant, but I just shrugged and picked my own quote: The only truly happy man is always a fighting optimist. (I was naïve about feminist ways at the time and took “man” to mean “humankind.” I still don’t make an issue of such words — I include myself in even if the male-oriented words were meant to include me out.) Some people called me negative back then (or rather pessimistic since “negative” as a buzzword didn’t show up until much later) but I knew the truth: I was a realist who fought to be optimistic.
It’s odd that I have remembered the quote all these years when so much else has slipped into the muck at the bottom of my mind, but perhaps it’s because I often think of it. This is a world where optimism and positivism are almost religions, and if you don’t believe, or if you believe in truth no matter what form the truth takes more than in being positive at all costs, you’re called negative.
My copy of the yearbook is long gone. (I lent my high school yearbooks to the son of my mother’s best friend because he wanted to look up a girl he was infatuated with, and I never saw them again.) So when that quote popped into my head again today, I looked it up online to see where it came from. The quote I used is only half of it. The full quote is: The only truly happy man is always a fighting optimist. Optimism includes not only altruism, but also social responsibility, social courage and objectivity. — W. Beran Wolfe, author of How To Be Happy Though Human
Natural optimists might be happy, but so often they live in a fantasy world where the truth is fogged in under a pink cloud of hope, denial, and lack of objectivity. (I’m not referring to you, of course.)
It’s entirely possible I misinterpreted the quote — he seems to be saying that to be happy you need to be optimistic and fight for what is right, not just fight to be optimistic, but either way, the saying seems to hold true.
So what does this have to do with my present life? Not much, I suppose, except that I notice more moments of happiness and optimism — feeling uplifted even when there is no particular reason to feel uplifted. It’s as if somewhere inside of me, something is smiling.
Twice in my life I heard a voice deep inside of me speaking without my volition. The first time was a few minutes after I met Jeff, the man who was to share my life for thirty-four years. “But I don’t even like men with beady brown eyes and blond hair,” the voice wailed. I didn’t hear it again until a year before he died. At the time, we knew he was bad off, just not how bad. I’d made a point of hugging him every morning, thinking that each hug would be the last. One morning I inadvertently touched his ear, and he shoved me away. (I now know the cancer had crept up his left side from his kidney to his brain, and every bit of that quadrant was one huge mass of pain.) We were connected in some profound way that neither of us understood, and I thought that when he died, he’d pull me with him. But that day when he pushed me away, I heard the voice again. “You might be dying, but I have to live,” it said. And I knew then that he would be dying alone.
I wonder if that’s who is smiling inside me, whoever or whatever it is that spoke those two times.
I’m sitting here smiling at the whimsical thought. Who knows? It could be true. Maybe someday I’ll even meet her. Or be her.
Meantime, during the not so uplifting times, I will still fight to be an optimist.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.