I have a weakness for grouchy people.
I have a couple of friends I would describe as perpetually grouchy, and I’m not quite sure why, but I think they are good for me.
To clarify, I’m not fond of being around people who are in the habit of deliberately messing up their lives. I think everyone has known at least one person like this, and it’s hard to watch. I see the train coming down the tracks. I hope my friend will alter course. I try not to be too bossy as I suggest it might be a good idea to get off the tracks. I nervously watch the train barreling straight for them.
“Um, don’t you think it might be a good idea to, maybe, do something a little different? Because a train will come down these tracks sooner or later, and when it does…”
My ideas are always rebuffed: There is no time. There is no energy. There is no need.
Then I have to watch the crash, extend my sympathies, and listen to long explanations about how none of this was preventable and how life is terribly unfair. That is no fun.
But being grouchy is different.
My grouchy friends tell me that I am crazy for always believing things will work out. Grouchy people assure me that there is something within them — their DNA, their upbringing, their carefully cultivated beliefs about how the world works — that justifies their pessimism.
For some reason, this is like catnip to me. I’ve been trying to understand why.
My husband, Peter, tells me I should steer clear of people who are not positive. Peter would like me to be around people who, if they are not quite as upbeat as me, at least have a sunny view of the world. But I keep looking at folks who are surrounded by storm clouds and wanting to keep them company.
Maybe I am some sort of competitive optimist, trying to conquer the most challenging pessimist to earn another notch in my optimist’s belt.
Maybe it gets tiresome always hearing from people who believe as I do: that we are generally as happy as we make up our minds to be. Maybe I like hearing the opposing view to assure myself that, yes, I do believe this stuff.
Or maybe (and I worry this might be the case) optimism is like one of those religions where, to believe, you have to convince others to give it a try.
I think it might be a little of all of the above. It might also be that I am genuinely curious. What would happen if I expected the worst? Would anything change?
Because being optimistic invites injury. Plans fail. People disappoint. Not everything works out as I hope. To be optimistic is to be vulnerable. And I don’t think I started as an optimistic person. I just allowed myself to be hopeful and discovered that things worked out, even when — especially when — it didn’t look as if they would. And so I kept on hoping. Becoming optimistic was like building a muscle. Hope resulted in more things to be hopeful about.
My grouchy friends guard against injury by keeping their hopes low. Their pessimism protects them from disappointment. I try to explain that pessimism is an indiscriminate herbicide — it kills both the crops and the weeds. But, so far, my attempts to convert my grouchy friends to optimism have failed.
It doesn’t matter. I know I’m right. I couldn’t be an optimist and think otherwise.