The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid of ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde)
“Oscar! I don’t get it. Please explain!” That was my reaction when I recently encountered again these words, spoken by Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s famous novel. But with time to think, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don’t do optimism. I’d say I’m a realist. Life is tough enough without setting myself up for disappointment.
You know the old saying referred to in the Grammarly meme: an optimist sees the glass as half full whilst a pessimist considers it half empty. I don’t think that’s the kind of optimism Wilde had in mind: his words (in the mouth of Lord Henry) align optimism with something akin to hope − but a hope predicated on a terrifyingly low self-esteem.
For many of us, optimism is about making the best of a bad situation – it is what we opt for when our circumstances are far from optimal. But hoping for the best is tantamount to fearing the worst. That’s why the words “think positive” so often jar with me: they invariably send the signal, “There’s something wrong here” … or, “They won’t like me” … or, “I’m not good enough”.
“Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed,” was, according to Alexander Pope, the ninth Beatitude (see note below).
All too few of us can meet every situation with equanimity – acknowledging feelings, but not involving them in the decision-making process. So now I’m pondering what Marianne Williamson means when she declares:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
Feeling insecure is hardly unusual among human beings. We’re generally not so much scared of other people, per se, as afraid of not fitting in. But, as Williamson explains, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
On the other hand, St Paul warns his readers “not to have exaggerated ideas about your own importance. Instead, develop a sober estimate of yourself based on the standard which God has given to each of you, namely, trust” (Romans 12:3, Complete Jewish Bible).
That word, trust, is akin to confidence. And confidence seems to work, even when it’s a con. Coco Chanel put it well: “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”
But, as is so often the case, it is to Lao-Tzu we can turn to sum it all up for us: “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”
Read the Wikipedia article about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
Alexander Pope (in collaboration with John Gay) wrote his “Blessed is he …” in a letter to William Fortescue (23 September 1725), declaring it “the ninth Beatitude which a man of wit (who, like a man of wit, was a long time in gaol) added to the eighth.” (Wikiquote)
Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) Copyright © 1998 by David H Stern. All rights reserved.
The Coco Chanel quote appears in Believing in Ourselves: The Wisdom of Women by Armand Eisen (editor).
Williamson, Marianne. 1992. A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. New York: Harper Collins. [Chapter 7, Section 3 (p190-191)]
Note About Nelson Mandela: The quote from Marianne Williamson is often found on the Internet incorrectly credited as being from Nelson Mandela’s Inauguration Speech, 1994, especially the last sentence, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”