By Kaitlin Gray
The puzzled expression of a kind African-American male met my eyes at the amiable doors of a local testing center. The man—wearing sleeves of tattoos, sporting wild dreadlocks, and missing a few front teeth—towered at least a foot and a half above me. Playing the ever-endearing role of the five-foot-tall young lady I have long been accustomed to, I smiled as he handed me my test’s login information. After finding my place behind a computer and logging in to the testing software I strode back over to the proctor, returning his papers and thanking him for his assistance. Again, I smiled. He gave me a puzzled look as I returned to my seat and began my test; “What gives?” he asked after a time. “Why are you so happy?” I shrugged, replying bashfully that I didn’t really know; “I think I’m just a happy person.”
There are few places as aggravating as the DMV, the bank, and the local Walmart on Price-Matching Mondays—though I think we can all agree that testing centers fit right into an akin alley, with their rigid rules and requisite epochs of time as proof that they belong to every maddening category. Optimism for that test proctor must’ve been a rare sight. For many like that man, smiling in general must’ve even seemed ludicrous. What is there to be happy about anyway?
By definition, “optimism” is a hopefulness and confidence about the future, the doctrine that this world is the best of all possible worlds, and the belief that good must prevail over evil (New Oxford-American Dictionary). For me, this meant having a positive mindset amidst the hellish atmosphere of The Testing Center.
To be fair, I still don’t believe the greatest of “optimists” are happy one hundred percent of the time; and although I most often take glass-half-full approaches, I don’t label myself intrinsically as a practitioner in devout optimism. It isn’t fair to the O-word itself—which encompasses much more than a happy-go-lucky attitude—to say that you must never deal in negatives if you wish to possess it’s magic. Life deals dangerous cards with fate. Everything in the scheme of the good, the bad, and the ugly is put on the table to be dealt with a cognizance of high risk and low return. Yet, as difficult as the trials we face most certainly are, great suffering can very well cultivate lasting feelings of optimism.
Inevitably, we all fall into the glass-half-empty abyss of hopeless self-pity from time to time—a mentality which stands nearly as pointless as it is destructive. On one particular Thursday evening I distinctly remember sobbing into the dark stillness of my car in an exponential fury, because I just couldn’t understand why life was so hard. Besides the regular stuff—working parents, instruments to practice, competitions to prepare for, endless hours of homework—a snippet of unprecedented news pushed me to my breaking point: one dear teenage cousin of mine had disappeared after an especially intense fight with his parents. While driving home that evening I received a phone call from his mother, my Aunt Holly, urgently imploring information—anything at all, she said—that would insinuate the possible location of her son.
Holly and I had always known an extremely honest, trusting, close relationship. From experience, knew the extent of her mental threshold. I could sense through the inflection in her voice and the helplessness of her tears that this situation was a crisis. Point blank, I asked her what she wasn’t telling me. She hesitated. “I think he ran away, and he isn’t coming back.”
Whatever optimism I had previously tried to grasp on to was abolished by those last four words: he isn’t coming back. Those words echoed in my mind. Those words stung the deepest holes of my heart. Those words summoned every negative emotion I could’ve felt, every adverse emotion I wasn’t accustomed to feeling. Surely, I could’ve taken an optimistic outlook: it’ll be okay, we’ll find him, Holly is only his sensitive mother, worried because it’s her baby boy; he’d never actually leave without returning. But I didn’t want to. I could only seem to ask myself why life had to be this hard.
Still, there was no reason to give up hope in the midst of my sorrow uncertainty.
My car had taken me a lot of different places in search of my cousin that night without any success. Hours after I had received that first phone call and finished playing a real-life version of hide-and-go-seek, I finally came home; and, much to my surprise, it was only to find that he, the very cousin which had so vexed my mind, was sitting on my living room couch. All along, he’d been hiding only 20 minutes from his own house, waiting for someone to come talk with him. He knew in my home he’d find safety. He said if there was anyone he could talk to that would help him feel better and sort things out, it would be some member of my family.
Life strove hard to conceal any goodness in the cards it played that night; but even so, all I could think of at the end of the day was how simply, astoundingly good life can be. It teaches me that there is every reason to rejoice in the good, and in the bad, and in the ugly. There is every excuse to sing from the rooftops with Bob Marley that “Every little thing is gonna be alright!”
One thing I’ve learned about optimism is that nothing is ever going to “make” us happy. We’ve all experienced times where we’ve had reason to ask that age-old question, “Why does life have to be this hard?” It seems that that is quite a necessary part of living human experience. Trial is not something that can be wished away, and therefore, happiness is something we must choose. As we decide to dwell on the multitude of simple pleasures that brighten our lives rather than the handful of experiences that challenge our positivity, hidden glimmers of hope and happiness unveil their presence in our days.
It is always possible to find joy. Optimism is never a lost cause. While it may be difficult, it’s “the [road] less traveled by… that has made all the difference” for many an optimist—myself included (Robert Frost). If you wish to be happy, live your life the way that happy people live, even—and most especially—in trying times. Choose to see the glass half-full. After all, it was Carlos Santana that said, “If you carry joy in your heart, you can heal any moment.”