Eternal Optimists Piss Me Off

RoseColoredGlassesAt the risk of sounding judgmental (how human would that be?) I’ve got to admit that when I continually hear nothing but rosy accounts from the same person, I grow suspicious, even angry at times.

For example, an elderly woman I knew many years ago never had anything but the kindest, nicest things to say about people, even about people I found monstrously arrogant or rude. She was always smiling and cheerful, even in her nineties when I knew she had aches, pains, and countless physical problems and not everyone treated her well. By her account, people were always delightful, and her cheerfulness never ended.

Get real, Gertie, I thought. Admit it. Some of the cherries in that bowl are rotten.

Another example is an acquaintance who seemed authentically forthright and open. Until serious illness set in. At first, rosy Caring Bridge accounts of awesome friends and caregivers, minimal side effects, and even the blessing of illness seemed brave and spunky. Later, when no post ever mentioned the least affliction of the spirit, I became suspicious. These sound like press releases from the Ministry of Positive Thinking and Eternal Gratitude. What's it really like? What are we not hearing?

Snarky bitch am I not? But those reports increasingly reeked of dishonesty. I became increasingly convinced I was not reading the whole story. I felt disrespected and misled. While happy to hear good reports, I wanted to read about the challenges of remaining positive in spite of the odds, in the face of obstacles. I wanted survival lessons "just in case."

Now, lest you decide I’m totally lacking in compassion, please understand that I realized both these people presumably held back for good reasons. The old lady belonged to an ethnic minority and learned from her first breath not to make waves. My annoyance with her was fleeting. The ill acquaintance was probably hanging on by fingernails, frantically stomping all negative thought, hoping thereby to promote healing for self — and also for the world. This person is like that. Genuinely compassionate and caring, expecting the best of others and determined to set a great example by walking the talk

But it pissed me off. Reports — STORIES, that is — that lack conflict, lack a bit of appropriate, expected pain, suffering and angst don't ring true. Authenticity holds my attention, especially authentic transcendence. You can't transcend what you don't experience and unless you give a fuller picture we don't know but what you had a fortunately light case of whatever, sort of like being passed over by a blizzard after dire forecasts.

I'm not perfect. I obsess, fend off fear, dread and demons of doubt and despair like anyone else. I bite back now and then. So the last thing I want to read or hear about is someone so good, so saintly, that they don't have these carnal thoughts or problems. That makes them unattainably better than me. I must cut them down to size or feel diminished myself. Unfortunately, cutting them down to size makes me feel rotten, not encouraged.

So here's the irony for lifestory and memoir writers:

If we record only the light sides of ourselves, our noble accomplishments — the sides we want to be remembered for and examples we want to provide, we come across as plastic stereotypes who set an unattainable standards. Through perceived insincerity, we run a great risk of pissing off readers.

To claim admiring respect spin around in front of the camera, for at least a quick rotation, and prove that you are/were human. It doesn't have to be much — only what's required to flesh out the story. A few lines of inner reflection may be enough, if they support the story to help readers understand your point and person.

Only vampires and liars lack shadows.

Write now: pull out an overly bright story and add a few lines of shadowed reflection for depth and credibility. Readers will love you for it.


SuziCate said...

In writing, a range of emotions pulls a reader in. You want to feel what they feel, get to know them. In reality, (annoying or not) many people don't like to project negativity on others or just don't care to share deep emotions with those they don't know on a personal level.
I once knew someone (on a professional level) who was so sweet it was annoying. I look back now and feel badly that I was annoyed with her. I didn't know her intimately and I know now she was just trying to be kind.

Sharon said...

Thanks for the note of balance, Suzi. I never feel badly about being annoyed -- unless it prompts me to say something unkind. In this second case, the fact that the person claimed to be sharing so openly ... maybe denial was in effect. Whatever the case, it didn't ring quite true, and as writers, credibility with readers is the gold standard. My gesture of kindness here is to carefully safeguard the identity of that person while turning the account into a case study.

As I think even more deeply, I respect anyone's right of privacy, to not disclose "everything." The rub here was the sense of intention to tell all that sorta didn't. Maybe, if there really was no fear, angst, depression or whatever would be expected, a line like "I'm amazed I'm not scared silly like most people I've talked to..." would do the trick.

Boyd Lemon said...

You know that I am far from recording only the bright side of my character. Therefore, I agree with your comment, except that I tend to cut even dishonest optimists a little more slack than you do, and I would point out that it is better than the opposite extreme, in my opinion.