Is there anyone here that had a birthday this past week? Or maybe is having a birthday this week?
Are you looking forward to your party?
Have any of you ever had a really rotten miserable birthday? Especially a really, really rotten miserable birthday party?
I have a picture of my youngest child taken on his first birthday. It is definitely one of those large framed pictures that when you are all grown up — which he is now — you wish your parents would bury. But we still have it somewhere in the basement, and it shows him with his face all smeared up and covered with icing. At the moment the photo was snapped, he was not smiling and he was not crying. He was seriously engaged in the work of eating what might have been his first
slice of cake.
What his parents remember is that he cried his way through this celebration, and then the next one, and then the next one, nearly always having to be removed from the parties held in his honor. He must have been six years old, maybe seven, before he actually enjoyed birthdays at all.
I called him a few days ago in Paris, where he is a student all this year, and asked him why he always cried at his birthdays when he was a very young boy.
I could picture him on his cell phone, standing outside Sorbonne University, wearing his grown-up French pea coat and his grown-up French beard, and answering, “How do you expect me to remember? I was just little.”
If you don’t remember why you always cried at your parties, I persisted, as mothers do, then do you remember why you stopped?
“I guess I finally realized that it would be over soon, and that I liked cake.”
How very Eeyore, I told him, and he agreed. How very much like the way that gloomy donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories reacted to the world. Not exactly your party animal, apt to stay on the sidelines, not expecting much, in fact, probably anticipating some small or large disaster, a realist at best, a morose pessimist by most definitions.
But open finally to trusting those small moments of almost happiness that come when you are given a piece of chocolate cake — or in his case, an eaten-all-down empty honey pot, but at least a gift, from Pooh.
In the chapter in the book Winnie-the-Pooh in which Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents, we can see the soul – or the Tao — the way — of a pessimist.
It is written: “Eeyore, the old grey donkey, stood by the stream, and looked at himself in the water.”
“Pathetic,” he said. “That’s what it is, pathetic.”
He turned and walked slowly down the stream for twenty yards, splashed across it, and walked slowly back to the other side. Then he looked at himself in the water again.
“As I thought,” he said. “No better from this side. But nobody minds. Nobody cares. Pathetic, that’s what it is.”
There was a crackling sound in the bracken behind him, and out came Pooh.
“Good Morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good Morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
Pooh asks him, as always, what the matter is, and Eeyore tells him, nothing.
“We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
Can’t all what, Pooh asks.
“Gaiety. Song and Dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”
After a few more moments of idle Pooh talk, Eeyore confesses that his misery this particular day — as opposed to his misery on other days — is the result of the fact that it is his birthday and there are no presents, no cake, no candles and pink sugar.
When Pooh wishes him many happy returns, Eeyore retorts, almost breaking down, that it’s bad enough being miserable himself, what with no presents and no cake and no candles and no proper attention taken of him at all, he surely didn’t see the point of making others miserable on his birthday as well.
Undaunted by Eeyore’s wretchedness, because Pooh is an in-the-moment make-lemonade-out-of-lemons kind of bear, he goes off and with the help of Piglet and Owl manages to scrounge up a birthday of a Useful Empty Honey Pot (after Pooh has licked it clean) and a Burst Red Balloon (popped by Piglet along the way) and a very long card. All of which Eeyore finally is pleased with and happy as could be when he figures out he can stick the remains of the balloon in the pot, pick it up with his teeth, put it back in. And so on and so forth.
He can at last see the utility of these improvised birthday offerings, and ways to use them that he has some control over. He can make his own joy on his own time, on his own terms, not depending on chance or circumstance to make anything so. Not having expected anything, he can be surprised and thrilled.
It’s not that Eeyore is unkind or uncaring to others, and that’s what makes him the complex, human, and lovable character he is. I asked a fellow staff member who, I learned, is as much an Eeyore fan as I am, what about him was appealing to her. She told me that his phrase “No Bother” is her favorite. She said that while everyone else in the Hundred Acre Woods tended to ignore him, except when he was in crisis — like when his tail fell off and became Owl’s door knocker and that got Pooh’s attention.
Eeyore is willing to stand in the shadow of the other characters and quietly do things that are noticed rarely but truly needed. Quiet, cuddly, and kind, that’s Eeyore’s true character — not asking for much, certainly not expecting much, but always willing to help a friend.
She says Eeyore is perceived as gloomy but she sees him as really shy and inwardly reflective, moving slowly and cautiously through a world that can be full of unpredictability, pits, and snares. Unfamiliar, unexplored woods and Heffalumps.
Definitely not a Decider, a quality, as I will talk about a little more lately, that may be more admirable in pessimists than we might have allowed.
A little — or a lot — of self disclosure. I am sure it is no accident that a child of mine showed definite signs of pessimistic personality at the age of one. Or that his favorite film maker, or perhaps even favorite famous figure in the world is Woody Allen. It may very well have been in the family waters.
When I was in middle school I had a history teacher who wanted me to put up a sign on my desk every morning to tell him if I was feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world. Was I, he asked me, having a cheerful day or, like Eeyore, a morose day? Given the fact that the year I was in his class was also the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of complete obliteration in the middle of the cold war, with regular reports about the red terror and the atomic bomb, I can’t see that I was so much a fretful adolescent worry wart as a clear-eyed realist.
We all know jokes and sayings about pessimists:
A pessimist’s definition of an optimist is someone who knows today is so bad, tomorrow has just got to be better.
The optimist thinks this is the best of all worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.
A pessimist is one who feels bad when he feels good, for fear he will feel worse when he feels better.
A pessimist is a person who has had to listen to too many optimists.
The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being proven right or pleasantly surprised.
How many pessimists does it take to light one little candle? Pessimists cannot do it. Only optimists light one little candle.
Essayist/philosopher Christopher Orlet has written recently about optimists and pessimists, believing that early on every thinking human being makes the conscious or unconscious decision to view the cup of life as half full or dry as the Garragum Desert.
Those whose cup is half full, he writes, are the world’s optimists, the Pollyannas, and the kind of people, he believes, to be avoided at all costs, particularly at parties. In America, he tells us, they are, according to the Gallup Poll, the majority (64%). They are the same folks, as he describes them, who wave flags, bet on the Cubs, and get caught in thunderstorms without an umbrella.
Pessimists, by his calculations, make up about 10 percent of the American population. The other 26 percent, he says, couldn’t care less, and were probably too busy watching professional wrestling to bother filling out a survey.
Orlet finds pessimists to be, if not exactly pleasant, then at least sincere. What you see is what you get, he writes, with none of the forced cheeriness of the orthodox optimist, who walks around telling pessimists to smile and to quit being so pessimistic. Pessimists, do, he believes, eventually recognize some signs of hopefulness, some benefits in birthday cake and acts of kindness, so will from time to time have a few good words for their fellows.
But the optimist simply goes overboard, he has concluded, gazing at the world through grossly distorted glasses, refusing to focus on reality.
Unitarians and Universalists historically have landed firmly in the optimist camp — the old joke goes that Universalists believe that God is too Good to damn anyone to hell and that that Unitarians believe they are too Good to be damned. It is true that our faith is basically tilted toward believing, as we say in our first principle, that people are inherently good.
That we are not only capable of, but inclined always toward, helping each other grow in every way, to be fully who we may be, to make a better community, to make a better world. That people can get along, regardless of their differences. That human progress is real and constant. It only takes the proper education and good will to make it so.
We want this for ourselves and we want this for our children. Each time we dedicate a child we make a commitment to support families in this vision. In one of our child dedication ceremonies, we ask ourselves to so live that our children may acquire our best virtues and leave behind our best failings. We ask that we may pass on the light of courage and compassion and the questing spirit so that the light burn more brightly in the child than it has in us.
We of course do not wish to abandon these sentiments, abandon this faith — for faith is believing in that which may not always be evident or come to pass. I would only suggest, as have others over time, that we also give our children permission to be at least occasionally what some attach as a completely negative label to pessimists — what some sage named as realistic optimists.
Third generation Unitarian Kate Tweedie Ersley, a religious educator in our movement, in her book Full Circle: Fifteen Ways to Grow Lifelong UUs, urges us, among other things, to prepare all for the negative (or at least not so positive) side of community.
Perhaps, she suggests, as a consequence of our liberal idealism, our sunny-side-up theology, which makes it hard to accept mistakes and imperfections, we rarely teach about the downside of our faith tradition and institutions. Like our brothers and sisters, she reminds us, we have our squabbles, our problems and our shortcomings.
And beyond our behaviors, we have assumptions that can trip us up, blind us some, like our tendency to emphasize the intellectual at the expense of other human elements. Or, as pioneer religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs recalls from her years of teaching, that we spend ninety-five percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skip very lightly over the bad part of humanity.
I was taught, she wrote, not to be judgmental, not to observe, or report on the bad behaviors of others. Consequently, because of my education, she came to believe, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent at observing it in others, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed to talk about evil.
We may, as Garrison Keillor has often reminded Unitarians, live in a Lake Woebegon of the mind where all children — indeed all of us — are above average and above reproach.
I know as a Unitarian parent that I was not so sunny about human nature that I let my children out on the road as new drivers without preparation, even in light of research that shows us that we ordinarily and systematically exaggerate our chances of success, believing us to be either luckier or more competent and more in control than we actually are. Some eighty percent of drivers, for instance, think they are better at the wheel than the average motorist and less likely to have an accident.
I do believe that despite our outward professions, we generally have enough inner Eeyore to prepare ourselves and the children among us for the inevitable bumpy spots, the disappointments, the unmet expectations, the lost tails and the empty pots of life. We may need to just speak it more often, because words are powerful reminders.
The consequences of what one Nobel Laureate calls excessive optimism is that when a large majority of people believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and talented than average and overestimate their future success, they can be foolhardy. When they believe they have an illusion of control, even when the consequences of and outcomes of their decisions will be random or decided by other forces, they can be more than foolish. Their actions can be dangerous and deadly.
Cliff Bostick, a local columnist for a free weekly here, reminds us that this optimism is why some believe we humans tend to be more hawk-like than dove-like — assuming we can predict success in conflicts, leading us into cake-walks that turn into minefields.
What we need right now is a homeopathic dose of pessimism he tells us. We desperately need to hear the voices of usually not, and one never knows for sure, and better to wait, and watch, and things don’t always work out the way we presumed. To remind us that there is power and salvation sometimes in negative thinking.
And time to stop.
Next Sunday, the 18th of March, there will be vigils all over the country, all over Georgia, and right here at the corner of Briarcliff and North Druid Hills at 12:45 p.m. marking four years of war in Iraq. By showing up, we can call for a return to realistic optimism, insisting that this carnage cannot continue and that in the name of all children, we must find a better solution.
Sometimes living in the way of Eeyore is the healthiest and most righteous response of all.