I learned a new word the other day. The word is “pollyanna.” Now, I know what you literature fans (and one particular blog frequenter specifically; you know who you are) are thinking. How can you, a graduate student in a liberal arts field, have never heard of the iconic 1913 children’s book by Eleanor Porter?
It’s only inspired like a gajillian movie adaptations! Well, I’ll tell you… I’m not as smart as you think I am. Maybe if I wasn’t reading The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation by Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, I could actually read something like Pollyanna.
Anyway, the word has made its way into modern vernacular as meaning “a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything” (Merrium-Webster). The word has even inspired a psychological term, the Pollyanna Principle. This is the tendency for people to more accurately remember the good things as opposed to the bad things. It’s what inspires feelings of nostalgia when you pick up a soccer ball and remember that one time you tried to play soccer with a friend you never saw again. Or when you can dig up one or two fond memories from an ex relationship that you generally despise enough to write a Taylor Swift song about.
Unfortunately, we’re not living in a world that is particularly accepting of pollyannas. Our movies are dark, and our TV shows are darker. Do you know what happens to pollyannas on Game of Thrones? They die. Do you know what happened to pollyannas on House of Cards? They get walked all over. An irrepressible optimism is not appetizing in a world full of soothsayers claiming the world is going to end next month.
The problem is that it’s an accurate proxy to real life. Have you ever met an tough, hard, rugged, optimist? I mean, I’m big and tall, so I’ve got that going for me, but I certainly have no intention of beating anyone up anytime soon. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world just seems… meaner. More competitive. We’re less about exploring what makes people unique and good and more about fighting each other. I mean, we drive like we intend to run people over. People get catcalled like they don’t have a soul. Combine that with growing concerns that the planet is getting sicker from human interaction, and volatile tensions and wars are coming back for another round.
But I can’t help it. I see the good in everything and everyone. I have hope that the world is going to get better. I have hope that the bad things in my life are going to get better. So according to the definition, that makes the definitive version of a pollyanna. And you know what? I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of. I still contest that excessive optimism is a good quality. It’s a strong desire for things to get better.
“There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just that I believe things could get better.”
– David Crowder Band, Rescue is Coming