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“Most Optimistic”

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04/30/2015

Jessica Korneff photo

Slightly tucked behind some mothy Beanie Babies on my dresser at home stands a glowing, faux-Oscar statue. Below the elegant Oscar himself, the following superlative is engraved: "Most Optimistic."  

This is one of my most prized possessions. I won it at an awards ceremony during one of my final nights studying abroad in Jerusalem. I love this statue, and I love everything it represents and reminds me of. There's just one little problem -- it's not true.  

I might describe myself as people-pleasing, or generally cheerful, or even mostly happy, but I would never, ever classify myself as optimistic. This isn't a contradictory statement; the difference is based on time. Cheerful is how you feel in the present moment, while optimism or pessimism is how you feel about the future.  

"A pessimist confronted with two bad decisions," claims one Jewish proverb, "chooses both."

In my case, however, I'd say the pessimist chooses neither. When you're 23 years old, life sort of veers in whichever way you direct it. For me, this is puzzling -- every decision before had always been preordained or set upon some kind of prescribed, pre-approved route.  

"Choices are made in brief seconds and paid for in the time that remains," writes author Paolo Giordano.  

This thought haunts me. How can I possibly know which second will mold the future? Faced with big life decisions, I usually retreat and just let things unfold instead of plunging forward. Numbing anxiety about the future causes me to step quietly into the backdrop and let things happen as they may.  

By doing nothing, I may actually be choosing the most harmful option.  

Any decision can go wrong, but, as I've started to learn, not doing anything is making quite a decision in itself. Time goes by, even if you let events pass through by osmosis. Things are still happening and they're shaping into what's becoming your life.  

As it turns out, I'm definitely not alone in my outlook. In fact, we Jews are pretty famous for exactly this habit of pessimistic anxiety. We often see ourselves on the cusp of some mind-boggling, existential threat, and often, we're not wrong. Throughout the centuries, this tendency has carried over and made (some of us, at least) walk the world with a perpetual thunder cloud over our heads.  

Putting aside my self-proclaimed pessimism, I should point out that there may be a bright side here. Recent studies done at Ontario's Lakehead University have shown a correlation between high levels of anxiety and intelligence. While nothing is conclusive yet, this just one of several studies that shows a potential connection between the two. So at least we can quit worrying about that .  

I don't know for sure how much pessimism or anxiety has affected me. It's definitely caused some sleepless nights, and plenty of hand-wringing and anguished re-hashes of the past. It causes me to question the decisions I've already made, and to doubt the choices yet to come.  

But when I can, I sneak a glance back at my Oscar. It reminds me of a time when I was happy and fulfilled in Jerusalem, going to bed each night hopeful for the next day. If nothing else, it reminds me that I can conceivably be optimistic. At least, I can certainly try.

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