When we left off last time, I said that today we’re going to see how seeing
reality straight on can make you sane, instead of driving you crazy. To
figure that out, we have to understand how, for too many of us, our
relationship with reality keeps us crazy.
Let’s start with what’s good about reality. This we all know. Suppose you
have water dripping somewhere in your house. So you call a plumber. And
what do you want to hear from him? That it’s a cheap and easy fix! I
know!! The last house we lived in was a hundred years old by the time we
But come on. You don’t really want a cheap and easy fix that’ll end up with
a worse leak in a couple of leaks. You want an honest and experienced
plumber to tell you what’s really going on so you can really fix the problem
so it’ll really stay fixed. Whatever—gulp!—the cost is.
Now this is so obvious, why would there ever be a problem for any of us?
Because of what’s bad about reality.
First of all, we all suffer from bad news overload. From the plumber and the
electrician to the doctor and the lawyer to the news reports and opinion
columns it can feel as if the world is one vast conspiracy designed to scare
the crap out of us. No one, it seems, is part of a conspiracy to give us good
news. Right now, we’re coming out of an election that’s managed to make
no one happy! Right while the pandemic is peaking.
Second, we don’t feel we know how to cope with bad news most of the time.
That’s what makes it bad news. When my stupid kid comes home with a
bad report card, after all my nagging and attempts at helping, I’m just
thinking I don’t know what more I can do. And when we think of things to
do, they’re either too expensive or too arduous.
And so, third, this creates so much toxicity that we start thinking bad news
is bad for us. Welcome to America today: an entire culture crafted around
making bad news go away. We’re told anything and everything is possible,
we’re told it’s a mortal sin against our souls to be negative. We refuse to
believe experts when they tell us any bad news, just like the people who
deal with a cancer diagnosis who doctor shop until they unearth a doctor
who will tell them they don’t have cancer. We carpool a van load of kids
home from losing a soccer game and they’re all carrying trophies. If we can
just shut out the bad news, then we’re making ourselves healthy the way we
make ourselves healthy when we stop eating...whatever the latest thing is
that’s supposed to be bad for us.
This last tactic is especially damaging. The news we don’t want to hear is
almost always something we can deal with much more easily and cheaply
now than later. There’s no plumbing problem that won’t cost more to fix a
year from now than it does today. Even more so with health problems. And
as a family therapist, I can tell you that almost always couples come to me
after a lot of damage has been done from the same problem that could have
been worked out faster and more easily a few years earlier.
What’s more, as we keep pushing away the negative, we construct a sense
of ourselves that’s fragile, not “positive.” Being positive without being
totally realistic is like being a strong man made of sugar: he’ll melt away at
the first rain. Really accomplished people don’t feel “positive” at all,
actually. They feel they’ve been tested again and again against reality, and
sometimes failed and sometimes succeeded. And they’ve learned their
strengths and weaknesses.
And knowing your strengths and weaknesses when facing cold hard reality is
the greatest strength of all.
No wonder mindless optimism is a trap, if it prevents you from seeing
Now you might ask, Aren’t optimists the ones who actually go out and get
No. It’s an illusion. Here’s what’s real.
Sometimes you have bright but mindless optimists who take a huge risk and
succeed. Most movie stars are like this. So are most lottery winners too.
But sheer pie-eyed risk-taking will bring you down most of the time. Not a
Sometimes, though, you have visionaries like a Jeff Bezos or a Bill Gates.
They certainly had visions of what’s possible. They certainly weren’t
pessimists. But their operating manual was more what has been called
optimism of the heart, pessimism of the intellect. They dreamed big
dreams. But they also thought, obsessively, about all the ways things could
After all, who said realism couldn’t be just as much about what Robert
Kennedy said as anything else: “Some men see things as they are, and ask
why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” In other words,
it’s about real untapped possibilities as much as bad news.
But if the harsh light of reality scares you, you won’t be able to deal with the
bad stuff and you’ll never discover the really good stuff. And that’s how
seeing reality straight on can drive you sane.
So the final question is, How do we, in this harsh and scary world, bruised as
we are, repair our relationship with reality?