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Part 2


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

moved out.

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

things done?

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

recommended strategy.

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

go wrong.

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?


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