On our Pollyanna problem

“When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”

Pollyanna (1913)


When we examine our lives and the lives of others, what should we focus our attention on? To make this question perspicuous, let’s consider a few cases.

a) Suppose you apply for a job for which you believe you would be a good fit. A month goes by, and finally you receive an email rejection. How should you take this? As a sign of your incompetence? As bad fortune? As an opportunity to reconsider what you value most in life? As an opportunity to revalue how much interest you took in the job?

b) Suppose you enroll your son in summer baseball. Young Johnny (I’m not sure why you named him that–lack of focus perhaps) has a propensity for striking out and then for crying uncontrollably afterward. After one such incident, what should you say to tenderhearted Johnny?

c) Suppose we read the following about a Holocaust survivor. “A proponent of maximizing our own happiness,” Robert Nozick writes in The Examined Life, “might recommend we ignore these negative portions of reality and focus our attention selectively only upon the positive. Sometimes that might be appropriate; a person in a Nazi extermination camp might focus eventually upon memories of Mozart’s music in order to escape the horrors around him. But if this were his preoccupation from the beginning, smiling constantly in fond memory of the music, that reaction would be bizarre. Then he would be disconnected from important features of his world, not giving them emotional attention commensurate with they evil they inflict.”


Imagine a continuum stretching from negative to positive. In the first row, we have the evaluative stance we can take toward ourselves; in the second, the stance we can take toward others. With regard to our self-evaluation, the range of values goes from self-loathing to self-deception and, in our estimations of others’ lives and actions, from damning to sugar-coating. Thus:

Ourselves: Self-loathing (-) ——————– Self-deception (+)

Others: Damning (-) ——————– Sugar-coating (+)

Pollyanna, she’s prone to self-deception and to sugar-coating. But then her Alter Ego hates herself and damns others in equal measure.

“Choose the mean!” you say.

“How? And where the hell is that?”


Why are we pulled in multiple directions, stretched, as it were, on the “conceptual rack”? I think it’s because we are following two sometimes conflicting demands. We want to know ourselves and to grasp reality. Truth matters to us. Yet we also want consolation. Our happiness depends, in key part, on resilience: that is, as George Vaillant has shown, on our ability to bend like a reed and to spring back.

I doubt whether there is a moral calculus that, once discovered, will pull us out of the morass. I’m not sure that life actually works that way, providing us with a Universal Yardstick or Decision Wand. Becoming a virtuous person will involve becoming an excellent judge of ourselves and others. The kind of intelligence I have in mind, the Aristotelian kind, will be contextual, circumstantial, case-by-case. It’ll involve errors in judgment, reflection, moments of regret and remorse, humility and modesty, and more than a hint of tragedy. We’ll have to feel our way through and assess as we go along.

What, then, will be the ultimate test? In some cases, it’ll be whether we can put our foot on the floorboard first thing in the morning. In others, whether we can be empathetic and honest. And in a few, whether our children have become adults: mature, responsible, self-reflective grown-ups. Perhaps–and I leave this as little more than a provisional conclusion–it’ll be whether we can die peaceably without having to resort to self-deception.