Optimism, Pessimism, Realism

The optimist disregards the existence of painful reality or at least tries to improve the situation by steeping it in rosy colors. He is content with the present and confidently expects happiness and pleasure from the future. He clings to his early, infantile life of wish fulfillment. He cherishes the happy disposition of a contented child who knows that Mother will always be there and will take care of him as surely as the sun will shine again. For the realist it is again and again surprising -- and sometimes annoying -- to see how often the untiring optimist persuades or seduces reality to "come across," to be kind to him, to take over the role of Mother Fortune and smile kindly at him. Optimists live as if life offers them a drink or a breast to nurse from. They often look like satisfied babies. They are trusting children who expect some powerful mother to step forth in the future to feed them. "Everything will be all right" is their slogan. They are the noble characters who never learn from bad experience. They will smile when the realist frowns.

In analyzing them, a desperate depression often is found underneath the optimistic show of good cheer. They constantly belittle themselves and need the all-powerful mother to come to their rescue. They are almost psychotic in their unrealistic belief that they will settle all doubt and despair with faith and hope as their miracle. Their optimistic delusion may be a leftover from early life when the child does not distinguish between "I" and "you," the inner and outer worlds, but firmly believes in the omnipotence of his thoughts and wishes. The optimist gives the world a chance to repeat the miracle of the kind, life-giving mother. He re-creates the old childhood megalomania.

The humorist has chosen a more difficult and complicated assignment than the optimist who clings to an old childhood illusion come hell or high water. The humorist is similar to the depressive in so far as he resignedly accepts the fact that the good mother left him when he was expelled from the childhood paradise. But in contrast to the depressive, he does not spend his life in grief and mourning about the milk which was spilled a long time ago; he does something about it. He resolutely takes over the role of the good mother and himself plays it to the hilt for his own benefit. He is friendly and kind to himself and tries to develop a similarly tolerant and humorous attitude toward others. The grief over the loss of the good mother shows occasionally in the sadness of the humorist, who always seems to smile through tears.

The sense of humor or an optimistic attitude often develops in girls at a time when they are denying their fear of being sexually inferior to men and when they cannot accept the difference between boy and girl. Then they try to believe in miracles: What I do not have I may get later, in one form or another. The final and most favorable outcome of such castration anxiety in women may be the peculiar realism of the woman, closely akin to moderate realistic optimism and confidence. It represents a final working through to resigned acceptance: I have been castrated, nothing can happen to me any more, I am going to make the best of it.

In later life, especially after such women become mothers, they will see that their lot is not that of the castrate but that they have something which is possibly superior to anything a man has to offer. They once defended themselves against their castration anxiety with the optimistic feeling that nothing really bad could happen any more; they have been through it, and that is that. They actually have worked out a deeper and more important conflict than that connected with genital sexuality. They have finally come to a peaceful adjustment of the original conflict concerning their disappointment with their mothers, who, they felt, treated them unfairly compared with their brothers.

A woman's development is perhaps more difficult in our time than that of a man because of her repetition of the trauma of weaning and of losing the mother; having to leave the Garden of Eden in early childhood is repeated once more when the girl considers herself underprivileged if she compares her body with that of the boy. Old childhood fears are reactivated in the girl when bloody events like menstruation in puberty and later defloration seem to prove the reality of the threat of castration. The happy outcome of all these trials and tribulations in the development of the female is reached when the girl finally becomes a mother herself and develops in her relation toward her children a mature attitude toward herself and the mother within her. She has become by then a realist through her experience and a humorist through her love.

As a rule, and for good analytic reasons, women are both less optimistic and less pessimistic than men. They are much more realistic. They have faced reality, and after some struggle they have finally accepted it. It was not easy. Their mothers did not help much, but they finally reached the level of realistic adjustment by themselves (assuming that they are not among the great number who get stuck in neurosis or immaturity). Seemingly they accepted the male verdict that they were originally designed to be men but never made the grade and never received the mark of distinction.

Women are not more neurotic than men; they only show neurosis more clearly. Men can escape into business and work, which give them a convenient outlet for all kinds of neurotic tendencies. The woman's life revolves around human relationships, in which neurotic tendencies show up with pitiless, painful clarity.

The strangely realistic orientation of the woman shows best in little things. While a young man is still wondering how to go about kissing his girl for the first time, she has probably long been thinking about the linoleum in the kitchen after their marriage. When a woman drives her car through a red light and sees a policeman, he is for her just another man in uniform; the fact that she has broken a traffic rule may not change her reaction. If a man sees a policeman, he will react very differently. The policeman becomes, in the mind of the man, the image of all kinds of threats; his realistic function becomes negligible.

Men have trouble facing reality because it is so difficult for their unconscious to accept the fact that women seem to them simultaneously inferior and superior; that they do not have what men have and that they are still not castrated; that they have so little to show compared with men, yet so much to give; that they can create life, while men have relatively little to do with it. How do they do it?

Our primitive unconscious just does not allow us to see it. If we would let ourselves see it, we men would have to go a step further and admit the inferior creative role of the male, Mother Nature's afterthought. Where the woman creates new life, men try to satisfy their creativity in many lesser ways.

A woman needs illusion only until she recognizes her strength. She must face men in their silliness, in their competitiveness, in their defensiveness. To do that she needs a quiet superiority; in other words, she needs a sense of humor. She needs it to keep from laughing her head off at men.

Compared with woman's role in creating life, the man's role is that of a drone. He can never forget this, and he will always defend himself against this insight. The drone anxiety of the male is the reason why he must try to demonstrate a superiority he does not have. He must postulate and assume that the woman is envious of him, or, as a psychoanalyst would say, that the neurotic woman suffers from penis envy. The woman must overcome her shock at finding that the man, or the little boy, has something which she does not have, but she has a good chance to overcome this envy. Because of her creative superiority, the woman can serenely and smilingly accept her supposed inferiority; she knows better. Man has always been borne by her, and in his unconscious she will always represent his mother. Man will therefore fight for his freedom from her. She, however, will have an easier task. She will have to fight her mother less, because she may become a mother herself. Wit is his; humor is hers.

The mature woman smiles tolerantly and pretends to accept the male's false claim to superiority over her. She agrees to accept it because every time the man approaches her sexually she can show her superiority. She is always ready; he must get ready. She may watch, while he must perform. For the man the sexual act is a test, an examination, a performance. If the woman so chooses, she may watch the performance and still perform. The man needs cooperation; so to speak, he needs a helping hand. The man is dependent; either he can do it or he cannot do it. The woman is always potentially potent, the man is always potentially impotent. While the woman longs for intercourse, the man performs a kind of "extracourse." Where the man discovered love through sex, the woman discovered sex through love. These are the great differences between the sexes.

A sense of humor is a sign of maturity, a sign of sublimation, a sign of love. The woman has a greater chance to achieve her level of maturity than the man. Even though her part is more difficult, she gets there more frequently.

The young woman's calm, realistic self-reliance in contrast to the young man's tense, alert search for self-assurance were made strikingly clear to me a few years ago. In order to acquaint myself with normal young Americans and to compare the troubles and conflicts of late adolescence with the typical psychiatric problems of old age, I decided to join a group of college students who took long hikes under the sponsorship of their college. A teacher was in charge, and approximately ten young women and as many young men were participating. I tagged along as an interested observer. We passed a nudist camp on one of our hikes and quite naturally the conversation turned with some animation to nudism. When we were nearing the gates, I could not resist asking teasingly and testingly, "Why don't we visit the camp?" It was clearly understood that while we were in Rome we would have to do as the Romans did. After some discussion a vote was taken, and all the girls -- unanimously! -- voted in favor of a visit. All the boys -- just as unanimously! -- voted against it. We continued on our hike around the camp and into the mountains.

I must add here an embarrassing confession. I had worked for almost thirty years in psychiatry and psychoanalysis and considered myself as qualified and experienced, intuitive and understanding an analyst as they come. But I was completely baffled by this vote and behavior. The unanimous vote, the clear-cut line of separation between the sexes, even the No of the boys instead of acceptance of an adventure, was unexpected and inexplicable to me for a long time. The daring readiness of the young women was also a surprise. At that time I did not know that a woman feels most innocent when she is daring. I realized only later that a woman has little to hide in such an experiment; that she is protected by nature in the role of onlooker, while all men react on such an occasion as if they are taking a test which is highly unfair and one in which they can only fail.

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