How to Be Optimistic Right Before a Panther Mauls You

Statue-ThinkerImagine for a moment that one day things go horribly wrong and you find yourself in a small room with a large panther.

There is a door in the room (thankfully) but the panther is ensconced in front of it (crap). In all likelihood, your rationality kicks in and you assess the situation. A predatory jungle cat is in a room with you, you are not a jungle cat tamer, and he (or she—it really doesn’t matter) is quite capable of killing you. So you have assessed the situation as a realist.

Now if you’re a pessimist, you’re in a really bad spot. You’re not assessing whether or not the panther will kill you, but how exactly you’ll be mauled and devoured, and if your cut-rate life insurance includes “accidental death by panther.”

But if you’re an optimist, you’ve already started to think about how you can get through that door. And for some inexplicable, perhaps asinine reason, you actually believe that you will get through that door.

I guess what I’m asking myself these days is this: Do I see life as a panther waiting to eat me, or an obstacle in the way of my door to freedom?

Growing up, I’d say I was an immature optimist. My optimism served as a way to protect me from accepting bad things would happen. Basically, I never even entertained the possibility of being trapped in a room with a panther. My life hadn’t seen many panthers, and I was pretty safe in my home and anywhere I went. Surely, I would just have the kind of life that existed without panthers. I was naive.

When we grow up and become fully responsible, positive thinking alone doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. Being positive can often be quite silly.

“Oh, Billy’s choking. It’s OK Billy. That thing will dislodge itself, I’m sure.”

“Wow Jean, never seen wheels just fall off the car like that. But at least you still have that unicycle.”

“Today my best friend kicked me in the face. Twice. Hooray for not three times!”

Those were ridiculous examples of course, but in reality being positive often seems downright inauthentic. As the bad experiences of life pile up, I think we get more and more pessimistic. We just expect bad things to happen, like a face kick or Billy choking. And eventually, when we find ourselves in the midst of the proverbial panther, we can’t possibly envision how we’ll avoid our leg being chewed off within five minutes. Where is there room for optimism?

I’ve come to find that optimism is not particularly the expectation of things going well, but the belief of things going well. If you’re a man interested in an attractive woman who appears to be totally out of your league, it can’t harm you to optimistically believe you can score a date with her. Because then, you might get a haircut, take a shower, spray on some Axe, rehearse your proposal, and who knows, she may just respond favorably. You could’ve been pessimistic and remained stinky and lonely, but your optimistic thoughts set you up for success. Now, she might find Axe repulsive and your face repugnant, and feed you some prevarication like she’s about to leave the country forever, but you would’ve absolutely never had a shot if you didn’t institute a modicum of hygiene in the first place.

But what about something serious, like our proverbial panther? Perhaps you’re without a job or you’ve received a troubling diagnosis. What if you simply can’t see a way to move past the panther and through the door? There’s a good chance optimism by itself won’t do. I wonder if the thing that’s better than optimism is hope.

The problem with hope is that it’s irrational. Hope doesn’t help me understand how to get out of a mess. Hope involves trust, trust in an outcome I can’t see but believe to be true. What’s scary is that if I just go on believing that I, myself, can find a way out of my dour predicament, I’ll be quite troubled when I rationalize that I have no ability to do so. Then what’s really scary is that I realize I need something else to help me. When no person in the world can rescue me from the panther room, where do I place my hope? In karma, in the universe, in a god?

Personally, I have to live my life believing that something, someone, will open up the door and save me from panther mauling. The idea of true optimism rooted in hope is terrifying—until we try it. Sure, it’s still hard, but when that first door is opened for us, just as we hoped it would, the way we live really begins to change.

Or at least it should. I’m still a work in progress.

Are you a pessimist? Optimist? Irrational hoper in something seemingly nebulous? I’d like to know.


  1. You may have unwittingly helped to invent a new word here, Carson. What would you call a person who is unclear about his or her beliefs? A nebulist!

    As for me, I don’t subscribe to the idea that as the bad experiences in life pile up, we become more pessimistic. More realistic perhaps, but not necessarily more pessimistic. I’d say I’ve had my share of bad experiences and/or tough luck. Some would say more than my share. But I consider myself to be an optimist. I think maybe I’m just wired that way, or maybe it’s because I can’t afford to be anything other than optimistic. Pragmatically speaking, it’s not in my own best interest to be pessimistic—especially if I’m staring down the mouth of a hungry panther, a job loss, or a disabling disease. Pessimism will not get me out of a tough situation, but optimism will at least put me in the position to formulate a strategy. And hope—as we all know—is not a strategy.

    In other words, instead of hoping that something or someone will open up that door for you, use that optimism to figure your own way out.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Carson.

    • Great words, Grant. I’m encouraged by them. As a younger lad, it’s helpful for me to hear that as life piles up it doesn’t have to leave us expecting the worst. I agree that a strategy is a good, optimistic response to crappy circumstances. I’m learning that. I suppose though, I’m willing to admit I need help. Perhaps I’m the master of my responses, but I’m not the master of my circumstances. My hope is that Someone greater is, who is for me. It’s a more appealing worldview than the nebulist’s, anyway. 😉


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