Pollyanna’s Choice

by Diane Cameron

The advice keeps coming on how to talk to children about current events. While there are some good guidelines, I'm beginning to think "What should I tell the kids?" is a bit of a disingenuous question. The truth is we don't know how to cope and we may be projecting our confusion onto them.

Here's what happened: Our big buildings got knocked down and people died, we started bombing Afghanistan, Anthrax arrived in the mail and more people died. But is it from the same bad guys or new bad guys? What should we think? Should we go about our business, run for cover, take a trip, or buy a bio-toxin shelter for the family?

Our most meaningful choices right now are around how to cope emotionally. Denial is one option. Last week I was surprised by a friend who insisted we have nothing to learn from Israel because "theirs is a long term situation and ours will be over soon." I had to remind myself that denial can take many forms. What I heard was not the fingers in your ears, "nah, nah nah I can't hear you" childlike refusal to "get it" but an adult strategy for preserving energy. Fear, after all, takes an enormous amount of energy.

Another, better response to what is happening is optimism. Oh, don't roll your eyes; we've all heard "Don't be a Pollyanna," but if you want a role model for coping in hard times that 11-year-old girl is a fine choice. Eleanor Porter created Pollyanna in 1912. Her book was a success with readers of all ages in its first years and since then it's become a children's classic. It is the story of a girl who goes through many painful events and is able to remain optimistic, and even infect the pessimistic adults around her with cheerfulness.

The negative rap on Pollyanna is that she is saccharine sweet or has her head in the sand, denying reality. Not true. It's not that Pollyanna didn't feel pain; rather she chose to continue to see the world as a good place despite her suffering.

We worry that kids can't cope with bad news, but look at what's on their bookshelves: Bambi, Babar, The Secret Garden, Heidi, Madeline, The Diary of Anne Frank, even Harry Potter. The best of children's literature revolves around stories of kids who experience fear and loss when they are young. These books allow kids to imagine the worst and to learn ways to cope. Adults can take a lesson here.

Pollyanna lived in poverty, was orphaned, and endured illness, grief, and pain in her life. As adults, most of us know how to toughen ourselves in order to survive. Pollyanna's talent was in feeling her anguish and still keeping her heart open.

Pollyanna has a counterpart in adult literature. In Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl wrote about the Holocaust, "The final freedom in any situation is the freedom to choose ones attitude."

The optimist sees the glass as half full, looks on the sunny side, counts blessings, works with a song in the heart, makes lemonade from life's lemons, is sure the sun will come up tomorrow and trusts that when one door closes, another one will open. Optimists don't deny reality but make a conscious choice to affirm good.

We get to make that choice now. We can fill our pockets with Cipro and open our mail with gloves or we can play Pollyanna's "Glad Game", which is "to find something about everything to be glad about." It can be corny or it can be very meaningful, like acknowledging all of the heroism and generosity that has emerged in the wake of September 11th.

Right now optimism may be the smartest, sanest strategy of all. Why not forget the gas mask and the gloves and grab a copy of Pollyanna. You may be glad you did.

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