Prepare for the Best

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Earlier this summer our family embarked on an adventure to Kenya, where we worked in a children’s home filled with kids whose parents have died of AIDS. My husband ran medical clinics, while my mother and I worked on business development opportunities for some of the teens. My girls came along to help where they could, too.        In order to take such a trip, we were all required to get several shots. Being a parent who believes in full disclosure, I told my kids when I made the appointment. Big mistake. Rebecca, my older daughter, took it in stride. Katie, my younger one, didn’t sleep for a week. “How much will it hurt?” she asked, over and over again. Rebecca laughed at her mercilessly.

Then came the big day. Katie went first, and she didn’t even flinch. She said, at the end of it all, “that wasn’t that bad.” And Rebecca? We had to peel her off the ceiling.

Afterewards, I asked both of them which was better: to worry incessantly about something that may turn out badly, or to not worry at all, and then be surprised when life kicks you in the teeth? In other words, would you rather be a pessimist or an optimist? Pessimism believes in preparing for the worst, just like my youngest daughter did. She cried, she worried, she visualized, she whined. That way, she said, there was no way it could possibly be as bad as she imagined.

Optimism, on the other hand, is embodied in my Rebecca who, as a firstborn, thinks she’s invincible. Nothing bad is really going to happen, so when it does, boy is she surprised. She may not handle it as well as Katie, but she still emerges on the other side. I tend towards the Katie side of life myself, but in watching Rebecca, I really believe life would be a lot more fun if we all prepared for the best, rather than the worst.

That doesn’t mean we should all be carefree; just that if we’re so focused on the bad that may happen, we may miss out on the good. And we’re far less likely to try new things or take those big leaps because something—we’re never sure quite what—may be lurking just around the corner. So we live a safe life. A comfortable life. But not a very big life.

An aversion to risk is closely related to pessimism. My Katie, as talented as she is, won’t take dance lessons, though she dances around the house. She might not like it, you see. She didn’t volunteer to do a solo in the Christmas play, though after watching all her friends do it, she remarked she could have, after all. And the piano competition we entered them in this year? She dreaded it, until it came time for her to play. As we were leaving, she said, “that was actually kind of fun. Can I do it again?” After listening to her whine about it for two weeks, I almost strangled her. Those kids who have a “prepare for the worst” personality need to be pushed to try new things. But once they do try these things, and the sky doesn’t fall, they’re more likely to do it again.

Our daughters look a lot alike, and they have similar talents. But they are remarkably different. One I have to reign in, and one I have to push out. As I do continue to push her, though, I find that Katie is becoming more eager to try new things, and less certain that she’ll hate them.

I don’t think pessimism, or even just plain fear, is a fixed personality trait. Parents can affect it by what we do. And so we will continue to push our little one to take on new adventures and to aim for the sky. Even if it causes some anxiety, the end result is worth it. We had an amazing time in Africa, as even she agrees. The needles, in retrospect, weren’t that big a deal. I know what we saw and did there will affect her for years to come. I hope the lesson she learned about the shots will, too.

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