In praise of Pollyanna

“Give thanks in all circumstances” – 1 Thessalonians 5:13.

In response to Monday’s post on Rebuilding the Nation…and the National Weather Service, Jim Henderson commented as gently and gracefully as he could: “…I wonder if there is too much Pollyanna in it…”

Thanks for going easy, Jim!!

Check dictionaries and you’ll find definitions for “Pollyanna” such as “an excessively or blindly optimistic person.”

Hmm. Point taken. Maybe not so good…especially for a blog entitled Living on the Real World.

Worth a look. Who was this Pollyanna, anyway? How did she come by this reputation?  Until Mr. Henderson invoked her name, I knew what most of us know. She was a character from fiction…and the label is not the highest compliment. A number of readers may know the backstory, but I certainly didn’t.

Here’s some of what I learned of the Pollyanna background…taken from Wikipedia:

Pollyanna is a best-selling 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter that is now considered a classic of children’s literature, with the title character’s name becoming a popular term for someone with the same optimistic outlook.

We’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of this book. Timely, at least. (Digging a little deeper) here’s a plot summary, from the same source:

The title character is named Pollyanna Whittier, a young orphan who goes to live in Beldingsville, Vermont, with her wealthy but stern Aunt Polly. Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centers on what she calls “The Glad Game”, an optimistic attitude she learned from her father. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation. It originated in an incident one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna’s father taught her to look at the good side of things—in this case, to be glad about the crutches because “we didn’t need to use them!”

With this philosophy, and her own sunny personality and sincere, sympathetic soul, Pollyanna brings so much gladness to her aunt’s dispirited New England town that she transforms it into a pleasant place to live. The Glad Game shields her from her aunt’s stern attitude: when Aunt Polly puts her in a stuffy attic room without carpets or pictures, she exults at the beautiful view from the high window; when she tries to “punish” her niece for being late to dinner by sentencing her to a meal of bread and milk in the kitchen with the servant Nancy, Pollyanna thanks her rapturously because she likes bread and milk, and she likes Nancy.

Soon, Pollyanna teaches some of Beldingsville’s most troubled inhabitants to “play the game” as well, from a querulous invalid named Mrs. Snow to a miserly bachelor, Mr. Pendleton, who lives all alone in a cluttered mansion. Aunt Polly, too—finding herself helpless before Pollyanna’s buoyant refusal to be downcast—gradually begins to thaw, although she resists the glad game longer than anyone else…

Very cool. So Polyanna was glad/thankful in every circumstance. If the story had gone a different direction, if Polyanna had been persuaded to see the error and futility of her sunny way, and joined in the town’s dispirit, I can see how that label could become derogatory.

But that’s not what happened. She brought the whole town around…singlehanded. To me, that elevates the term from derogatory to cool.

Hate to burst your bubble, Bill, but it’s fiction. Fiction, Bill.

Wait a minute. We’re meteorologists. We’ve known since Ed Lorenz that the “flapping of the butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas”  From our professional perspective, shouldn’t we be uniquely equipped to see that our small individual influence, sustained over time, can work a rather dramatic effect?

That’s meteorology, Bill. And even there, it’s only a metaphor. Get real!

Okay, as a final point for discussion, I’ll offer three real-life examples.

First up – Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world.”  There was a guy who changed history. By being the change he wanted to see, he not only transformed India, he energized Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States, half a world away.

Second – Jesus Christ. His plan? Talk up a set of ideas about God’s love for the world in a small corner of the Middle East, coach up a ragtag group of twelve guys for three years – leading mostly by example. Die for the sins of the world.  Let things evolve as they will from there. 2000 years later, one third of the world’s people self-identify with that label, and once a year, even many of those who don’t are at their most generous, giving best for a month celebrating his birth.

Third – Commerce Department federal employees. This morning’s Washington Post ran an article (it runs annually) reporting on federal employees’ job satisfaction.   The headline notes that job satisfaction is sagging overall, but notes that the Commerce Department morale ranked fourth among all large federal agencies, behind only NASA (a perennial front-runner), the intelligence community, and the State Department.

We’re talking about the Commerce Department? Where over half the employees are NOAA? Where the satellite programs are over budget, the numerical forecast skill is endlessly chasing the Europeans, the organization is not perfect, the accounting practices leave something to be desired, the travel restrictions are a nightmare? That Commerce Department?

Call me a Polyanna, but that ranking under those conditions says a lot about the dedication, the sense of purpose, and the we’re all-in-this-together spirit of those employees…and the larger weather and climate enterprise with whom they work. Those attributes can probably work the organization through any challenge, present or future.

That’s just being realistic.

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2 Responses to In praise of Pollyanna

  1. James Henderson says:

    Hi Bill
    Good reply! There is certainly nothing wrong with optimism and as Harry Truman used to say “things will work out”. I especially liked your examples. However, having said that I will continue to stick with the (and with some optimism) Cliff Mass view of Living on the Real World with respect to the NWS and its attendant problems. Keep up the good work and I will continue to read your insightful Blogs.
    Jim henderson

  2. Thanks, Jim! Cliff Mass has done the world a service by taking the time to put such a comprehensive list out that and thereby engenedering a hearty discussion. The most useful part of such discussion is where we go from here. We all have a lot of work to do.

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