An Optimistic Yankee in a Gloomy Court
Mela is a Christian psychologist in Poland, where I live. She recently led a workshop about depression and at the end admitted, “If we judged by the descriptors in American books on the subject, we would say that most Poles are depressed most of the time.”
Boy, have I noticed! They do not call it depression or pessimism, though—they call it realism. They are convinced that we seemingly cheerful Americans are as shallow in personality as we are in small talk. The common exchange:
“How are you?” “Fine!”
strikes them as ridiculous. This may be true for many Europeans. Indeed, an Englishman once responded to my casual, “How are you?” with, “Do you want an American answer or a real answer?”
The truth about small talk is that it is highly ritualistic in every culture. It keeps us on territory that is tacitly agreed to be harmless, and it allows us to approach honest self-revelation cautiously.
Polish small talk is complaining, which is considered safe ground. I had to learn that the grumbles of my friends were not usually a request for help. My natural instinct is to suggest solutions, but that can be offensive because it is putting myself in a superior position. Instead, the proper response in Poland is to tell about my own problems, which I still find difficult to do as small talk. After all, presenting an upbeat attitude to the world is something I absorbed with the Mickey Mouse Club, Barbie dolls, and Ovaltine!
Why do we annoy each other so much with our different communication styles? It seems that conversational norms are not only learned early but are also deeply cherished. Linguist Guy Cook says that “Deviation from normal, expected patterns (in conversation) has sometimes been seen as criminal, rebellious, madness, stupidity, autism, being foreign, or as creativity.” (Discourse, Oxford University Press, 1989.)
Foreign-ness is in interesting company there!
I did not realize how reverently we Americans regard optimism until I lived among people who do not. This Polish proverb tells so much about the contrast: Hope is the mother of fools.
There are good reasons for these differences. Much of Poland’s long history is tragic, whereas America has generally rolled merrily along, pulsating with success, prosperity, and power. Neither stance can truthfully be labeled as Christ-like.
Even though I understand all this now (and have learned to dislike a façade of cheer that keeps everyone at a distance), the glum talk can still get me down. After some time here, however, I realized how growing closer to Christ can help with both kinds of cultural baggage. In the final analysis, joy, not optimism, is the fruit of the Spirit, and it is not dependent on circumstances.
Imagine that Poles and Americans without God stand on opposite ends of the ‘positive attitude’ scale. As we grow in Christ, we move toward each other. Within the security of His love, Americans start to identify with the poor and broken. We feel safe enough to admit doubt, to accept ambiguity, and to acknowledge the injustice that rules this world. We can weep with those who weep.
Within the security of His love, Poles begin to see His reality shine through their reality, like sunlight through a dark old stained-glass window of a dark old church. The window is transformed; their lives are transformed by His unrealistic joy and irrational peace. They can rejoice with those who rejoice.
We may not end up in exactly the same spot on the scale, but we will find ourselves at least close enough to join hands, and to move forward together on our pilgrimage.