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The Conundrum Glass

I’ve never understood how the analogy of the glass determines if a person is an optimist or a pessimist. To me, the glass is, at various times, half empty or half full. It is also both half empty and half full at the same time, and it is neither half empty nor half full. It is its own quantity, not measured by comparison to something else. Of course, by questioning the premise like this, I am being rather critical, and critical people are not happy with the status quo, so they are pessimists. Or are they?

Recently, her father gave Sarah, a nine-year-old girl, the glass analogy as a test. He expected a simple half empty or half full answer, but that isn’t what he got.

"It depends," his daughter said, "on how the halfway mark was reached. Did you just fill it from the tap to that mark? Then it would be half full. If you filled it to the top and spilled some out, or drank it to the middle mark, it would be half empty." To this child, the process by which the glass reached the middle mark determined how she would view it. While it sounds like she is just being rather literal about something more metaphorical, actually, she had hit upon a truth about how we view events. We don’t just walk into a scene that has already happened to us. Events happen over time, and how they happen determines to some degree how we view them. Because we are not just by-standers in our own lives, the significance of events has to do with how we perceive them as they happen.

No one thinks about optimism or pessimism as a process involving time, and yet, everything involves time. We can’t exist without time – it is part of every event, every object. Just think of the glass with water at the mid-mark. Soon, that water will change in level. Water will evaporate and the glass could be dry. Think of that process. From one moment to the next, nothing seems to happen, but over time, big changes can occur, from full to empty to full again. So, at what moment in time are we to judge the glass’s halfness? We approximate.

Analogies are the same way. We approximate a meaning from many instances that might or might not apply. We have to assume we know which meaning of a word is being used. People who have convergent minds tend to think of the most common ways that two things might go together. Red is to green as horse is to cow makes perfect sense to them. Convergent thinkers easily group things into what they see as precise categories: colors and farm animals. They are also adept at focusing only on the problem at this one moment in time. They don’t focus on all the many possibilities. Divergent thinkers have a lot more trouble with analogies because they are able to think of many more categories, and many more unusual associations. They see the approximation. To them red and green can be opposite colors, so horse might go better with something else, like airplane. Horse also might go well with dinosaur if you think of all the creatures that ever lived through time. Divergent thinkers are not limited to the moment or to one aspect of a concept.

Convergent thinkers, looking at the glass, would be willing to make a judgment without questioning further. The concept of half empty or half full is pretty clear to them, and so they answer, and their answer may actually give some perspective on how they view the world, at least to another convergent thinker. In the story above about Sarah and her father, the father was clearly a convergent thinker. He saw only a set of two possible answers and each had a specific meaning. When Sarah could not choose an answer, he told her she was a pessimist who always found fault with everything, and was always negative and critical. Sarah felt hurt and misunderstood.

Sarah was a divergent thinker who saw many possibilities. In her mind, there was a set of many answers, which could change depending on the circumstances. She regarded her questions as a way of narrowing down the possibilities. Because there were so many possibilities, there was no one set answer. To Sarah, if she defined the parameters of the question, she might answer one way now, but another way tomorrow. For example, she might view the idea of a glass half empty as being positive, rather than negative – if she liked the substance in the glass at least she still had half; if she didn’t like the substance, there was only half left to endure. People who saw the glass as half full might be mourning that they only had half when they felt entitled to more.

Sarah’s father was right that she could be rather negative and critical, especially of him. In general though, Sarah was not a miserable, depressed child. She was generally happy with school and with her friends. There she tended to look forward to what was coming next. With her father though, she felt disapproval and came to dread his discussions. In fact, over time, she was much less pleasant when alone with her father. The problem wasn’t that Sarah was a pessimist, but that she was a pessimist in her father’s eyes. In fact, she was mainly pessimistic in her relationship with her father. Another father might have understood that Sarah’s mind worked differently from his and might have been fascinated by the many unusual ways she viewed things. He might have taken pleasure in his daughter’s unusual insights.

While it is clear to convergent thinkers that there are optimistic and pessimistic people, it is by no means clear to divergent thinkers. To them there is a range of optimism and pessimism. A person might be very pessimistic and another mildly so. The amount of optimism and pessimism might vary over time. This day, Sarah is quite optimistic that she will do well in school; another day, she is less so. People are also optimistic and pessimistic about specific things. Peter might be optimistic about getting good grades in school but pessimistic about getting the attention of the most popular girl in school. Peter might also be optimistic about the things in his own life he can control and pessimistic about those things he feels he cannot, like the government.

In general, optimists are viewed in popular media as happy, well-adjusted people. Optimists also get a lot of praise for being resilient, as if their good spirits and positive outlook were the result of something they actually had to do. Pessimists, on the other hand, get the bad rap of being miserable, complaining people who are critical and negative, viewing life through a lens darkly. Is this true? If it is, they deserve medals for the courage to go on anyway making something of their lives. Aren’t they the resilient ones because they have to work so hard for whatever modicum of happiness they get?

I think the divergent thinkers have it right, and this false idea of there being only two choices about how to live one’s life should be eliminated. The glass is the conundrum given to each of us; how we solve its problem tells us more about how we will view life than the belief that it can be only half full or half empty.

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