What’s Wrong With Pollyanna?

Posted on May 8, 2012 by


Most everyone has heard the expression “being Pollyanna.” It is usually meant as a slam against someone who insists on looking at the brighter side of things even under the worst circumstances. Our culture has esteemed the idea of being  brash and people who are cheerful, idealistic or just plain nice are often treated as an irritation simply for existing. I never knew where that expression, being Pollyanna, originated until I saw the film a couple of years ago. I no longer view “Polyanna  as an insult, though I’m sure I’m at no risk of being described as such anytime soon!

For those who have never seen it, a brief synopsis of  Pollyanna, the Disney motion picture originally released in 1960 and based on the novel written by Eleanor Porter in 1913. It’s about a newly orphaned girl named, you guessed it, Pollyanna. Upon the death of her parents, she is taken in by her very rich but grumpy Aunt Polly, whom she is named after, ironically. What’s worse, Aunt Polly lives in a stoic, gloomy town full of gloomy, grouchy people. That is, until Pollyanna comes to town, bringing her positive attitude and cheerful disposition with her wherever she goes. She had been taught by her late father, a poor but faithful missionary preacher, to look on the bright side, no matter how dire the circumstances. Things, she reminds the townsfolk, could always be worse. It’s not long before Pollyanna’s sunny personality begins to infect everyone she comes in contact with. Hence the expression we’ve become familiar with: being Pollyanna.

I pride myself on being a realist. My father, who was born during the depression and came of age during the second world war, always taught us to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This pragmatic, common sense approach to life had served him well through the years. It has served me as well but sometimes, great things can and do happen inexplicably, when we least expect it. We need to be open to that possibility or we’ll miss it. Being overly pragmatic can squeeze the joy out of life. Believing the best and expecting something good to happen makes life worth living. Too many people appear to suffer from a life too little joy.

Our 3 year-old is showing signs of being a real people person. When we are out and about she makes a point of giving a smile and a friendly hello to anyone she happens to make eye contact with. Sometimes her warm greetings are returned in kind. Other times, people look right through her or worse, look stunned, as though they are surprised that the child would bother to greet them. And say nothing. When that happens, which is unfortunately more often than it should, I sense her confusion.  When her friendliness is rebuffed, I sometimes cannot resist the urge to say (within earshot of the offending party): “Its okay, honey. Not everyone has your social grace.” It may not be the best response, but I think our tacit acceptance of rudeness allows it to spread unchecked.

We have even elevated rudeness and condescension to the level of virtue. Kindness is viewed suspiciously. We take no one at face value, and niceness is often branded a marker of phoniness. Our culture has conditioned us to hate  people “cursed” to be born with a sunny disposition in this age of snark and cynicism. But here is the worst part, from a Christian standpoint. We have actually convinced ourselves that the only way to speak truth or offer correction is from a place of pride, rudeness, and condescension. My kids can tell you that I’m as much a believer in tough love as anyone. I know that some people don’t respond to any other kind, but it shouldn’t be our way of first approach:

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Galatians 6:1

We are inundated with bad news, dire predictions, and negative reports at every turn. No wonder there are so many grumpy, pessimistic people walking about. No wonder my little girl can’t even coax a smile out of half the people we meet from day to day. I’ve had to train myself to stop being so suspicious and be cautiously open instead, and make connections with other human beings, if only for a moment. If a friend is wearing a dress I think is pretty, I tell her. If a child is beautiful to me, I say so. If a sister at church is in a color that she looks particularly good in, I say that too.

I have begun to invite people over to our home for dinner more often. This does not come natural to me.  I tend toward  keeping my guard up, which isn’t always compatible with having a pleasant attitude. There is a deficit of niceness in the world, and sadly, even in the church. But I refuse to contribute to the negativity so pervasive in our society. If we want the world to change, we all have to do our part. Proverbs says that he who desires friends must first show himself friendly.

I am in not promoting the idea of living in denial or hiding from reality.  But in a cynical world where people are rightly lauded for being frank, those who are nasty and  rude can get the idea that they have something to be proud of. Those who are polite and courtesy seem like an oddity. That’s a sad thing.  I’ve decided that given the alternative, being a Pollyanna isn’t so bad after all.