Oliver: Sometimes it takes years to find the sunny side of life

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Let me let you in on a secret: I have not always been an optimist.

In fact, for many years one might say I was a textbook pessimist. I would have said I was merely being a realist. But isn’t that what pessimists say?

I was born a serious child. Most of the photos from my infancy are not the traditional smiling, chubby-cheeked cherub variety. No, I was serious even as a toddler, more apt to look warily at the camera than play to it.

Home life during those years probably contributed to my trend toward the morose.

I grew up with a mother who had been a victim of abuse. So she met the world in a less-than-optimistic way. Although she managed to sidestep the physical abuse that had characterized her childhood, she did put a fair amount of verbal abuse into mine.

Then there was the bullying that made every day a slog during junior high. Going home wasn’t exactly a respite. No wonder I wasn’t exactly a happy-go-lucky kid.

By high school, my best friend captured my angst-filled teen years by telling me that she always thought of me when she heard the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” with the lyrics: “There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.”

My musical tastes ran toward the glum, too, with a lot of The Smiths, The Cure and Tears for Fears. As a child of the 1980s, I definitely could have been “goth” had I been allowed to sport the requisite dark eyeliner and black clothes. Then again, I probably would have gotten kicked off the debate team, so that wasn’t going to happen.

In college, I finally had a name for what I believed to be my hard-wiring. I had a “Russian soul,” according to the professor in my Russian literature class. The same sort of sorrowful worldview found in “Anna Karenina” and “Crime and Punishment” was the one with which I was all too familiar. The deaths of my father to cancer and a sorority sister to murder amplified the emotional pain of that time.

Add in a healthy dose of the cliché young intellectual’s sarcasm and you get a rather unflattering picture of the person I was becoming. I suppose I wasn’t all that much fun to be around. It took a few more years to make me wake up.

Although it wasn’t automatic and it didn’t happen overnight, I turned a corner and decided that I’d be happier if I met the world in a more positive, productive way. And it’s where I hope to stay.

My optimism has been something I’ve fought hard to find. It’s something I constantly have to work at. And it’s something that often wanes, particularly when I’m tired and not feeling well.

My mother coming to live with me and her increasing dementia almost killed my optimism. As she declined, she had a harder time trying to be positive, and she resented that I insisted on it. I’d remind her that our staying positive in the face of her difficulties was only going to help both of us.

When she played along, it really did make our situation bearable. When she did not, well, I had to work that much harder. And, honestly, sometimes I failed.

These days, my life with Tony and “Fred” makes the battle all that much more important. I’m not blind to the difficulties that lie ahead. This is a story that doesn’t have a traditional happy ending. Yet, I want to make it the best one I can.

Unlike Lady Gaga, I wasn’t born this way. But I’m thankful that I found my way there. Finally.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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