I’ve always been an optimist—since childhood, I have frequently been accused of having a “Pollyanna” attitude. So who was Pollyanna, anyway?
Pollyanna Whittier, a character in a best-selling novel written by Eleanor H. Porter in 1913, and later played on screen by actors like Mary Pickford and Hayley Mills, was portrayed as a young girl who tried her best to see the good in all things, a positive, optimistic attitude she learned from her father.
In the novel, Pollyanna’s father taught her to play “the Glad Game,” which consisted of seeing at least one reason for gladness and happiness in everything. That advice reminds me of the advice in the Baha’i writings to:
… become servants one to another, adore one another, bless one another, praise one another; that each one may loose his tongue and extol the rest without exception, each one voice his gratitude to all the rest; that all should lift up their eyes to the horizon of glory, and remember that they are linked to the Holy Threshold; that they should see nothing but good in one another, hear nothing but praise of one another, and speak no word of one another save only to praise. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 229.
So that accusation was always a little confusing, as I’d only ever seen one Pollyanna movie back when I was a child, and couldn’t even imagine any unpleasant attributes being attributed to it. Today, with the benefit of age and the internet, I know they were referring to the Pollyanna principle (also called Pollyannaism or positivity bias), the tendency for people to have a subconscious bias towards the positive.
OK, I admit it—I am a positive person. That hasn’t been a disadvantage in life. I don’t think it means I am a dreamer or that I have a romanticized view of things. In fact, it has certainly helped me to be a more effective mother, counsellor and writer.
In my case, I don’t believe it’s indicative of any unrealistic attitude. Quite the contrary, because I do understand how easy it can be to allow a sense of hopelessness to overcome the soul if we believe that the daily news bulletins offer a true reflection of the world in which we live.
From that perspective, the problems can appear insurmountable. But in my eyes the world is not “Syrian” or “American,” not “Christian” or “Muslim.” I see something different. At the same time as our world appears irreconcilably rent by differences, there exists a concurrent perspective that is pregnant with untapped potential.
I see that the answer to our suffering—a remedy for all warfare, discrimination and inequity—lies in our recognition of the oneness of humanity; that, as the Baha’i teachings say, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 250.
This view carries a sense of hope for our future, one ripe with potentiality:
The Great Peace towards which people of goodwill throughout the centuries have inclined their hearts, of which seers and poets for countless generations have expressed their vision, and for which from age to age the sacred scriptures of mankind have constantly held the promise, is now at long last within the reach of the nations. For the first time in history it is possible for everyone to view the entire planet, with all its myriad diversified peoples, in one perspective. World peace is not only possible but inevitable. It is the next stage in the evolution of this planet—in the words of one great thinker, “the planetization of mankind.” – The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, p. 1.
In our time there have been great explosions in the possibilities of our collective human relationships. These became symbolized in the West by two pivotal moments in the same year of 1969 and by less that one month apart; once in music, once in space travel.
The first occurrence took place on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon, proclaiming “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.“ In less than a month, the weekend beginning 15 August 1969 would become a legend in popular music history; the gathering simply known as Woodstock was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” and brought together a half a million people with a shared sense of love and harmony.
Both the Moon Landing and Woodstock gave humanity a sense of the power of unity, a focus for the celebration of our interconnectedness and oneness.
The present time is unique in this context. At no other stage in human evolution could we have imagined such an interconnectedness, could have seen this new perspective of Earth as one planet, one people. Having seen that reality, it is no longer relevant to view the various peoples of the world as primarily Syrian or American, as Christian or Muslim; now we see that we are one people sharing one human family and one homeland:
Disunity is a danger that the nations and peoples of the earth can no longer endure; the consequences are too terrible to contemplate, too obvious to require any demonstration. “The wellbeing of mankind,” Baha’u’llah wrote more than a century ago, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” In observing that “mankind is groaning, is dying to be led to unity, and to terminate its agelong martyrdom,” Shoghi Effendi further commented that: “Unification of the whole of mankind is the hallmark of the stage which human society is now approaching. Unity of family, of tribe, of city-state, and nation have been successively attempted and fully established. World unity is the goal towards which a harassed humanity is striving. Nation-building has come to an end. The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.” – Ibid., p. 2.