I used to think that optimism and empathy were good things, but I'm not so sure any more. I am both strongly empathetic and optimistic, and I realized this means that eventually I will feel pain about everyone I know because everyone suffers and that makes me sad; everyone makes stupid decisions once in a while and I feel bad about that. Worse, I frequently disappoint myself by not being all I want to be, by doing - or not doing - things that I later regret, and so on.
Being optimistic means that you expect a lot from people and situations, especially yourself and the things you do. Everything will work out right if we take the right steps toward the good things in life, right? But we all make mistakes all the time. Things don't always work out the way we had hoped, even if we did everything right, even if the stars line up for us. Shit happens. Sometimes people even work against us. This makes optimistic people feel especially disappointed and hurt, as if we're alien species, unable to communicate.
Being empathetic means that when someone suffers, you feel some of what they feel; if they're someone you're close to, you feel a lot of pain. The world roils with an ocean of suffering that threatens to drown us all the time, flailing with our puny human arms to stay above the waves that get more turbulent as we listen to the news (what I usually call "the bad news"), read tales of sadness on LJ and, well, just live. We humans can't breathe under water, and we get so tired by constantly flailing. If only we had gills; if only we had fins. But people who are so empathetic don't seem well suited to living in this ocean. We are small and naked and fragile.
However, these traits also have a positive side: Empathy means one gets to smile and laugh a lot at other people's happiness and success. Optimism means one gets to live life as if everything will work out, and that means you're more likely to take the necessary steps to make things work out.
Why have these traits survived the red-in-tooth-and-claw evolution of the human species? What real good do these things do for us? Eventually we all inhale water while flaining to stay afloat; we are the wrong species for our environment, and these repeated drownings threaten to erode our optimism. I fear for losing that trait, even though it seems to have caused me more grief than good. And empathy: Can we lose that over time? It only seems to grow deeper for me the more pain it causes.
Sheesh, being a human is hard work. No grand conclusions here.