There have been a lot of great posts lately about various forms of positive thinking: Yankee Transplant talks about optimism, Tiny Cat Pants on choosing to be happy, and jo(e) prefers to call it “a willingness to accept your own fallibility as a human and make even poor decisions into growth opportunities.”
Whatever it is, I’m not sure to what extent I was born with it, though I know there have been more than a few moments in my life where it’s been consciously cultivated. I think optimism is a much a habit of thinking as anything else, and habits take some work to build.
One of those moments was when I was eleven or twelve years old, out on a summer bike ride with my best friend K. As we were heading back, about a mile from home, we realized that the formerly bright and sunny morning had given way to rapidly approaching storm clouds.
The first fat cold drops of rain began to hit the ground, and my first reaction was to do what anyone would do in that situation – sprint full speed for home! But just as I started to stand up on the pedals to give it all I had to make it home safe and dry, K. called to me – “Hey. Don’t speed up. Slow down and enjoy it!”
I wheeled a big slow circle back to where he had stopped his bike, arms out, head tilted up to the sky, welcoming the rain. And I instantly felt foolish – why run away from this? It was August, hot and dry, we were twelve, who cared if we got soaking wet. And it felt soooo good, that cool wash of rain, and it smelled even better. I felt a sudden rush of smug complicity – everyone else had run back to their cars or houses, thinking they were successful if they avoided the rain, or being irritated if they didn’t, but really they were all missing out on the best part. And I’ve been grateful ever since to K. for teaching me that lesson.
Since then, I’ve tried to keep an eye out for the prizes that might be lurking in apparently unpleasant situations. Granted, I may have taken that to extremes – many years later, K. commented, “You know how people describe themselves as seeing the glass half full or half empty? With you, not only would it be half full, but if it fell off the table and smashed into pieces on the ground, you’d pick up the little pieces and say ‘Hey, look, I could make a pretty necklace!’”
This isn’t to say that I deceive myself by ignoring the ugly parts of life; I don’t blindly accept injustice or stupidity by pretending there’s something pretty to be found behind them. It’s just that some situations are unpleasant because they really are hurtful or destructive, but most are unpleasant because they’re simply not what we wanted at the moment. In the latter, in my experience, there’s almost always something else there, like the rain, that isn’t what I thought I wanted, but turns out to be even better, if I only have the sense to appreciate it.
It’s a little odd to write about this, because there’s something about this attitude that many people find irritating. (Happy people can't possibly be serious, productive people! Being cheerful is a sign of great simplemindedness, nothing more!) I’m not sure why that is, except that it reminds people that if they’re unhappy, it might have more to do with their attitude than their actual circumstances, and it’s so much easier to blame your circumstances. For as much as people claim to want to pursue happiness, they’re awfully unwilling to catch it. I suspect this has a great deal to do with capitalism, which relies on engendering dissatisfaction… the constant message that you’re really inadequate, but you’d be happy and successful if only you had a bigger car! or whiter teeth! or sexier shoes! Nobody wants to hear that the secret to happiness is actually appreciating what you have… and letting yourself get caught in the rain once in a while.