Posts Tagged ‘optimism’

“I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.”

Colum McCann (by way of Jonathan Carroll’s Facebook page)

I think this is important to remember. Hoping for the best without taking the time to educate ourselves is not particularly helpful. Blindly doing the same thing we’ve been doing over and over while expecting a different (and better) outcome is Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. Looking at silver linings to the extent that we’re blinded to reality and won’t look for changes we can make to better our situations keeps us stuck in one place.

But taking a real look at our lives and making change, real change, takes optimism as well. Optimism allows us to believe we’ll be okay whatever is happening. Optimism allows us to think change is possible for us. Optimism allows us to create a vision of a better future. Optimism gives us courage. And optimism gives us a greater capacity for both kindness and happiness.

The trick, then, is in being able to tell the difference between the optimism that holds us down and the optimism that lifts us up.

Photo Credit: Ira Gelb via Compfight cc

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I have a friend who occasionally requests blog posts, and her ideas are always so good. It’s actually quite a talent to come up with good topic ideas. I know because sometimes I’m completely stumped, and I ask someone what I should write about, and they can never come up with anything good either. So obviously from now on I should ask Danielle.

This time she asked me to write about intention. (See what I mean? That is exactly the kind of thing I write about.)

Intention can be one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. It’s good for change, for achievement, for opening ourselves up to possibility. It’s a way of resetting old beliefs, world views, and limiting thoughts that might or might not have had a good reason to exist in the past but are definitely holding us back now.

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

Of course, in order to work, intention has to be an active process. Take my intention at the beginning of last year: I wanted to have more friends, so I set the intention to be open to new friendships. From that intention, I decided on concrete priorities and actions. If I told myself, “It would be nice to have more friends” and then proceeded to sit on my couch every night and not talk to anybody, then nothing would have happened. Instead, I accepted invitations, I invited people to do stuff, I traveled to various events, I texted and wrote emails, I sometimes went out even when I didn’t exactly feel like it, I practiced healthy boundary setting. In short, I put in a lot of effort.

I find that when I set an intention, it helps me better focus on what I need to do next. In the case of socializing, it means I’m paying attention and making or inviting that overture of friendship. Maybe it was there all along, but I’m much more likely to notice it and make that little extra effort required. In the case of writing, it means I keep plugging away, even if that means only doing a little work each day. I remember that I want to live a literary life and it informs the choices I make on a daily basis.

Our intentions join together to form our vision, both of who we want to be and what we want our lives to look like. Vision is an interesting thing because I think we have to believe completely in our vision for ourselves at the same time as we doubt and question it. It’s like reading a novel, being completely immersed in the world of these characters and events while simultaneously knowing that it’s fiction.

I believe completely in my vision for myself. I also think it might not happen. But I do believe it could happen, and perhaps that’s the important distinction–the belief in what’s possible and the willingness to commit ourselves to finding out.

What intention(s) have you set for yourself recently?

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A few nights ago, I was eating by myself at a standard American restaurant on Broadway. Whenever I eat alone, I make it a point to bring reading material along to make the waiting go by faster (well, really, whenever I go anywhere I like to bring reading material along).

The waitress asked me what I was reading, and I told her, “It’s a memoir by Julia Child.”

She looked at me blankly. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, you know, Julia Child. She’s famous for bringing French cooking to the U.S.” No recognition. “You know that movie Julie and Julia?” Nope.

It left me wondering if I would have recognized Julia Child’s name before I saw the movie. I hope I would have, but I’m not completely sure. But I’m glad I know it now, because her memoir, My Life in France, written with her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, is so very charming.

Photo by Kaleb Fulgham

The entire time of the hurricane—the lead-up, the storm itself, and the recovery—I was reading this memoir. The personality of Julia Child fairly oozes from the pages. She gushes away about France, about food, about cooking, and her passion is so obvious from her stories. She recounts so many meals she’s enjoyed in the past, course by course.

Her first meal in France, when she was in her mid-thirties, was what set her on the course to becoming a famous chef. I love this fact so much. Because we never know, do we? We never know when we’re going to have an experience, or meet a person, or learn something new, and have a passion ignited within us. It can happen anywhere and anytime; it’s not something that only happens when we are teenagers or freshly adult, it’s not something that has to be planned carefully, or even something that can be anticipated.

I love this idea, too, because it reminds me that all of life is one big adventure. A new subplot could spin off at any time, or a nice bit of character development could take place, or I could begin my grand romance with pumpkin spice chais. Knowing this makes me feel so lucky to be alive.

By the time I finished reading My Life in France, I’d become very fond of Julia Child. I love her personality, her energy, her courage, and her unwillingness to give up. I love how enthusiastic she was, punctuating the text with Yum! and Hooray! and What fun! I love how her passion for food and cooking helped her through the bad times. I love how she spent a lifetime involved in food and cooking and teaching.

And I love some of her philosophy. When she is leaving her country house in France for the last time, do you know what she remembers saying? “I’ve always felt that when I’m done with something I just walk away from it—fin!” She enjoyed what she had to the fullest while she had it, and then let go when it was over. This isn’t a strong point of my own, but I admire her a lot for thinking it, and more importantly, for living it.

All in all, I can’t imagine a better book for me to be reading in the middle of a hurricane.

What about you? What have you been reading lately?

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I’ve written a fair amount about being happy, feeling gratitude, dealing with disappointment, and other related topics over the last two years. But it was only last week that I realized that a lot of what I talk about is actually how to be emotionally resilient.

I’ve been thinking about emotional resilience (although not under that particular label) since I was a kid. I took a good look at the people around me who were dealing with stress and adversity, and who appeared to be miserable most of the time, and I thought, “I don’t want to turn out like them.” Thus began my strong determination to become an emotionally resilient person.

At first my plan was to become resilient to tide me over to the point where my life would no longer have any upsetting bits. Now I realize that second part of my plan is never going to come to pass. Adversity is a part of life, and similar to whack-a-mole, the minute one difficult thing is more or less under control, another one pops up to do its own excited little “look at me” dance. The world is changing around us all the time, and inevitably some of those changes aren’t going to be ones that we want to happen. Health changes, life circumstances change, families change, employment and careers change, accidents happen. I can’t stop these things from changing because nobody can.

However, the first part of my plan, to become as resilient as I could, has been enormously helpful. It’s something I still work on and attempt to improve, and I expect I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my life.

Photo by Tom Magliery

Why is resilience so important? Because it’s something constructive we can do in the face of adversity. It tends to make us happier people. It makes it easier for us to deal with disappointment and rejection, which in my case means I’ve been able to continue working on my writing skills (and my singing skills before that). Resilience is what causes us, in the face of difficult circumstances, to be able to stand up, brush ourselves off, and continue forward. It allows us to hold onto the belief that whatever happens, we will ultimately be okay. It keeps us from becoming bogged down in a never-ending morass of negativity and powerlessness. It helps us live more fully in the present.

Resilience is real strength.

I found an article that describes eight of the attitudes and characteristics that encourage resilience, and I found myself nodding along as I read. It lists the following: emotional awareness, optimism, support, internal locus of control, perseverance, sense of humor, perspective, and spirituality. I’ve written about many of those ideas already on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll continue writing about them.

What about you? What helps you be more resilient? In what areas do you run into trouble?

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I read this essay by A.V. Flox about leisure last week, and it lit up a lamp inside my brain:

“There is something very wrong with defining yourself by your work and achievements, it drives people to a point where the most important goal is the acquisition of things instead of the enjoyment of things. And for what? You should work — don’t get me wrong. But work so you can enjoy. Don’t make achievement a substitute for living.”

I love leisure. I love lazy mornings and lazy afternoons. I love spending the day buried in a book or three. I love finding an interesting person and talking to them for hours about everything and nothing. I love losing track of time, not in a stressful, “now I’m going to be late” kind of way, but in a “it doesn’t really matter because I’m not missing something pressing, and isn’t this delightful?” kind of way. I love meandering through cities and towns and parks, and stopping for ice cream or crepes or lemonade.

I also love noticing pleasure. The pleasure in a fine day of the ideal temperature. The pleasure of running your hand through the soft fur of a little dog or cat. The pleasure of food, the pleasure of fresh air, the pleasure of a warm hand in mine. When I think about being happy, I often think about those things that give me especial pleasure: Disneyland. Christmas. Little dogs. Ice cream. Magical conversations at 1 in the morning.

Photo by John Althouse Cohen

I agree with A.V. that American culture does not encourage the cultivation of leisure. I too have known the driven person who is scheduled within an inch of her life or who can’t bear to spend half the day doing nothing much. Sometimes, of course, one can’t afford the luxury of leisure. But often it doesn’t seem to be encouraged even if one has the time. It is not looked upon kindly.

I call your attention to the virtue associated with rising early. I do not rise early. I get up later than the majority of people, and I stay up later. I understand that I am fortunate to be able to dictate my own hours, and I know this might not always be case. But in the meantime why shouldn’t I do as I like? And yet some people react to my late wake up time as if it is a personal affront or an illustration of laziness. Why? Is it perhaps a reaction against the perceived leisure that comes with being able to follow one’s own internal rhythms of sleeping and waking?

And yet living for enjoyment is such an effective way to be happier. When I am writing to achieve, I feel stress and worry and come out of the present moment. When I write because of the pleasure it gives me, I feel as if I could continue writing for the rest of my life. When I have an unpleasant day and then I sit down to a bowl of ice cream or a game of backgammon, I am able to renew my positive energy and truly believe that tomorrow will be a different day, even while I’m discovering what there is to appreciate about today.

Do I regret that the two hours I meant to be spending playing Go with a friend on Saturday turned into four? No. Do I regret the sleep I’ve lost having conversations about how to live and how to die and what we’re afraid of and what we wish for? Never. Do I look back on my times wandering the cities of the world and wish I could have spent that time more focused on achievement? Not once. Connection, inspiration, exploration, introspection, the exchange of ideas–these all give me immense pleasure.

These times are the jewels of my life.


And speaking of jewels, I’ll be collecting some more at Worldcon in Chicago this week. As usual, feel free to come say hi to me if you’re planning to attend; I love meeting new people. And I’ll be taking a break from the blog while I’m traveling, so I’ll see you here again on September 6th.


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“Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery… People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love.”

— Ben Okri (Thanks to Theodora Goss for bringing this quotation to my attention.)

I love this idea, of sustaining life as a dream. Dora rightly stated that this is what artists do, but it is what all of us can do, if we so choose. It is what I would like to do, and I think my (limited) ability to do it is part of the best of me.

Of course, most of the time I don’t think of my life as a dream, or a fairy tale, or an adventure. I forget. I get caught up in my to do list, the daily minutiae, my worries and little dramas. One of the reasons I loved living in London so much was that being removed from the very familiar helped remind me of life as a dream. But here in my life right now it is much harder to stay connected to my own fairy tale.

So as I think about the not-so-distant future, I am asking myself: If I was running my own fairy tale (which I pretty much am), what would I do? Where would I go? How can I help myself develop my own personal world of enchantment?

Photo by Frank Wuestefeld

Transformation is a powerful magic. I half-joke about hating change, and of course the reason I hate it is because of the price. As any budding fantasy writer knows, all magic has a price; all magic systems must have drawbacks in order to compensate for the sometimes insanely powerful effects magic can gift to its user. In our world, the price is often pain and discomfort.

The trick, I think, is to turn that pain, that profound sense of displacement, into a fairy tale. To give the pain meaning, if you will. Part of that is finding the petals amongst the stones, the good that comes from the bad, the silver lining, the twist of happiness hiding at the heart of bitterness. Part of that is surrounding yourself with reminders of enchantment. And part of that is being aware of the story as you live it, to become a lucid dreamer of life.

Ben Okri is right. To stay in the dream takes enormous strength, and openness, and willingness to pay the pain price. It is not for everyone.

But for those of us who aspire to dwell there, it is its own reward.

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I am a very unlucky person:

I had a difficult childhood. I suffer from chronic health problems. My mom died when I was nineteen. I don’t fit in easily with many groups. I attract people to me who take advantage of my over-niceness/over-empathy. Sometimes people have treated me very poorly. There have been many times in my life when I’ve been forced to make hard choices. I’m a little bit accident prone. I’ve had dreams and aspirations that haven’t come true and never will in the future. I get rejected a lot. Sometimes people don’t listen to what I have to say. I have often felt very isolated.

I am a very lucky person: 

I gain immense personal satisfaction from my creative work. None of my medical issues thus far have been life-threatening or impacted my quality of life permanently. Also I have health insurance. I take a great deal of joy from life, both from the small things and the large ones. I have traveled all over the world. I have been able to spend the majority of my life pursuing interests and careers that I deeply care about. I had access to a good education. People have gone out of their way to be helpful and kind to me. I am able to change. My empathy allows me to connect with people on a deeper level.  I have a lot to look forward to. I have plenty of resources and opportunities. I have been able to help and inspire people. I have people (and dogs) who I love deeply.

These are both stories I can tell about myself and my life. Both of them contain statements of truth; both of them contain some statements that have nothing whatsoever to do with luck (and some that do).

I had trouble writing the unlucky one. Not because I was making things up, but because that is not the predominate story I tell myself. It’s the one that creeps up on me when I’m tired or discouraged or in pain. It’s the one that makes me doubt myself. It’s the one that makes me want to choose the easiest way.

The lucky story is what I tell myself every day. It is where I find much of my happiness.

In which story do you spend most of your time?

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