Optimism – Not Just for the Young Ones

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When I was a teenager, my plan was to become a journalist, and more specifically, a war correspondent. My goal was to write about the women, the children, and the civilians affected by war so powerfully and so eloquently that the world at large would take notice. “No more,” the world would say. “We cannot continue on this way and allow the innocents to be slaughtered.” And war would stop on the planet.

This year in June, I watched my oldest grandson graduate from high school, and I listened to the speeches of the class valedictorians. Proud, hopeful, and full of fire, they knew beyond a doubt that they were going to grab hold of the world they were inheriting and make it better.

The students who survived the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland rose up like phoenixes with courage and grit and set out to empower a generation to make changes to our electoral process and our society as a whole.

While feeling at once tenderly protective of the young ones, and refreshed by their energy, I am aware of a smug cynicism that sneaks into the back row of seats in my consciousness. I feel disappointed with myself for the mental smirk. I tell myself that the young, idealistic activists will become tired, and jaded, and as pessimistic as I have become. We see cynicism as a measure of maturity and wisdom, and consider optimism to be naivete.

Psychologists believe that cynicism arises from not trusting others. Fechenhauer and Dunning showed in 2010 that study participants can become more trusting if they have more practice in actually trusting other people – if they are in situations where others behave honestly and sincerely. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? No one can control how other people are going to behave.

I have often said in my own life that I don’t need to worry about trusting or not trusting anyone else, as long as I feel like I can trust my own response to whatever another person does. The burden is on me to respond in a way that matches the kind of person I want to be. Michelle Obama’s famous injunction “When they go low, we go high” is a mantra for choosing a positive response.

Our input shapes our output. I deactivated my Facebook account in the week before the midterm elections because I could tell that the constant barrage of negative posts on all sides were eroding my naturally positive demeanor and spilling over into my offline life. I became more irritable in traffic and at work. Within ten days of my social media fast, my iPhone told me I had decreased my screen time by 38 percent. I noticed I was more patient and better able to let others do their own thing without feeling the urgent need to swoop in and let them know how wrong they were.

Nomadic photographer Anne McKinnell tells us that she found it easier to see the negative things around her in her early career, but she felt that changing when she made the decision to photograph beautiful subjects like nature and wildlife. She reminds herself with each shot to look specifically for the good, and in doing so, she writes that she has begun to notice the beautiful in the rest of the world around her. She was happier, and it became a positive feedback loop of optimism and adventure.

So I find wandering back toward the sunny fields of my buoyant youth. Along with the usual daily news, I seek out writers who tell me about the heroic, the selfless, the brilliant and the generous. Bill and Melinda Gates are bringing together talent and innovation from around the world to revolutionize sanitation in places where people still sicken and die from human waste born illnesses. Americans will see a record-breaking number of women in the incoming Congress in January, as well as the first indigenous and Muslim women. I continue to be aware of the serious challenges facing us, but controlling what enters the little computer of my mind has improved my ability to confront them with confidence and courage.

On the Virtues of Feeling Small

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I have spent time over the last decade learning how to take up space without apology – to speak up, to make a priority of my needs and my dreams, and to generally make my character in this life as big as those around me.

A recent trip to the Grand Canyon showed me that there is virtue and peace in recognizing myself as a small but vital part of a larger cosmos. Standing on the edge of a chasm that dwarfed me, I felt myself to be not insignificant in a grander scheme, but certainly not the be-all and end-all as I generally imagine myself to be.

Egocentrism is the practice of seeing oneself as the center of one’s own universe, and not the same as egotism or being selfish. Simply put, we see the world around us from the starting point of us. It’s normal and it sort of anchors for us a place in our surroundings.

Doing so, however, naturally makes everything about “me” and “mine” become distorted until it looks bigger than it really is, to anyone except ourselves. In general, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about the things going on in your life as much as I do about the things going on in mine: my marriage, my health, my finances. From the perspective of being the one living in my own skin, what affects me personally is bigger than events and issues, for instance, that affect my country, my society, and my planet. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.

And then I faced the south rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time. Sure, I was wowed by its indescribable and ever-changing beauty. Of course, I was drawn to clamor down trails to explore it further, and driven to photograph it in every light.

But the most striking thing for me was to realize that that feature has been changing – and leaving its trail for others to follow – for hundreds of millions of years. While I have been worrying about weight loss and my relationships with my children – while whole civilizations have risen, flourished and fallen – layers of earth have been laid down, compressed, and worn away by wind and water with relentless forward progress that doesn’t give two hoots about me and my drama.

I sat on the sun-warmed rocks on the edge and let a feeling of “everything is fine” settle down into my bones. Even the tragedies and the missteps – they had their place, or at least could be worked into the finished piece that was my life. And my life was part of a larger tapestry that was always meant to occupy its particular spot – not insignificant, but certainly not the focal point of the whole masterpiece.

It has also helped me to remember to stay in my own lane, and focus on my own tasks – I can trust that everyone and everything else is proceeding down their own evolutionary highway without the need for my constant supervision and critique. My fussing over it all hasn’t been productive at all.

Even better, I have found since I returned home that this sensation of being right where I am supposed to be is easy to recapture and experience again. All I have to do is go outside and let the sounds and smells of nature become larger than those that are man-made. Perhaps I catch a glimpse of a squirrel running up a tree that has lived its whole life and never thought about my bank account, or a bird soaring overhead that sees life from a much higher perspective, and doesn’t lose sleep thinking about the midterm elections.

In a strange paradox, feeling smaller has also given me an unshakable belief in my own perfect rightness in life. I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be exactly what I am. And I will progress in my own time and on my own path just as I should. And that is more beautiful than even the seen beauty of the Grand Canyon.