“Obstacles are those frightening things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” Henry James
It has always struck me that people can be divided into two distinct camps or dispositions. There are those that wake up most mornings and see nothing but problems facing them. Before the day has even begun they see only the obstacles before them. In contrast, there are those people who gladly welcome the new day and are eager to plunge into whatever it offers. While the first group reluctantly pull themselves out of bed, the latter jump out - for them it’s an attitude aptly described by the well-known John Denver song that begins, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” (written by P.&V. Garvey). This song reflects the joyful character that Denver exuded. The second line of Denver’s song is even more poignant, and cuts to the essence of what a healthy perspective looks like, “I wake as a child to see the world begin.” I was lucky enough to meet John Denver when I interviewed him in 1981 at the inaugural launch of the Space Shuttle (I had a press pass and also interviewed George Lucas and Steven Spielberg). Denver looked and sounded like a man who enjoyed life. This gave me the feeling that his song was indeed authentic.
Of course, the two attitudes described above are at the extreme ends of the scale. Everyone can be placed somewhere along a continuum that stretches from one disposition to the other. But what pushes people from one camp to the other? Before delving into some of the reasons why I think some people are inherently dark and pessimistic, while others only see opportunities and light, I must confess that as I get older I go out of my way to spend more and more time with positive folks. I’ve even put an acronym on my business card, “D.R.O.M.P.A.I.W.R.O.Y.,” which means: “Don’t rain on my parade and I won’t rain on yours.” My line has a whiff of selfishness i.e. don’t tell me your troubles, just give me positive news or affirmations. As Bob Marley sings, “Please don’t you rock my boat, because I don’t want my boat to be rocking.” But my attitude is also reminiscent of the Golden Rule, in reverse, as I promise to do the same for others.
It’s not all about shutting someone out, but rather, at least tell me about your problems with a whiff of humour. We all know life is full of surprises, some up, some down, and this inevitability should engender a sense of anticipation, dare I say “preparedness.” All things should become a bit like water off a duck’s back to some extent (major catastrophes, death, etc. are exempt from this line of reasoning). Virtually every problem has a way out - focusing on solutions to problems takes you past them, and a sense of hope will fuel the process. The big question then, and this may cut to the core of people’s inherent attitudes, is: why do some people lose perspective and hope?
A simple answer is offered by none other than Albert Einstein who said, “A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.” So how do we learn to be satisfied with the present? It is not simple to live “in the present.” The religious texts of the world are filled with ideas and advice on that very subject. Buddhism, for example, has as its first tenant that existence is suffering! If that is true, then it sheds light on the first part of our question – people who see mainly obstacles and darkness are merely experiencing life’s predicament! Buddhist thought goes on to contend that the main cause of our suffering are our desires and wants, and it is these human traits that cause our suffering. Luckily, Buddhists have a solution to this known as “Eight-Fold Path”, which is essentially a life-long process. I’m looking for something easier and I believe another path is open to us all. It still requires time, but it outlines a strategy that leads to faster problem solving.
Before looking at my solution. I want to add another dimension to the two types of people I described at the beginning of this essay. People who see obstacles, are not only generally sad and depressed, but they are often self-described victims. They think that the world is against them and perceive many events in their life as just another example of how negative developments follow them. Soon they convince themselves that there is no way to change their predicament. After all, how can you get out of a victim mindset when the cosmos conspires against you? It’s impossible. In their mind, there is no point in even trying.
The victimhood described above is what the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre would call “bad faith”. For Sartre, this refers to people who act, or fail to react to events, because of the pressure of various forces that they believe are beyond their control. They do this rather than exercising their free will. Sartre would say these people are living “inauthentically.” Sarah Bakewell, in her book “At the Existentialist Café” writes, “For Sartre, we show bad faith whenever we portray ourselves as passive creations of our race, class, job, history, nation, family, heredity, childhood influences, events, or even hidden drives in our subconscious which we claim are out of our control”.
So, what is the solution to a victim’s negative world-view? I turn to Joseph Campbell for an answer:
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”
I believe that the key for creating a positive world view is in finding something to be passionate about. This can start with some exploratory reading and/or surfing on the web. Look for something interesting. If you stay open to possibilities ideas will come your way. The answer lies in forgetting your past and to truly believe that today is a new beginning. Once that is fully realized, as Campbell says, doors begin to open and obstacles disappear. This belief has been a constant in my life and helped me immensely when I have needed to keep my eyes on my goals.
Of course, many will argue that this “bliss” thing is too facile. Obviously, the answer is not that simple. And, to a certain extent, I agree with them as well.
The other part of the equation concerns the “what” part of this bliss thing. Being passionate about your appearance or some trivial hobby will not take you very far on the journey to contentment. Again, I’ll defer to Campbell:
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.
In choosing a job or vocation it is important to find something that has purpose… a purpose that improves something. Some “thing” that transcends your personal world, whether it might be helping the poor, raising a family, saving the environment, promoting children’s education, increasing access to healthcare, working for peace - the list is endless. There is no excuse for not finding some thing to throw yourself into. Soon you’ll find joy where there was once only sadness and pain. It happens! By simply being engaged, you live in the present. This helps to bring a sense of optimism for the future. Let’s call it Hope.
What is the mechanism for the transformation towards positivity? It seems that meaningfulness, might be the special ingredient. Meaningfulness may produce happiness. In his book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being,” psychologist Martin Seligman (professor at University of Pennsylvania) argues that belonging and serving something bigger than oneself is important to one’s sense of contentment. Combine this element with achievement, positivity, passion and social connections (friends, family and intimacy) and you’re on the road to well-being. Pessimism yields to optimism. Light over Dark - sounds mythological! Certainly, but it’s also true.
Some people will ignore any effort to change from their negativity and will find many obstacles that prevent them from even trying to get engaged in life. In fact, many people, and I know a few, are quite “happy” to wallow in their depression. They get a perverse pleasure in declaring their troubles and mantel of victimhood. Perhaps a friend (or lack of friends) can convince them to turn things around. A new love can be transformative - until she or he dumps you! Sometimes children can be a motivating force for one’s actions, which is very much the case for me. If everything else fails perhaps the promise of longer life may foster change. There is strong evidence that optimism may lengthen one’s life (see below). Of course, this is a problem for the pessimist because a longer life means living in misery longer and many don’t want to do that, so, working towards a cheerful outlook on life isn’t worth the effort. It’s a kind of paradox – life is worth living only once you become an optimist – but it’s difficult to convince a pessimist the value of living longer in their present state of mind! A vicious circle!
For those of us on the side of happily living life to the fullest and working on meaningful causes or projects, there is some good news regarding the value of optimism in promoting longevity - which I believe every human being secretly craves. A recent study done at Tel Aviv University looked at people who had heart attacks prior to the beginning of the research. Amazingly, they found that optimists were more likely to live longer than the pessimists, (many of whom had died). Among other things, they found that optimists had less internal inflammation, which is often associated with heart problems. What was interesting about the researchers’ conclusions was not that optimism is sort of a magical cure, but rather, it is what optimists do.
“It is important to note that optimism is not simply a rosy glow over the world; in contrast, optimists are more likely to acknowledge risks and plan how to cope with them,” said Dr. Yariv Gerber, who led the research. The fascinating part of his comments was that the optimists saw the risks and they saw the problem, but they looked at it not as an obstacle but rather as a challenge. They looked for ways around the obstacle. This I call wisdom. It involves recognizing the contingent nature of our lives. Accepting unpredictability sort of takes the “wind out of the sails” of problems. Hey, we expect them, therefore we can often laugh about them! In other words, life will throw curves at me from time to time but it doesn’t mean I must cave into victimhood or depression - I will not be subject to those things I cannot change. It’s pointless. Rather, my focus is elsewhere - I will try to change certain things, the important things under my control, as I’m able.