Thursday, August 27, 2009

Giving in or Just Getting Started?

"When difficulties seem insurmountable, optimists react in a more constructive and creative way. They accept the facts with realism, know how to rapidly identify the positive in adversity, draw lessons from it, and come up with an alternative solution or turn to a new project. Pessimists would rather turn away from the problem or adopt escapist strategies--sleep, isolation, drug or alcohol abuse--that diminish their focus on the problem. Instead of confronting them with resolve, they prefer to brood over their misfortunes, nurture illusions, dream up "magic" solutions, and accuse the whole world of being against them. They have a hard time drawing lessons from the past, which often leads to the repetition of their problems."--Matthieu Ricard, from his essay "Optimism, Pessimism, and Naivete," featured in the anthology In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Challenging Times

Our new kitten, Joey Thumbs, is peeing on the bed. She's done it a few times now, even though her clean litter box is just a few feet away. She knows how to use the litter box; Mike can certainly attest to that since he's constantly scooping it. So this peeing is something else entirely. Nerves? Marking territory? Needs a diaper?

Also, Joey and Audrey (our ten-year old cat) aren't getting along so well. I let Joey out of the guest room (where we keep her when we're not home) and she inevitably runs toward Audrey, who hisses, growls, and raises a paw to her (no scratches yet, but they're coming.) We've tried to get them used to each other. I read that putting sardine oil on each cat's head makes them smell the same, so they aren't afraid of each other. I tried this trick and just ended up with two greasy, smelly cats.

Give it time, people say. They'll come around. Soon they'll be grooming each other. You just have to be patient. I hear the same from my podiatrist about my broken foot--give it time. It will heal. Lately I've had to face the fact that I'm lacking in patience. I want to integrate the cats now, I want Joey to stop peeing on the bed now, I want my foot to be completely healed now. It's hard to see ahead a few months, when these minor irritations will be mostly forgotten.

I'd love to be an optimist. My mother is one. Mike's mother is, too. Optimists still have problems, but they see them more realistically. If they lose their job they do what they need to do to get another one. They don't sit around and fret, feel sorry for themselves, tell themselves they are unemployable and will have to spend the rest of their life scraping by on odd jobs.

My foot is broken so I can't do the power walking I was doing in the spring. I feel bloated and lethargic, worried that I'm getting pudgy. I could try exercises that don't involve putting weight on my foot. Or I could lie around helplessly in the air-conditioned bedroom, reading books about people who are actually accomplishing things in their lives (for example, Three Cups of Tea. That guy embodies optimism!) You can face adversity--small stuff like mine, or big stuff like poverty, lack of an education, corruption all around you--and weather it. You can be a scraggly tree branch, bending and twisting but not snapping off in the wind. Or you can be a pile of useless dead twigs, slowly decomposing into the earth.

OK, a little dramatic. I'm free-associating here.

It is easier to curl up in bed and sleep for twelve hours. But you don't wake up feeling refreshed. You're just more stressed about all the things you haven't done or people you haven't called or the book you haven't written. Having the courage and patience to get things done, even if it's only a few steps towards a goal, is optimism. Pessimism is saying to yourself, I am overwhelmed, I can't walk far without wincing, the cats are peeing and fighting and breaking my ceramics. I think I'll have a cocktail.

I want to be a better person than I am right now. I need the courage to get started, and the optimism to keep going. It's the end of summer, soon the beginning of a new season. Time for another fresh start.


Nathan said...

Hi Jennifer,

One thing that helps me turn the negative spin is to write and/or meditate on what I'm grateful for. It can be tiny things, like the dishes are clean or the cat didn't pee on the bed this evening, or bigger things. But the reality is that even when life is a mess, there's usually plenty of things going well.

Beyond that, wanting to be someone who is "better" than you are now is the fastest road to misery I know of. During a class last winter, our teacher spoke a lot about the "fixing" and "self improvement projects" that we like to turn our practice into. It's all attachment to outcomes, all attempts to stay away from what is right now.

In his writings on the zen cook, Dogen spoke about aiming ourselves in the right direction, but to let go of anything ever happening. Specifically in the text, he talked about how the cook's job in the evening, for example, is to do all the tasks needed to be prepared for the next day's meals. But to do that in a spirit of just doing those tasks - not doing those tasks with the belief that if you do them, tomorrow will come, tomorrow will run smoothly, etc.

I try to remember these things as much as possible, because I can definitely get caught up in the slog.

As for the cats, yes, give them more time. I've been through that process more than once, and I've watched a really cranky cat, who still is cranky, learn to like "the new one on the block."


Kris said...

Aaah... the ole' optimism/pessimism duality. Can't have one without the other. They are completely dependent on one and other for their very existence! I'm in a grand funk this week myself. A body/spirit/mind funk. Fortunately this will change. And so do my ideas on both ends of the spectrums of optimism/pessimism, success/failure, fame/disgrace, and so on. In fact, I can't really pin down a single, tangible idea about any of these— they just keep changing. I can't know happiness without some pain to define it. Then I think the aching heart is awe in the face of this raw, mysterious life. One minute the ache is pessimism, and the next moment the ache is wonderous gratitude for just being alive. And that leads me to love it ALL. No matter what's happening.

Thank you for your post!

MJ in MA said...

Oh boy, can I relate to wanting it NOW (whatever it may be). I wonder if, to some extent, this is the bane of the only child... I certainly haven’t figured out how to overcome it. It seems to be, for me, a direct conflict with trying to live in the now. For example, if I want something (NOW), I tell myself I can have it later... so I begin to focus, obsessively, on later. For me, it’s similar to my struggle to overcome my propensity towards being a judgmental b@$t@rd… Thanks for the post Jenn, it sure hits home for me.

NatureGirl said...

I always enjoy your posts. Thank you. Greasy, smelly cats is still giving me a chuckle...

Jennifer--BuddhaPublicist said...


Thanks for the very astute comment! I know self-improvement is a trap, but it's a hard one not to fall into. I'm working on it (or rather NOT working on it, ha ha)


Jennifer--BuddhaPublicist said...


Thank you for your comment, also nicely expressed. It's true how quickly one can go from optimism to pessimism, from hope to no hope. I guess that's human nature.


Jennifer--BuddhaPublicist said...

Hi MJ,

Yes, the only child thing certainly doesn't help! So hard to postpone pleasure and still live comfortably in the present!


Jennifer--BuddhaPublicist said...

Thanks NatureGirl. Thankfully they're a little less smelly now.