Monday, October 26, 2009

Smile and the World Smiles with You...Frown and You're on Your Own

"From my observations of successful and happy people, the roots of their power source go deep into a soil rich in optimism and inspiration. But why does one person's root system choose a soil rich with these nutrients, while an other's withers in pessimism, inertia, and negativism? Optimists realistically know that problems can be solved, and they have the faith in human nature to persevere, even when most are saying swear words like "can't" and "impossible," or are running to find friends that support their pessimism. If you are feeling low or worried about the future, you may want to do what I do. No matter what happens I smile at the learning, irony, or humor of the calamity of the moment."--Paul H. Sutherland, from his article "The Fuel of All Things Good" in the November/December issue of Spirituality & Health

"If the generic 'positive thought' is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts."--Barbara Ehrenreich, from Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

My husband Mike was humming this tune from Monty Python's Life of Brian the other night. Maybe you've heard of it. Of course you have. It's called "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." Knowing that I intensely dislike the British cult hit, Mike continued past the chorus and even did the whistling part. He told me (since I have never seen the movie) that the song figures in the final scene, when Brian has been sentenced to death by crucifixion and a character on a nearby cross starts singing this tune. Here's what Wikipedia had to say about the song:

"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was conceived as a parody of the style of song often featured in Disney films. It may be considered an answer song to the entire genre, but particularly to songs such as Give a Little Whistle from Pinocchio. Its appearance at the end of the film, when the central character seems certain to die, is deliberately ironic.

I've been doing a lot of reading about positive thinking, and how to be more optimistic, so when I read a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided I was definitely interested. As much as I want to believe in the power of positive thinking, sometimes I feel a little pang that tells me, Don't be delusional. You need to be realistic. Don't mistake sinking into quicksand for a day at the beach. In other words, being optimistic is great, but not in every situation you encounter.

There has been a lot of debate over this book, with critics and readers taking sides and arguing or becoming defensive of their particular views. Few people want to question the validity of the mind-body connection, even though some studies have recently shown that being positive in the face of a Cancer diagnosis might help you cope, but it's probably not going to heal the Cancer.

Sometimes I feel like the edict to "Don't worry, be happy" is another way of saying, "Shut up and take it." Nobody wants an Eeyore around to remind them that sometimes life is unfair and terrible things can happen to undeserving people. To me, just smiling and wishing these things away seems like a form of denial.

I'm reminded of an old boss I had when I was working as an editorial assistant for a New York technical book publisher. I had recently transferred to the trade books department, which I figured would be far more interesting than working with Chemistry journals. He was the Executive Editor of the Mind, Body, Spirit books, which seemed intriguing. I didn't know that I would soon be ordered to organize manuscripts in his claustrophically-cluttered office, or constantly have to lie to authors and agents about his whereabouts (which I suspected, when I accidentally caught a glimpse of his computer screen, was shutting himself in his office to look at pictures of young Thai boys.)

I intensely disliked him, but thought I was doing an OK job of hiding it. But one morning he asked me to come into his office and close the door. He was sitting with his chair tilted back, hands behind his head, exposing his armpit stains. "You need to smile more," he said. I was taken aback by this; what was I, a stewardess? Next he'd be asking me to fetch his coffee and the paper so he could pat me on the head and send me on my way. But he was serious. He looked at me as if my job was threatened if I didn't make with the false cheer. I was furious.

When I have a good or even decent boss, I'm a friendly person to work with. I understand that being pleasant and flexible are usually expected from people in the workplace. And most of the time I am genuinely pleased to talk to my superiors and co-workers because I like them and enjoy my job. But smiling in the face of an egotistical, slimy worm of a boss goes beyond my capabilities to be genial.

Same thing goes for getting sick. What's fun or inspiring about Cancer? A vague discomfort settles over me every October when I see all the pink ribbons and pink merchandise on offer everywhere you look. This year seems particularly pink. The cap on my prescription bottle is pink. My weekly local paper is printed on pink stock. Come October, every woman's magazine turns into a big catalog of pink paraphernalia; you start to feel like having breast cancer is like joining a women's club where everyone is smiling and happy and self-assured. Sure, it's great to raise money and support women experiencing this horrible disease, but do we really need a pink ribbon silicone spatula?

When my doctor found a suspicious lump in my breast and I had to go in for further testing, I didn't want to even see the word "Cancer," much less own tchtokes that would remind me of it. Luckily my lump was benign, but Barbara Ehrenreich wasn't so lucky. But rather than just remaining silent and saying her daily affirmations, she tried to find out what might have been the cause of her cancer. Turned out it was the hormone replacement drugs her doctor prescribed, drugs that many, many other women were taking at the time. But never mind, just have a positive outlook and you'll get well. Shut up and take it, indeed.

I'm only halfway through the book, so I haven't decided if I agree with everything in Bright-Sided. I want a joyful life, and because I worry a lot (often needlessly) I have spent years learning the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy. But there are times when I think that being realistic is far more important than being recklessly optimistic. And reaching out to help others is more valuable than constantly monitoring of my own negative/positive thoughts for signs of "those curses like 'can't' and 'impossible.'"

Buddhism doesn't require you to label your thoughts good or bad--just regard them as "thinking" and then let the thoughts go. Maybe that's the compromise I'll need to come to--nothing good remains, nothing bad remains. Face the bad (and good) stuff without trying to change it, and then let it go.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On a mission

Bionic Finger
Photo credit: Tom Weiss

"Our life's work is to use what we have been given to wake up. If there were two people who were exactly the same--same body, same speech, same mind, same mother, same father, same house, same food, everything the same--one of them could use what he has to wake up and the other could use it to become more resentful, bitter, and sour. It doesn't matter what you're given, whether it's physical deformity or enormous wealth or poverty, life in the middle of a madhouse or life in the middle of a peaceful, silent desert. Whatever you're given can wake you up or put you to sleep. That's the challenge of now: what are you going to do with what you have already--your body, your speech, your mind?"--Pema Chodron, from Awakening Loving-Kindness

A friend and I were talking about life choices, and whether or not we believed that everyone had something they were good at, that they could make their life's work. I agreed, my friend wasn't so sure. The first thought that came to mind was, I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with books. But then I thought, yes, and you also wanted to be a writer. And everyday that goes by that I don't write, that I spend cleaning or playing with the kitten, or most often, reading another new book, is another day that I haven't used doing something that brings me the most joy.

Why do we constantly put off what we can do today for what we think we'll do tomorrow? Why do we so often choose to avoid what could make us more fulfilled? For me its easy--fear of failure. If I'm working with an author, supporting their book and sharing it with others, I'm OK, I'm safe. It's not my "baby" out there being passed around and judged, but someone else's. When one book is marginally successful while another book is an instant hit, it reminds me that there are lots of good writers out there, writers who are good enough to get PUBLISHED, but only a precious few that people have even heard of, much less read. How can I compete in such a vast arena of talent? What if I put all my heart and soul into something, and then no one wants it?

Working in publishing for 13 years, and seeing the realities of what it takes to be successful (talent, but also timing, luck, and/or a great editor) has discouraged me, but I've also discouraged myself, time after time, from at least TRYING. If I try pole vaulting, I'm fairly certain I will be bad at it; if I take up tennis, I'm pretty sure I'll miss more balls than I hit; if I were to go for an MBA, I know I would fail out and that's perfectly OK with me because that's not where my interest and passion lies. But if I were to write a book or even a short piece and never get it published (or even read, except by family members) then I worry I'll be crushed.

Fear. It keeps coming back to that word. For Halloween this year, my cousin is throwing a big party where everyone has been told to dress as their worst fear. I don't know what other guests are thinking, but my first reaction is not conjuring up Dracula, the Headless Horseman, Damien, zombies, or the Blob (though that movie terrified me as a kid--it looked so much like my favorite Cherry Jello turned menace.) I think of getting old and wrinkly and soft, or pushing a shopping cart around while people pass me by without more than a glance, or being hunched over a walker like an old woman who didn't drink enough milk as a kid. I think of loneliness, of rejection, of being laughed at, of not being good enough. I think of rejection letters, lots and lots of rejection letters. Maybe I should go as a rejection letter, just some short form an editorial assistant printed out by the reamful and stuffed in an envelope.

But then I think of my friend who is so smart and so clever and so unique, but who doesn't really believe it. So many people are like that. It makes me happy that after a long hiatus raising me and working, my mother is painting again. She tells me, Oh but I have to take a class to get motivated. So what, I think, at least you're doing it. A friend who years ago failed to get into business school was recently downsized from her job at a big name firm and took the opportunity to apply again. This time she got in to a great school and is really enjoying her classes. Another friend works a regular day job to pay the bills, but uses his free time to write and teach witchcraft. He's had two books published and is now earning $100 per student for his email class (and that's in a down economy!) One of my oldest friends was in a band for 10+ years. They were pretty successful around the local New York music scene (which to me is really admirable considering how competitive it is in NYC clubs.) She dived right into her passion. I always thought (and still do) that that made her one of the bravest people I know.

What are you afraid of that's keeping you from discovering your life's work? What fear is driving you to distract yourself with less important tasks? What are you good at, and if you're not doing it, why not?