Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Case For Positive Thinking

"There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."
-Leonard Cohen

I am, on an alternating basis, a highly optimistic and highly pessimistic person (respectively). I guess it goes hand in hand with being mildly manic-depressive, but whatever cause I might have to blame simple neurochemistry for my oscillating outlook, at the end of the day, both perspectives do make sense to me, whatever the brain-of-the-day may be.

Increasingly, I'm finding that I have more success in being able to recall, while experiencing one polar viewpoint, what it feels like to have experienced the other one. Intellectually, at least. Being able to generate this recall is an effective means of tempering both extremes and bringing myself closer to a more permanent, desirable mindset of what I guess you could call "guarded optimism." Or perhaps, "mindful optimism."

You see, I do want to be an optimist of some kind, at the end of the day. This is partly because it feels better, but largely because I've decided to go ahead and buy into all that nonsense about the Law of Attraction, thoughts creating reality, manifesting our internal energies, whatever. I confess, I'm a New Age fluff head, I believe it fully and try to live it because I believe it.

Naturally, this is not a terribly popular stance to take amongst the political radicals and progressives I like to hang with. Among circles of these types of folks, it's pretty hard to be taken seriously if you admit that you have spiritual leanings, even with the reasonable (and, I should think, required) caveat that you don't expect anyone else to join you in your elected choice of beliefs. But that's a rant for another day. Really, I'm quite ok with people not believing the same things I do.

What I'm not okay with, however, is the common point of view that seems to hold that pessimism = worldly wisdom, and I think this is a bigger motivator for the backlash in many cases. This view is nothing new, of course, nor is my annoyance with it. Somehow, the viewpoint still remains prevalent that cynicism, because it is unpleasant, must be honest by default because hey, why else would someone go with it?

I'll tell you why: for one thing, it's easy. Sure, mindless optimism is easy, too, but that gets shot down pretty quickly if you have any interest in staying engaged with the world rather than sticking your head in a hole in the ground. Mindless pessimism, on the other hand, has staying power even in the face of a lot of very good arguments for finding the silver lining; after all, it only takes one chink in the armor, one black spot on the face of an otherwise perfect world to prove it imperfect.

More than that, though, it's safe. The ol' reptile brain likes to live in a state of perpetual fear, focused on pain and preparing itself against the future recurrence thereof. This is not wise, nor is it honest, and when we do it, we limit ourselves. We hesitate, we self-sabotage, we apologize where should not, we distrust, we fail to see opportunities, we fear to act on the ones we see, and we present ourselves as persons of low worth, thus teaching others around us to see us in the same fashion and choosing relationships with people who treat us poorly and whom we treat poorly.

At the end of the day, you don't need to believe in a lot of spiritual mumbo-jumbo in order to understand the extent to which we create our own realities. Not everything about our realities, most likely, but I definitely find that the older I get, the more I realize that what we call "maturity" is largely the process of admitting to ourselves that we have more control over our circumstances than we like to think.

Let me be clear: I recognize that people face legitimate challenges and unfair hardships. I find the concept of "rugged individualism" vulgar and I don't believe that everyone - or, indeed, anyone - can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I am, after all, a filthy communist (of the libertarian, philosophical variety). I believe in the duty of the community to support the individual, but I also believe that it is the duty of the individual to expect this of the community... and to hold it accountable when it fails to do so. Yet far too often, the realities we create for ourselves include denying much-needed offers of help, including those given graciously, given with respect, even those given with a fervent and genuine hope for their acceptance.

Such is the limiting power of a cynical worldview, one that sees all ventures as futile, all kindnesses as fake, and all good luck as mere bait for the eventual doom to come.

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