Why I seem so positive

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Why I seem so positive

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To survive and thrive, I feel I have no choice but to consciously cultivate and live with a relentlessly optimistic and aesthetic outlook on life. The alternative is unconsciously backsliding into a miserable, depressing, hopeless cynicism.

You may rightly point out that there is a middle between those ends. The choices of our outlook are not binary. It is a spectrum of infinite gradations. I acknowledge that. There is a middle, of course. But it sits on a downslope with optimism and beauty around the small top and cynicism and ugliness at the immense bottom. I italicised ‘around’ because madness lies at the summit. That is where we end up when our optimism is not tempered by reality, rationality and reasonableness.

I choose optimism because, firstly, it is further from the bottom than the middle. If I slip and slide, I hope to recover my footing around the middle instead of the bottom. Secondly, it gives me opportunities to experience more beautiful, content and hopeful moments than I would if I possessed a depressing and hopeless cynicism. Thirdly, optimism generates feel-good vibes and adds to the goodness in the world. I want to contribute to that.

There are enough negative vibes out there. Cynicism is commercialised, institutionalised and personalised. It’s in the news, on social media, on the grapevine and from the government. It’s in our phones, through messages and spam calls.

I can understand why cynicism is preferred. Cynicism appears wiser than optimism, which is damned for appearing rebellious and outrageous. Cynicism feels realistic because we encounter more negative than positive encounters. Cynicism has the benefit of seeming rational and being proven right more often than not. Every day gives us a new reason to deepen our cynicism.

The tragedy is that cynicism is warranted for the most part.

So, like many, I am profoundly, irretrievably, and bitterly cynical. Like many of us, I have had my fair share of betrayal, being unjustly accused, being bitterly disappointed and wrongfully humiliated, being treated unfairly and regularly exposed to how cold, cruel and dishonest a human being can be to another human being for the saddest of reasons. The scars and trauma do not show on our skin or faces.

I litigate. I, therefore, have the dubious privilege of acquaintanceship with the distasteful dimensions of being human in its worst manifestation. But then, given the quality and state of our national political discourse, you do not need to be a litigator to share that privilege.

Though I am intimately acquainted with cynicism, it is too dark for my taste. I don’t want to live with that kind of mindset. I acknowledge its rational and reality-oriented seductiveness. But cynicism is rational as it is miserable. Like some poison, I concede it is healthy and helpful in small doses with careful application. Anything more or less than the appropriate dose in the application of it can be harmful, if not fatal.

It takes significant psychological effort and support to be and remain optimistic in challenging situations. Staying true to the long-term view requires emotional, ethical and mental fortitude. It needs a droplet of madness. It demands unwavering fidelity to the trueness of our point of view when those with short to medium-term views cannot comprehend it. It is the difference between gazing at tree trunks and the horizon.

A sleight of mind helps that.

To possess a positive outlook, I have to fool myself to a sufficient degree. Of course, I know I am fooling myself even as I am fooling myself. But we all do that all the time. This is far less harmful than the stuff we fool ourselves about.

I see and feel my hand draw the fool-myself-curtain across the parts of my life and the society I live in that I must ignore to live with some semblance of sanity and a tightly grasped silver sliver of hope. If I draw the curtain tightly and entirely enough, I can forget I fooled myself. If I forget long enough, I could end up believing it.

But that does not last long. Life does not allow it.

There will be sobering moments: when I feel the fool-myself-curtains billow against me, when I see the rays of darkness through the curtain chinks, or when I hear the curtain hooks rattle against the curtain railing. Or, worst case, the curtain is drawn back wide open, and the darkness envelops everything instantly.

In that darkness is fear. There is anxiety. There is anger. The darkness contains dishonesty, selfishness, disrespect, anger, arrogance, thoughtlessness, insecurity, impatience, apathy, and hatred, and lurking beneath it all is a potential for violation, not necessarily physical; it is emotional, psychological and spiritual.

I cannot help but know that darkness because it is within me, as I believe it is, more or less, in everyone else. There is no escaping the darkness within. Just as the sun casts our shadows over one another, the glow of our soul casts a shadow within our internal crevices. We can only live with both.

But the darkness without is immense as it is intense. There is no escaping darkness without. We cannot avoid the darkness that doesn’t simply exist but jostles, nudges, pushes, shoves us, and sometimes outright possesses us.

There are no solutions to matters of light and dark, only strategies.

Solutions that seek to extinguish one in favour of the other are misguided and dangerous. We cannot extinguish matters inherent to each other and us. Removing a part destroys the whole. Strategies that look to mediate, manage and leverage between them are the only thing we can do about it.

I have a few strategies to keep the cynicism at arm’s length. These strategies do not protect or give me immunity from cynicism, feeling miserable, hopeless, etc. They are, however, helpful measures I can take to lessen, avoid, and counter the waves of cynicism. They help me reshape what I am confronted with into something positive for myself or to gain some good from it. It’s like using judo for a psychological and emotional traumatic experience. I use the momentum of those moments against itself.

It is gazing up to the stars and reaching for them whilst standing chest-high in a deep and full gutter.

The first is to avoid negativity. That includes negative thoughts, vibes, feelings, acts and people. The last one especially. If being with them brings you down, avoid them. We cannot avoid this entirely. It’s impossible. The critical point is to be sensitive to its presence, endure it where we must, and avoid it if possible.

Negative thoughts are products of darkness. Fear leads us to irrationality and clutching at extremes. Dishonesty makes us untrustworthy and shifty. Anger irritates our impulsiveness. Selfishness leads to unfairness and apathy. Those bring with them callousness, carelessness and cruelty.

I try to avoid being a negativity generator. As much as possible. We have enough negativity from others to deal with. Each bit of negativity that we generate dims our world. Every manifest of it pollutes our relationship with everything else.

It is demoralising and vitality-diminishing to live in darkness. It isn’t easy to find a way out. There are no lighted green exit signs. There are no floor lights to mark the way. There are no illuminated emergency telephone posts. The only exits are the ones we carve out for ourselves with our bare, worn hands in the darkness. Or, if we are fortunate, a benevolent hand breaks through the darkness and hauls us into the light.

Keeping negativity away creates space and tinder for positivity.

The second is gratitude, especially for the relationships, situations, and things we tend to take for granted: the closest ones, the important little things, the ones without price tags, the invisible, the fleeting, the mundane, the seemingly cheap and the eternal. It is easy to lose sight of these things amidst the material, the marketing, the spin, the glitz and glam, the spectacles, the edited pictures and our innate desire to possess.

Gratitude helps us realize how much we have and, more importantly, what we don’t need. Gratitude centres us. It purifies our outlook. It humbles us by putting our wealth, and the lack of it, into perspective. Gratitude reminds us how fortunate we are to have this singular moment here on earth to live, feel the sun on our skin, taste the food we eat, savour the caress of love, help another and be in the company of family and friends. With gratitude, we content ourselves with enough instead of the relentless demand for more.

Gratitude is the spark and fuel to the flame of positivity.

The third is reframing negative experiences until we have transformed them into a positive or beneficial narrative. It is growing flowers out of dung. Basically. Relentlessly. It is finding some benefit for my future self and those important to me, no matter how pathetic or minuscule, in a challenging, painful or hurtful situation and drawing solace from that. Once I have assuaged myself, I can begin my recovery.

Some of the thoughts I use to prompt myself to reframe: What’s the best and worst outcome for that situation? Where was I on the scale? What can I be grateful about that? What have I gained from a given situation? Even if I don’t, have others gained from it? What can I do better next time? Others have had it worse, don’t complain. Every person, situation or thing has a history. Do not presume malice. The more things change, the more they stay the same. If I cannot find the good in micro, look for it in macro—and vice versa. Where there is bad, there is good. And this, too, shall pass— and so on.

These prompts help put things into positive perspective. My scope of consideration is broadened and deepened. It makes me aware of the nuanced complexities inherent to human beings, the situations they create and the forces we contend with. Reframing allows the recalibration of a repugnant experience into an important and even necessary one.

Fourth, focus on others. I can only do so much to care for and please myself. Actually, I could do with more personal reading time, but that will be an eternal complaint of mine. That aside, after indulging myself for a time, the pleasure I get from it feels empty, flimsy and hollow.

When I focus on others, work, and projects, the satisfaction and pleasure I feel have a solidity and wholesomeness. It feels larger. After spending a day productively, there is a sense of relief and worthiness from doing an honest day’s hard work, and there is the satisfaction of feeling useful and competent.

Focusing on others includes celebrating others and their milestones and accomplishments, avoid thinking ill of them and being restrained with Hanlon’s Razor. By celebrating others, I don’t necessarily mean buying a cake and balloons and singing For he’s a jolly good fellow. We could. But for myself, celebrating others includes speaking well of them to others and privately thinking and wishing well for another person. Celebrating others gives us more opportunities to generate positive, feel-good vibes compared to celebrating only ourselves and our accomplishments.

The fifth is being a presence of positivity, optimism and good, if not a force. There are more than enough bitter, pessimistic, egoistic, self-interested, desperate people, institutions and forces contributing to negativity. It gushes from the streams of news, social media, gossip, authorities, and attitudes like racism, religious extremism, corruption, etc. It floods, permeates, and undermines our societal well-being and our trust in one another.

I either add to it or counter it. We have to take a side. We have no choice. To remain passive is to add to it. So, I chose to counter. I resist adding to the negativity. I dream, do and hope. I work towards them. That’s not to say I never complain, bitch or whine about things. I do. But I do not linger or languish in them. At the end of it, I look for solutions or strategies. Where possible, I look to contribute positively to mitigate the overwhelming negativity about us.

But I am but one. Many more of us must orient and articulate ourselves positively, optimistically and in a noble fashion before that sense of positivity becomes palpable. Many, many more. It demands far more qualities to do good than to encourage evil. Encouraging evil requires only fear and passivity. Doing good requires immense effort, heart, patience, courage, robustness, resilience and competencies. It is challenging and not always immediately rewarding work. Doing good is not for the lazy, incompetent, weak-willed, cowardly, and petty.

Finally, seek out and be regularly in the company of people who are positive, optimistic and noble in attitude and conduct. They inform, instruct and inspire. Positivity, optimism and goodness are infectious. It’s just not as infectious as negativity, pessimism and indifference. But one good vibe begets another. We can build on that. We absorb the colours and patterns from the company we often keep. Absorb the bright colours and savour the beautiful patterns.

There is a simulation I use to remind myself of these strategies: I imagine myself dead and gone.

I imagine myself as a ghost hovering over the living landscape, looking at how life continues its beat without me. My parents and friends have long buried and mourned me. I imagine seeing the squirrels going about their survival, the birds soaring in the air, my family and friends going about their lives, the eternal snaking traffic, court cases going on, contracts drawn up, businesses opening and shutting, oblivious to my passing; in short, life goes on whether or not I am here.

After snapping out of my simulation, I cannot help but be grateful and delighted not to be dead and a ghost but to be alive, able and autonomous. I am elated at not suffering the powerlessness of being a ghost. I am happy that I have family, friends and good work. I am grateful that I can contribute positively.

That is more or less how I manage my optimism and why I seem so positive, even when I am not.

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