Below, you will find brief, inspiring stories. Stories from my life as a therapist, author, and public speaker. My first published work appeared in 1957, in my College literary magazine. I had spent a summer in Cuba and I wrote about an experience I had working in a mission there. Since then I have written scores of inspiring stories and articles which have appeared in professional journals, magazines, and several newspapers.
All my writings share the themes of conscious awareness, caring and compassion, and mental and spiritual growth possibilities. These inspiring stories and articles are written not only for professionals but for the average, ordinary person seeking wisdom, insight and tools to help them live a more rewarding life.
My goal in all my writings is to share what I have learned over the years in both my professional and personal life, to encourage people to seek the high road, and to understand that they have choices which can help them keep the darkness away. I encourage acts of kindness and love in everyday life.
Reflections on Loss and Grief
Through the LookingGlass
Over my lifetime my way of dealing with loss and grief has been to write about it. I have published stories about each of my parent’s deaths, the loss of my favorite sister and brother, even my special friend “Ma” Barefoot. These pieces have found their way into the Boston Globe, Under the Covers, The Knack of a Happy Life, and an anthology entitled Imaging Heaven. Writing has always been a comfort, an often much-easier way to express my deepest feelings. I am one of those souls who cries over most anything: weddings, funerals, generally happy news, and generally sad news, newly arrived, recently departed. My favorite Bible verse, I tell people, is “Jesus wept.” My closest friends tolerate this water flow, but I think they are secretly happy when they can read what I want to share in dry print! It does save on dry cleaning and ironing out soggy wrinkles.
I have spent my entire professional life (more than 45 years) as a loss and grief counselor. I have been present for the loss of so many, offering comfort to those who mourn, whether it’s loved ones lost early in life through accidents, illnesses, or suicide, or those with Alzheimer’s, who ‘left’ long before their bodies became stilled. Or just tired, worn out folks who have lived rich, meaningful lives and now are ready to check out what’s in store for them next. Bereavement comes in many flavors, each experience both profound and unique.
What I know with absolute certainty is that bearing witness to this suffering, honoring it by listening, is a profound part of the healing process. Without listening, speaking loses its ability to heal.
As I approached my 80th birthday, I was reflecting on the stories/eulogies I’ve written about others when a totally unbidden thought popped into my mind: who will write my eulogy?
When I was turning 65, I wrote a hilarious (I thought!) piece about that milestone. Approaching 65 seemed to have many funny elements. Turning 80 and facing my own mortality, not so much. But I recall what my friend Ma Barefoot told me as she dictated her funeral plans to me shortly before her death. “What about the eulogy?”, I asked. She smiled. “Well,” she said, “You know you write your own eulogy by the way you live.” I find her words reassuring. I’m thinking that when eulogy time comes for me, I may be covered, after all.
So, with a grateful heart, I invite you to check back on a regular basis and find comfort, inspiration, and joy in my writing and inspiring stories.
Wouldn’t you Like to be a Gracelet too?!
It was a word I learned about a long time ago, maybe from a preacher, and I was told it was a term too special for ordinary words to convey. Gracelets were very special people who came into your life when you least expected them and showered their gifts on you like tiny drops of morning dew, teaching important lessons about life and how to live it.
I was born during the depression era, the daughter of sharecroppers, eighth out of nine children. My first Gracelets came into my young life in the 1950s, mainly during my college years. Each of them, in their own way, changed my life and my views on how life should be lived.
My first Gracelet was Margaret Meade, the author of Coming of Age in Samoa, who told me and my college classmates something I have never forgotten. “The trouble with most do-gooders,” she said, “is they forget to ask the do-good-ees how they want to be done good to.” As a psychologist for more than 45 years, I always asked my clients “How can I help? What do you need from me?”
In the mid-1950s I sat on the lawn in Hyde Park with a group of college students listening to Eleanor Roosevelt talk to us about her life; what she had seen and learned about women, children, and families in dire need around the country. She urged us to join in the struggle for social justice; to commit our lives to helping those less fortunate. I never forgot her humility, her compassion, or the passion with which she spoke.
Another Gracelet who changed my life and taught me the evils of segregation was Martin Luther King, Jr. I attended his father’s church in Atlanta when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the congregation. In addition, while attending Emory University, I took seminars he gave for our graduate group. He was helpful to me in developing ideas for my Master’s thesis.
Many years passed and I had forgotten about the concept of Gracelets. I graduated from college, moved to Boston to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, married and started a family, and began a professional career. Over the years, the concept of Gracelets faded.
I have been in the helping profession for almost 50 years but it is only within the past three to four years that the concept of Gracelets has resurfaced; this time in an even more powerful, meaningful way. I now see Gracelets as ordinary people who, in critical moments, do extraordinary things that change people’s lives forever.
In April of 2014 I was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor which damaged my pituitary gland and other vital systems. Due to vision problems caused by the tumor, I can no longer drive and am dealing with other medical-related issues.
In light of this, I want to share some of the Gracelets who have stepped up to help as I face this difficult time and in so doing have enriched my life and changed it forever:
First of all, my son, Eric, who remained in the hospital throughout the surgery and recovery and drove me to 29 radiation treatments. He would whisper words of encouragement in my ear every night, “Don’t give up… Keep on fighting… Hang in there…” For over three years since my return home, he makes the two hour trip from Raleigh to my home in Wilmington to order and prepare my medicines, to balance my checkbook and handle the finances, and to do any necessary shopping or chores; all of which frees me up to focus on my healing. Though we have always had a very close relationship, he has now redefined the term Gracelet, not only changing, but saving my life.
Secondly, when Parish Care members at my church learned that I would be unable to drive, they formed a group of volunteers; women who drive me each week wherever I need/want to go. They have done this for over three years and I have never missed an appointment…dozens of Gracelets who show up week after week, month after month.
I must include in this list my family who lives in another state who have kept a constant vigil; especially my sister who organized a prayer group at her tiny church and kept the group posted on a weekly basis as to my progress.
And then there’s my dear friend who has enriched my life for more than 20 years who, without fanfare, sends me a check each month to help with my medical expenses.
There are so many more Gracelets in my life – too many to name – that I am so very grateful for. Now that I’m back in touch with Gracelets and thinking about whom they are and what they do, I’m seeing them everywhere in my life! I’d like to think that there are many people who would think of me as a Gracelet in their lives.
If you aren’t one already, you can become a Gracelet, too!
Portions of this piece appeared in The Knack of a Happy Life and Under the Covers
Guilt: The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Don’t be a Regifter
What is guilt and why is it so important? Guilt comes in many shapes and colors and can be either growth-enhancing or destructive. It’s an emotion that is often misunderstood and misused.
First, the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt: Guilt is the feeling you get when you tell yourself (or someone tells you) you have done something wrong. Healthy guilt is experienced when you actually have done something wrong. Deliberately harassing someone or knowingly hurting someone should cause a healthy amount of guilt.
Healthy guilt is an important feeling because it means we have developed a conscience. Knowing the difference between right and wrong. Taking responsibility for our behaviors, for the choices we make. Holding ourselves accountable, rather than project onto others and blame them. (The ‘blame game’ is a big element in guilt-tripping others. “I didn’t say it was your fault; I said I was going to blame you,” the magnet on my friend’s refrigerator reads. “Just find somebody and blame them,” is another friend’s advice.)
If we are healthy adults, capable of loving, of feeling remorse and empathy, we will do what needs to be done to fix the situation. We will understand that an apology is not license to do the same thing over and over again, but a true recognition of the wrong-doing with a commitment to making every effort to prevent its happening again.
What about unhealthy guilt? This feeling results when we tell ourselves we have done something wrong when we haven’t. People who take the blame for things they had nothing to do with can develop painful, debilitating, sometimes paralyzing guilt. In unhealthy guilt, we find it easy to feel responsible for other people’s feelings. “It’s my fault he’s angry that I didn’t feel like going for a walk.” “If she’s hurt, I must have done something wrong.”
Rather than accepting responsibility for the feelings of others (or expecting them to accept responsibility for ours!), ask yourself what was your intent. If your intent was not to hurt, but to simply take care of yourself or do something healthy for yourself even if it disappoints someone, then don’t accept blame for their response.
In my almost 50 years as a clinical psychologist I have treated hundreds of people suffering from pathological guilt, many of them carrying the burden since childhood. I have been amazed at how insidious this emotion is and how difficult it is to treat, partly because of the irrational aspects of it. This is especially true for childhood guilt. A ten year old boy was referred to me after his mother committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage. “If I had just looked in her pocketbook when she came home from the store I would have found her suicide note and stopped her,” he said, sobbing. “Do you usually look in your Mom’s pocketbook when she’s been shopping?” I asked. “No, but if I had this time…”
Many adults have lived their lives felling guilty – for example, taking responsibility for their parents’ divorce or for the death of a younger sibling. The results are often crippling and damaging to their image of themselves as a good person. We have yet to appreciate the power of pathological guilt which can lead to depression, anxiety and even – in extreme cases – suicide. One of my most painful experiences as a therapist has been sitting with people who are expressing their guilt that a member of their family has committed suicide and they are blaming themselves.
Someone suggested that pathological guilt “Is the gift that keeps on giving.” One of the keys to healing unhealthy guilt is the ability to forgive oneself.
So, we have healthy guilt, unhealthy guilt, and then there’s no guilt. People who seem to suffer no guilt or remorse from their behaviors are often called sociopaths. They seem to lack a well-developed, healthy conscience and are devoid of empathy. Such individuals often seek total control, resort to violence, and are often found in our prisons. Many are the victims of severe child abuse which shattered their developing self-esteem, self-worth, and their ability to develop the capacity for empathy.
Paying attention to our own feelings of guilt will provide opportunities for growth and happiness. It should not be our goal to blame or shame people into feeling unhealthy guilt. Nor should we seek the elimination of guilt. Instead, our focus is the practice of healthy guilt, recognizing it, dealing with it in a healthy manner, and moving on.
The Healing Power of Forgiving
Let go and Let’s go!
Forgiveness is one of my favorite topics, partly because it’s so important to our emotional and physical health, and partly because it’s so hard to learn to do. There can be so many obstacles to overcome.
“How many times should I forgive someone who has sinned against me? Seven?” Jesus was asked. The answer given was “not seven but seventy times seven.” That’s a lot of forgiving!
What does it mean to forgive? It means to stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone who has wronged you; to stop seeking revenge; to stop blaming. The New Testament is not about revenge but about forgiveness: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Psychologists define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to let go of feelings of resentment or vengeance towards a person or group who has harmed you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or condoning or excusing the offense, it just means letting go of emotions of anger and resentment, which are destructive. Forgiving takes you out of the past. It heals old wounds of the heart, allowing you to move on. Forgiving someone does not require that they reciprocate; doesn’t require that they pay, or that they even know. True forgiving is a personal, private matter. Forgiving others does not mean that we don’t benefit from being forgiven. Asking for forgiveness when we have wronged someone is part of the healing process.
Why is forgiveness so difficult if it’s so good for us? Sometimes our sense of self is fragile and we are overly susceptible to criticisms and negative actions directed towards us. Resentment and anger are our fallback responses and can help us deal with the blow momentarily. It can take a long time for us to realize that this grudging mindset can become debilitating and demoralizing. In such a situation our anger and sense of revenge can bubble over. While we’ve heard that revenge is sweet, it is anything but. It is fruitless and becomes more destructive the longer we hang on to it.
But hang on to it we do. My 86 year old brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We were talking one day about his life and his achievements and he said, “I’m not afraid to die. I’ve lived a good life and I don’t hold any grudges.” “That’s a wonderful place to be,” I said. “But,” he continued, “there’s one person I don’t want to come to my funeral. He treated me wrong years ago and he never apologized. I don’t even want him to know about my funeral so maybe there shouldn’t be an obituary, because he might see it.” “But what about those you would want to know and to attend?” I asked. My brother didn’t answer but went on to say, ”When I get to heaven I’m going to tell God what he did to me and I’m going to say, ‘Now God, when he dies you’ve got to send him straight to hell!’” He smiled when I took his hand and said, “I’m sure glad you don’t hold any grudges.”
So we come back to the question of why it’s so important to forgive. The answer is that those who are able to forgive tend to cope better with life. It is not easy to forgive ourselves or others but research has shown that when we are better at forgiveness we experience less stress, less tension, lower levels of depression, less anxiety, and perhaps most importantly, less anger.
We can’t over-estimate the negative impact anger has on us. It is toxic to our mental and physical health. In my many years of clinical practice I have worked with so many clients who have experienced terrible trauma and abuse – physical, sexual, and mental – often at the hands of their caretakers. In my experience, those who do well are the ones who find a way to forgive themselves and their abusers. They have worked hard in therapy to let go of their anger and resentment and to go on with their lives. They know they don’t have to forget and they know they don’t have to continue to be victimized.
Forgiveness is for our own health and well-being. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s a process we can work to get better at until it can become a way of life. Don’t ask how many times you should forgive someone. And don’t keep score!
Me and My Shadow
Bringing our Unconscious Selves into the Light
The concept of ‘the shadow’ or our ‘shadow self’ is a very helpful concept in understanding ourselves and the way we do business with the world. Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote extensively about this term and its importance to our lives.
In Jungian psychology the shadow refers to an unconscious aspect of our personality which we do not identify in ourselves. Stated another way, the shadow is the unknown or dark side of our personality. It contains our primitive, negative emotions and impulses.
Each of us carries a shadow and the less we incorporate it into our conscious life the darker it is. It can form an unconscious roadblock, thwarting our best intentions. Jung wasn’t the first to speak to this issue. St. Paul in the New Testament puzzled over this. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” And of course there is the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where we can see the dangers of excessive unconsciousness. Without giving the plot away, Dr. Jekyll creates a Mr. Hyde to carry out his unconscious evil impulses. The phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is sometimes used to refer to someone whose actions cannot be reconciled with his conscious self.
We don’t like admitting that we are not totally virtuous, selfless, and good, but the truth is that we also harbor selfish, destructive impulses. It is only by becoming aware and integrating our shadow into our consciousness that we can become whole. It is difficult to overestimate the hidden power of our shadow or dark side. The shadow goes by many familiar names: the disapproving self, the lower self, or the false self. The reason we need to understand this concept is that we all have shadows. None of us lives a fully-conscious life. None of us totally understands all his thoughts and feelings, his perceptions and motivations, though these things influence how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to others. If we don’t accept and embrace our shadow we may project it onto others. We should never dismiss the shadow as some totally evil entity. Rather, it contains undeveloped, positive potential if we can assimilate it into our consciousness.
How does our shadow develop? Some suggest that at an early age we begin to embrace traits in ourselves that we see are acceptable to our caregivers and society. Those traits that aren’t acceptable are hidden away. But even though we separate ourselves from these instincts or primitive thoughts, they do not disappear. Our conscious mind has simply lost contact with them.
Making the darkness conscious is critical to becoming our whole self. Those who succeed in this effort are transformed. I have watched these transformations hundreds of times in my years of clinical work. So, I urge you to begin your exploration into your own shadow side.
Here are some guidelines and tools to help in this effort:
The major goal is to become self-aware, to become conscious of forces driving us. These forces sometimes take away our control. Whatever you can do to tap into the unknown side of your personality will bring that issue to conscious awareness where you can then deal with it. Many people look to counseling, to meditation, to seeking out others who have developed this ability and can offer support. Insight can be gained in so many ways, including studying the writings of those enlightened folks who are further along on their journey.
I try to focus on self-awareness, paying attention to the words I speak, to the feelings others engender in me, asking myself why I overreacted in a given situation. Doing this can offer helpful clarification of an emotion or an action I have taken which has had a negative effect and has sometimes brought pain and disappointment – to myself and to others.
Self-awareness, self-acceptance, and moving towards our whole self is the goal. It’s rewarding and healing, and it’s worth the effort.
Fishing From the Wrong Side of the Boat
Why is it so Difficult to Re-Cast our Nets?
I love the New Testament story of the fishermen who cast their nets from their boats and sit all night waiting, catching not a single fish. They return to shore discouraged and are told by their Master to return to the deep water and this time to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. With much skepticism and protesting, pointing out that they had spent all night fishing, the fishermen did as they were instructed. And guess what happened? They were unable to haul their nets in because of the large number of fish they had caught.
One of the reasons this story resonates with me is that it seems to me to be a metaphor for the way many of us live our lives – fishing from the wrong side of the boat. We are unhappy and dissatisfied with the way things are going in our lives, but we don’t make a change; we don’t step out and try something new. What keeps us from doing this? Why do we continue on the same path day in and day out, no matter how unsuccessful or unrewarding it is?
I think there are several reasons which we need to consider: first of all, inertia is a strong force that keeps us from breaking out of set patterns. We do today what we did yesterday partly because it feels safe and familiar. Change is very difficult and sometimes scary so we opt for the familiar status quo. Staying with what is familiar can reduce anxiety.
Secondly, fear can have a paralyzing effect on us when we consider switching our ‘nets.’ Fears are powerful emotions that play a large part in controlling our behavior. We may fear failure in our new effort, loss of what we had, fear that our changes will not be accepted or appreciated by those who matter to us, or fear that we won’t measure up to the new challenge. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” the saying goes.
Whatever our reasons, we dig our heels in and resist change. In so doing we can come across as stubborn or inflexible. Often unseen motivations include anxiety or fear of the unknown. It has been suggested that unhealthy behavior involves doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result. While these repetitive behaviors may offer temporary relief to anxiety, in the long run these patterns become maladaptive.
What I like about this biblical story is the positive outcome, which also has relevance to us current day ‘fishermen’ (or women!). When the fisherman took a risk and cast their nets on the other side of the boat they were rewarded, in abundance, with what they were seeking. This can happen with us. I’ve seen it occur so many times in my many years as a therapist that I’ve come to expect it in people who can find the courage to abandon an old pattern or strategy that is not working for them and, venturing into the deep water, cast their net ‘on the other side of the boat.’
Metaphors We Live By
Personal Beliefs That Guide Us
A metaphor is the use of a familiar, concrete image to illuminate an unfamiliar or abstract idea, experience, or process. Metaphors help us to understand the unfamiliar by reference to the familiar. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. (For example: My life is a giant roller coaster.”)
In their book, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson see metaphors as much more than a matter of words. They argue that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. They suggest that if our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.
Aristotle said “…the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor”; “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.” His praise was for metaphor’s ability to encourage insight.
Metaphor means “to see as” – to see something as something else. Metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not literally true. Jesus himself taught us to look at things metaphorically in his use of parables. It’s easier sometimes to ‘get the message’ through parable or metaphor, and to remember it. Some of His most powerful lessons were embedded in metaphors. The Sermon on the Mount is full of metaphors: “salt of the earth,” “hiding one’s light under a bushel…” Perhaps the most well-known and beloved metaphor in the bible is: “The Lord is my Shepard…” The power of metaphor is seen throughout this 23rd Psalm. (To illustrate, IF you believed that Jesus was your personal Shepherd, what practical difference would it make in the way you live your life?)
Metaphors matter because they influence our beliefs and our behavior. They are valuable tools for trying to make sense of our feelings, experiences, and our behaviors. Many people use the words metaphor and simile as synonyms. The major difference is that a metaphor says something IS another thing, whereas a simile says something is LIKE something else. For example, ‘My love is a red, red rose’ is a metaphor; ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ is a simile. You can see why the terms are so often used interchangeably.
I see metaphors as essential to human understanding and as a mechanism for creating new meaning in our lives. I encourage you to think about what metaphor(s) you live by, what metaphor affects your view of life and how to live it. If you are living a metaphor that is negatively impacting your life, creating problems and stifling your emotional growth, you can change the metaphor! It isn’t easy but it’s doable. And doing it is important because good mental health includes having life metaphors that work.
Here is my personal metaphor:
Life is a giant classroom with so many subjects to be learned. Some days I’m the very good teacher who is able to teach valuable lessons to those in her care. I’m the teacher who recognizes the inter-relatedness between a teacher and student. Other days I arrive in the classroom less than fully prepared to teach the lesson of the day.
Some days I’m the student, eager to explore and learn new things. Sometimes I come to class prepared. Other days I arrive unprepared and am unable to get the most from the lesson. Some days I’m ready to say, “The dog ate my homework.” Other days I just skip class altogether. Sometimes I feel up to helping my classmates, assisting them in mastering something I have already learned. Some days I feel so far behind in the subject matter that I’m tempted to copy my classmate’s work.
What if, metaphorically speaking, I do not learn my lessons for the year? Then I won’t be promoted to the next ‘grade’ and instead will have to repeat some ‘classes.’ This metaphor which I embrace has a profound effect on how I try to live my life, how I see myself, how I treat other ‘students’ in my ‘class’, or in other words, how I see the world and my role in it.
The Healing Properties of Laughter
It is said that laughter is the best medicine. While I don‘t know that that’s always true, I do know that laughing matters. The feeling that nothing is fun – or funny – anymore is a sign of poor mental health. In my clinical practice over the years I have always paid attention to my clients’ sense of humor, whether he or she had one, and if so, what kind. I have found that humor is critical in dealing with emotional pain, suffering, and loss. I have worked with clients to build on a healthy sense of humor, partly because of its healing powers and partly because I see it as a spark of the Divine that can be nurtured.
While we seem to be hard-wired for humor and laughter, what we find funny varies widely and can be seen from early childhood. Responding positively to a child’s budding sense of mirthful humor can help build intellectual, social, and emotional skills.
Dr. Paul McGhee’s research suggests that humor supports children’s emotional well-being in several ways:
- Increased joy and happiness
- Heightened self-esteem
- Intellectual gains
- Improved mastery over anger and anxiety.
“Kids who build strong humor skills prior to the adult years have a powerful advantage over their terminally serious peers when it comes to navigating daily stressors,” he writes.
Laughter is strong medicine that can trigger healthy physical and emotional changes in the body. Research shows that laughter strengthens our immune system, boosts mood, and protects us from the damaging effects of stress. Humor lightens our burdens, inspires hope, connects us to others and keeps us grounded. It also can diffuse anger and allow us to be more forgiving towards others. This is a priceless gift. Best of all, it’s fun, free, and easy to use!
We are now learning what poets and sages have known about the amazing power of humor, laughter, and joy. “I am happy even before I have a reason,” the Persian poet, Hafiz said.
Authors Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, and Jeanne Segal (Helpguide.org) offer the reasons that laughter is good for our health. In the physical realm, laughter relaxes the whole body; boosts the immune system; triggers the release of endorphins; protects the heart; burns calories; lightens anger’s heavy burden; and may even help us live longer.
Mental health benefits include adding joy and zest to life; easing anxiety and tension; relieving stress and improving mood. Socially, laughter strengthens relationships; attracts others to us; helps defuse conflict; and promotes group bonding. Laughter can give us the courage and strength to find new sources of support.
Laughter helps us shift perspective, seeing things in a more realistic, less threatening way. It helps to lessen distressing emotions, and draws us closer to others. And laughter really is contagious. So when you hear laughter, move toward it. Hearing laughter primes our brain and allows us to smile and consider joining in the fun.
What we laugh at is an indicator of our character. Humor comes in several varieties: innocent jokes that involve word-play or absurdity; humor with a particular aim – usually sexual or hostile humor used to reject or exclude people; or humor that is used to express power and dominance.
The instinctual development of smiling and laughing occurs very early in life, suggesting a high level of importance. The motivation to play and laugh is built into us as a species. We see this in children at a very young age. We sometimes forget this as adults.
Laughter is an essential human phenomenon. The poet Hafiz remarked: “Ever since Happiness heard your name/It has been running through the streets/Trying to find you.” We need laughter to draw us closer to others and strengthen relationships, thus having a profound effect on all aspects of our physical, mental and emotional health.
Optimism: Do you see the doughnut or the hole?
Let Your Thinking Change Your Life…
One of the classic definitions of optimism and pessimism is that the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, while the optimist sees it as half-full. Many argue that this distinction is important because it affects the way we see life and the meaning we find in it.
One of my favorite examples of optimism came when my twin godchildren were young. It was the Christmas season and there was much talk of Santa Claus. My godson said to his sister, “Don’t you think it’s strange that one person can come down all the chimneys in the world in one night?” Without hesitation she said, “No, I don’t think it’s strange. I think it’s amazing!” Now an adult, she continues to maintain her optimism, in the face of several losses and disappointments.
Are optimism and positive thinking the same thing? They are similar, but positive thinking has been described as optimism plus gratitude and happiness. Let’s look at some of the advantages of optimism as described by many researchers. Some see optimism as the key to success, helping us to gain confidence, to overcome problems, and to bring positive change to our lives. It can help us see failure as an opportunity for a new start. Optimism does not mean that we always see puppies and rainbows, but it does help us see new opportunities.
By way of contrast, pessimism doesn’t achieve much and doesn’t have any known benefits. Pessimism can make us unusually hesitant and shy, reluctant to try new things, or seek new opportunities.
Interest in this concept is not new. In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peal wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, a kind of how-to manual for finding happiness and fulfillment through thinking and acting positively. His book has sold over 5 million copies to date.
More recently, psychologist Martin Seligman (the “Father of Positive Psychology”) says these two ways of looking at situations are habits of thinking that can lead to very different outcomes. According to Seligman, pessimists tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists.
On the other hand, optimists tend to do better in school, work, and extra-curricular activities. They often perform better than predicted on aptitude tests, have better overall health, and may even live longer. For me, optimism is not just about feeling positive, it’s about being motivated to change.
Sherrie Bourg Carter writes about the mind-body benefits of optimism. Her suggestions include capitalizing on the power of positive thinking; daily recording of positive experiences; re-framing negative thoughts into positive ones and reducing negative language from your vocabulary; avoiding negative people and focusing on spending time with positive folks.
Your body will love you for your optimism! Why? Because research (reported by Harvard Health Publishers) shows optimism is associated with lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, and can increase your chances of living longer. DeSylva and Kern tell us in song that a heart full of joy and gladness can banish trouble and strife. Now, scientists tell us that such an attitude can help the heart itself. We now know that optimism helps the heart and circulation. It contributes positively to overall health. Such is the power of optimism!
Some say that we are hard-wired for optimism and a sunny outlook. Others see the influence of environment as the major contributor (nature vs. nurture). I believe that heredity can play a part, but that changing our attitudes, our beliefs, and our outlook on life rests largely in our hands; on our early life experiences; on our willingness to let go of pessimism and embrace a positive outlook, an optimistic view of our world and our position in it.
In my years of clinical practice, I have found that optimism is one of the best predictors of successful therapy. Recently, a colleague referred a middle-aged woman to me. After speaking with me on the phone and offering several reasons why she couldn’t commit to therapy she ended the conversation by saying, “You sound like a very nice person, but my problems can’t be fixed.” This pessimistic attitude has kept her from finding out that her problems might well be ‘fixable’.
I doubt that McLandburgh Wilson pondered such weighty questions when he explained optimism in 1915:
“Twixt the optimist and pessimist
The difference is droll:
The optimist sees the doughnut
But the pessimist sees the hole.”
Each of us has the power to change how we view our experiences. Rather than seeing yourself as a helpless observer in your journey, see yourself as an active participant. You can begin flexing your optimism ‘muscle’ by being consciously aware of your current prevailing attitude. Is it negative or positive? Each of us needs an ‘attitude adjustment’ from time to time. You can practice positive ‘self-talk’ and cutting down on negative thoughts and comments. You can hang out with optimistic people. Optimism is contagious! You can practice looking for blue skies; seeing the glass half-full; and always seeing the doughnut rather than the hole. It takes some work but I am optimistic that you can do it!
Can Brokenness be Thought of as a Gift?
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes. This advice applies to things, not to people. All of us share some degree of brokenness and how we deal with it makes all the difference in our lives, and the lives of those we touch. Ernest Hemingway said “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, some are strong at the broken places.”
Many, including myself, consider brokenness as being synonymous with suffering. Types of brokenness include brokenness of the spirit, which can lead to, among other things, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Then there is the brokenness that comes from broken relationships, causing much pain and suffering. Dr. Richard Swenson says, broken relationships are a razor across the artery of the spirit. (On the physical level, doctors report that when a broken bone heals properly it is actually stronger at the place of the break than it was before.)
Strong at the Broken Places by Linda T. Sanford is a classic in the literature about survivors of childhood traumas, sexual assault, physical abuse and neglect, and witnessing domestic violence. She puts a spotlight on the severe, sometimes life-long effects these experiences can have on children and adults, leaving them scarred, broken, and vulnerable.
Sanford argues against the conventional wisdom that these children are forever doomed to being damaged goods. She writes about those who have learned, through various paths, how to turn their hurts into assets. Think of John McCain, a prisoner of war who was tortured while in a Vietnamese prison, who came home broken and disfigured, and went on to become one of the U.S. Senate’s most effective leaders and spokespersons as well as a presidential candidate. He is not alone in the pain and suffering he has endured. So many of our military men and women are returning from battle with unimaginable scars of mind, body, and spirit. These people are often diagnosed with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), a serious condition requiring immediate medical and psychological attention as well as a supportive community. Not all get the help they need and deserve. For those who do receive good care and loving support, healing and growth beyond the brokenness can occur and the survivors can become strong at the broken places.
Bryan Stevenson says that our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Stevenson, an attorney and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, suggests we are all broken by something. We have hurt others and we have been hurt by others. Stevenson’s book is beautifully written, articulating the connection between brokenness, humanity, and compassion. According to Stevenson, even when we are caught up in a web of brokenness we are also caught in a web of healing and mercy.
One of the gifts of brokenness is the joy of coming to know a higher Self and the happiness that can come from working to heal this wound. (Think of the Prodigal son and the joy he experienced when he finally “came to himself,” returned home and was welcomed by a loving, forgiving father.) Many, if not all, of us have had experiences of brokenness. Some argue that it is a necessary part of our journey.
It is through these cracks and holes at the site of our brokenness that the light shines through. Leonard Cohen says it best in his song, Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
What kind of light? The light of knowledge; the light of love and compassion; the light of sharing and being part of a community; the light of joy and happiness; the light of forgiveness; and the light that shines on us to help us recognize our unity, our oneness with the rest of the world. Suffering and brokenness have much to teach us and are invaluable tools for our healing if we reach out and embrace what they offer us.
We can experience this healing light and become strong in our broken places by making ourselves consciously aware that we are broken and accepting that this is part of who we are; by understanding the causes insofar as possible; by seeking help from family, friends, and sometimes a professional to gain knowledge and insight, helping to sort everything out; and through prayer, contemplation, and meditation.
There is no quick fix for healing brokenness. It can take a long time (perhaps a lifetime) to get to the place you want to be, to live the life of freedom, joy, and serenity you want to live. But it’s worth the effort we put in because this journey leads us to a place of unimaginably rich, life-changing happiness.
More inspiring stories to come…
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