Optimism in Times of Trial

There is a raging debate on how much bad news we should share with those around us. My day usually begins with reading several newspapers keeping an eye on the business and careers sections because that is the way in which I can keep informed on things that apply to my work. Often my cut-and-paste mentality kicks into high gear and I share things that interest me with my colleagues. Private emails and follow-up phone calls can expound on my thoughts and get feedback on ideas. Brainstorming for me has been a way of clarifying thought processes and overcoming personal bias which may have tainted my initial impressions. Unfortunately, sharing this information through tweets or other public media limits the discussion. The key news stories, especially in the current economic times, are filled with depressing items that inform us of how bad things are economically and politically in the world today. I’ve been told that it is counterproductive to blast people who are looking for a job with more bad news about their situation. I am working with several people who have been out of work for some time with no immediate prospects to pick up where they left off and move forward. I do everything I can to give them hope and optimism, but I also firmly believe that their thinking will be more focused if they also have a realistic take on their environment. Now I guess there is no secret on which side of the “raging debate” I belong. If bad news is the reality, then ignoring it won’t make it go away.

In doing research on my book, I have uncovered a very insightful scholarly article In Search of Realistic Optimism by Sandra Schneider at the University of South Florida which attempts to address the question, “Is it better to be realistic or optimistic?” Most people believe that it is possible to be accurate in their judgments if they want to be. The problem is with arriving at the truth of the situation which represents reality. The fuzzy nature of reality makes that difficult to do because it is based on fuzzy knowledge arising out of factual uncertainty. Reality checks are necessary to avoid self-deception in trying to motivate judgments. Realistic optimism implies a “focus on active engagement, emphasizing the potential of the individual given the constraints imposed by the environment.” Since we don’t have perfect knowledge, we do the best we can do to respond to input from any source that impacts our situation. Maybe bad news is good news for us if it helps to create focus.

Since we are not in control of the forces around us, a good place to start with making intelligent decisions is to have a strong belief in ourselves and be conscious of our interaction with other people and our environment. We all know that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. We also know that there is a debilitating effect by dwelling on the negative. Here are a few suggestions on some basic beliefs which may help to put us on track and keep us there.

  1. I am absolutely right where I belong. Things may be bad, but someone, something or maybe our own actions made this happen. This is reality. Given the events that led us here there is no other possible outcome. The “if onlys” and “they shouldn’ts” and “I should haves” didn’t happen. There is no other possible outcome available to us now. We can’t go back and change them. Just as living in the past won’t solve problems, accepting that today is our current reality gives us the knowledge we need to move out of this situation into where we choose to be.
  2. I see reality as an evolving situation. The valleys are never the canyons we think they are, but the mountain tops are not really as high as we can go. The graph of our lives have probably had some incredible high points, but wondering why they gave way to low points without fully appreciating that these momentary realities are not the norm can jerk us back and forth intellectually and spiritually. While celebrating the successes, we need to be vigilant in preparing for possible failure. Recognizing that bad times have a tomorrow which is brighter give our lives focus.
  3. I can forgive my past. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Everything that happens to us is not our fault, however we need to take responsibility for our actions.  If we find ourselves consistently heading down the wrong path we need to examine where we are really to blame and move on. If we stay awake at night agonizing over past mistakes the only thing we are accomplishing is making it harder to benefit from lessons learned. Acceptance that we will not make the same mistakes again is not just for comforts sake but to strengthen the foundation for future decisions.
  4. I can forgive others. The term “forgive and forget” is never really possible without at least partially trying to understand the actions of others who have hurt us. Much of the time, such hatred and anger is against the institutional “them” and how it impacts “us.” There are small minded people who follow their passions at our expense, but what control do we have to change them? Dealing with the situation means that their past actions will have such an insignificant impact on our actions it is as if they do not exist at all.
  5. I have the power in me to change things. Even if we have little ability to change our environment we have ultimate control over how we respond to it. We may not be able to shift hurricane force winds, but we can prepare to protect ourselves and pick things up when it is over. Change implies taking positive steps forward in the face of adversity. As long as we draw breath we can control our actions and choose our next steps. The interface between our beliefs and our reality gives us power to prosper.
  6. I am never alone. Caveat: I am never alone unless I choose to withdraw and be all alone. This is not strictly about dealing with the theological or psychological aspect of aloneness even thought that is important too. We must believe that our optimistic reality includes others. In times of trial, reaching out to help others usually results in receiving more than we give. A positive mental attitude is nourished by giving. What better reality could there be than one where everyone gives without ulterior motive.

My favorite coffee mug is one I have had for years emblazoned with the words “CARPE DIEM” giving me a reminder every morning that this is a new day and is mine for the taking. Some days I look at it and tell it “I don’t feel very much like carpeing the damn diem!” Slogans and cliché propaganda works only when you have a belief system that adopts the given concept as reality. The cup is half full only when you see it that way. 


3 thoughts on “Optimism in Times of Trial”

  1. great article. We all need to realize that one thing that you and only you has complete control of your mental attitude. We need to exercise that control and direct it.

  2. This is a very good post Tom! You have made some wonderful points and really identified the turning points that allow an individual to either become immobilized or to remain in stasis.

    What I am reading in your thoughtful post is that in a nutshell: Change is difficult. All of the points you cite here require someone to make a conscience decision to want to move forward or to remain in a state of despair. What I find interesting is that at times, change even for the better, is difficult and taking control of one’s life can actually be even more difficult. We all have moments when this happens, I guess the litmus test is when the toughest times are upon us and how we react to those situations.

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