Just Keep Going

man person people emotions
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We’ve all known people who are sad sacks. They view life through a negative lens. When things don’t go their way, they blame themselves or perhaps their lot in life. On the the other hand we know people that we would describe as being optimists. They encounter just as many disappointments as the rest of us, but they remain positive by finding important lessons to be learned or they see a disheartening event as providing potential for growth. When we look at each type of person we find ourselves wondering how there might be such differences between people. We prefer the cheeriness of optimism, but worry that perhaps each of us is endowed with a set of immutable personality traits that determine our reactions to life’s ups and downs. It feels as though we are somehow the victims of fate rather than the captains of our own souls. 

The truth is that both optimism and pessimism are learned traits, barring chemical imbalances, brain disorders and injuries or mental illness. It is possible for any of us to become more positive if we focus on a few simple practices to assess both the successes and failures that we experience. I’ll use a couple of examples to illustrate how this works.

When I was in high school I ran for Student Body Secretary against two other classmates. We each campaigned for a week, restricted by certain guidelines as to what tactics we might use and how much we were allowed to spend. At the end of the period each of us spoke to the assembled students outlining reasons why they should vote for us, and describing our plans for improving the school. That afternoon everyone voted. I lost and will never know how badly because the actual tabulation of the votes was secret.

If I had reacted pessimistically I might have charged that the rules were unfair and that I had somehow been slighted. Even worse, I may have felt that the defeat was a sign that my peers disliked me. I would have questioned myself and my own self worth. I might even have sworn never again to submit myself to such humiliation, after all during the campaigning a boy had insisted that nobody liked me and that I didn’t have a chance of winning. I might have believed that he had been right.

Instead I chose to be a bit more optimistic about my loss. I was surely disappointed and even a bit saddened that I did not win, that was only natural. Nonetheless, I understood that the two individuals who had run against me were extremely accomplished and even a bit more well known in the school at large. They were good people who undoubtedly attracted the support of many members of the student body. It wasn’t that I was somehow worthless, only that I didn’t quite garner as much support that I needed. I had to pat myself on the back for even trying because it was scary to stand in front of everyone and open myself up to criticism. It was a learning experience for me on many, many levels. I have never regretted my decision to run, and I believe that I actually entered adult life with a bit of an advantage over my peers because I had learned how to compete and how to gracefully accept the disappointments that were sure to come now and again.

My grandson who is a runner has also exhibited the classic traits of an optimist during this year’s cross country season. He had become accustomed to landing in the top rung in competitions, but this year he has been challenged by a team from a school that is consistently taking the prizes. He has found himself just behind them again and again, but instead of hanging his head and speaking of unfairness or wondering if he had overestimated his own abilities he decided to compete with himself. His goal was to keep bettering his own time and thereby inch closer and closer to being in the winner’s circle once again. He has developed a friendship with a runner from another school and the two of them push each other in the races. It’s become their way of improving. What had begun as a frustrating season is now beginning to show progress, mostly because my grandson refused to wallow in pessimism  and instead focused on the things that he had been doing right. He worked on perfecting his strengths rather than worrying about his weaknesses and he is doing better with each passing week. Given that he is only a sophomore, it seems certain that he will be doing great things by the time he is a senior if he keeps up his positive attitude.

We know that being optimistic is a healthy way to be. It makes life easier all the way around, but what are the characteristics that we might learn to use as we go through the ups and downs of our lives?

First, and perhaps most importantly, in a bad situation optimists look for the things that went well, rather than dwelling on mistakes. They are able to pinpoint the good aspects of even a disaster. They also use failures as learning opportunities, ways to improve in the future. They do not take rejections personally either. In other words they don’t obsessively wonder what is wrong with themselves. They understand that sometimes we just can’t quite achieve as well as we might like to do, but if we make small changes here and there we will surely improve. For this reason they tend not to give up. They pick themselves up and try again and again. They also realize that each of us is a bit imperfect and that bad things sometimes happen to good people. They don’t dwell on the negativity or over analyze the bad aspects of an event. They have a healthy relationship with themselves and don’t allow others to intimidate them into feeling inadequate. They are able to take note of all of the blessings that they most surely have.

It would be worth practicing optimism as often as possible. There are certainly times when we deserve and honest critique and we would do well to grow from it. The trick is not to become so obsessed with an idea that we are fated for bad luck or that we are so damaged that we are somehow unworthy of happiness and success. Whenever we find ourselves falling into a kind of pity party, it’s time to consciously reflect instead on all that we know is good. When we do that we will generally find ourselves laughing again, and ready to just keep going.

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Total Eclipse of the Sun

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This happened for a few hours on August 21, 2017. Much of the United States of America was profoundly united by the majesty and mystery of a total eclipse of the sun. I wasn’t lucky enough to be in the path of totality, but the images of a 66% eclipse that I saw in the sky were breathtaking nonetheless. Somehow I was reminded of how infinite and mind-blowing our universe truly is, and how small we are when we consider its expanse. Still, the fact that we have unlocked so many secrets of the cosmos with our mathematics and science is humbling to realize. We were all ready to witness this historic event because astronomers have mastered the tools to make such predictions. We saw images streamed from NASA and wore glasses that allowed us to look heavenward without doing damage to our retinas. Later we shared our experiences with people in distant places using technology that is as amazing as nature itself. Somehow this incredible moment left me in awe of not only the heavens, but also the intellect of mankind.

One of my favorite all time books is The Ascent of Man by Abraham Bronowski. It is a chronicle of the leaps of human knowledge that have brought us to the advances that we often take for granted today. The miracles of farming, construction, astronomy, physics medicine and technology that we enjoy are abundant, and provide us with a standard of living unimagined even two generations ago. Nonetheless we must be careful of relying on our hubris. Just as gazing at the sun during an eclipse without protective eyewear may cause us to go blind, so too will thinking that we unequivocally have all of the answers cause our downfall. We would do well to consider that our place in the universe is but a tiny speck. There is so much that we have yet to learn, but happily there are minds of geniuses working to continue to expand our knowledge just as they always have. I marvel at the thought of what is yet to come.

I sometimes like to consider what developments I would like to see. It would be so wonderful to be able to eliminate mental illnesses, or at least control them effectively. How nice would it be to have an injection or a pill to eliminate addictions to drugs, alcohol or food? I dream of a time when we are able to produce forms of energy that do no harm to our environment and are readily available to anyone anywhere. I’d love to see advances in food production that would eliminate hunger in all corners of the world. The possibilities are endless, and often the most humble sounding discoveries are the ones that have the greatest impact on society.

We still have so much to do with regard to bringing peace and synergy to our world. I often feel that the best possible human advances may one day come in the way we live together in harmony. We still have so much work to do in that arena, but if we can come together to watch the moon blot out the sun, then maybe the potential for humanity to ascend to a higher level of integration is truly there. I’d like to believe that this is not just an idealistic pipe dream.

At the moment in which the eclipse in my town reached its apogee I felt a kinship with the universe and its people. After all it seemed as though we are all more alike than we are different. I viewed the event in a park surrounded by hundreds of fellow amateur astronomers. Everyone on that day in that place was smiling. Somehow there was no room for jealousies or comparisons of one another. There was a definite feeling of unity and a spirit of cooperation. Everyone cheered the passing of the moon in front of the sun and declared that it was a remarkable sight that they will never forget.

We all agreed that we can’t wait for the next big event that will take place in the USA in 2024. That time the totality will happen right in my home state, and I plan to watch it with my children and grandchildren, By then they will be either in college or all grown up  with jobs and maybe even families of their own. The sun will have risen in the east, the moon will have illuminated the nighttime sky and the earth will have rotated on its axis for over two thousand days. So many changes will have taken place, but our fascination with the sun and the moon and the stars will not have waned. Somehow those celestial bodies still rule over our hearts and our minds. We are as fascinated by them as primitive man was. In their presence we realize both our potential and our limitations. We long to totally understand them and we marvel at their power, or at least we should.

Our planet is but one infinitesimal part of a universe so vast that we cannot truly imagine it. We measure our history with the rising and falling of the sun.

Everything

Turns,

Rotates,

Spins,

Circles,

Loops,

Resonates,

And

Repeats.

Circles

Of life,

Born from

Pulses

Of light,

Vibrate

To

Breathe,

While

Spiraling

Outwards

For Infinity

Through

The lens

Of time,

And into

A sea

Of stars

and Lucid

Dreams.

—- A poem from Suzy Kassem

It’s All Good

Newsslett_COP2If ever there was someone who had every right to complain about the cards that life dealt her it would have been my mom. At thirty she was a happily married woman with three children who were the center of her universe. Overnight her entire world changed. She woke up to a shocking phone call informing her that her husband of eleven years had died in a car accident. She had little money in the bank, no car, no job and was so consumed with grief that she struggled just to wake up and face each day. From somewhere deep inside her soul she found the grit that she needed to move forward, coping with the challenging lifestyle of a single parent with so much aplomb that she managed to earn a college degree and become a highly respected figure in the community.

It would have been fine if her story had ended on such a high note but it was not to be her destiny to lead an uncomplicated life. Instead she was eventually afflicted with the debilitating symptoms of bipolar disorder and that illness would stalk her for the remainder of her life. She would struggle to keep her health and to balance her checkbook. From the outside looking in, hers appeared to be a dreary battle just to stay afloat in a sea of health and financial troubles. The cycle of debilitating challenges might have defeated most ordinary people, but my mom was not so inclined. In fact, I can’t think of a single time when she became so low that she was willing to just give up. In fact, even in her darkest states of depression she cried not for herself but for the pain that she saw others enduring. In regard to her own situation she remained ever optimistic, convinced that she was a special child of God and that He would provide for her.

I was often angry that my mother seemed to be the target of the fates. It bothered me that her very existence was so difficult. I raged over the facts of her life and its unfairness. Oddly she would smile and console me, assuring me that she was quite content. She would recount her blessings, which seemed so meager to me, as though she had been the recipient of great wealth. It took so little to make her happy, and everyone who ever knew her was infected by her laughter and almost childlike generosity. I never quite understood how she was able to maintain such a positive outlook on life given the relentless pounding that she received. Her faith that all was exactly as it was supposed to be was unending.

I was watching a bit of Joel Osteen’s weekly sermon at Lakewood Church a few weekends ago entitled, “It’s All Good.” He spoke of the premise that it is only when we are able to see the totality of our lives that we begin to realize that there is a beautiful plan for each of us that makes perfect sense. When we are focused only on a particular moment we may be unable to understand the reasons for the events that have happened. We instead harbor anger about those instances when the trajectory of our existence appears to be rushing downward. We forget the good times and somehow feel as though we will never again be able to see the light of our lives. We become discouraged, sometimes even shouting at God about our discontent. We don’t notice what we have, only what we lack. He argued that if we were able to step back just a bit we might see that in truth “it’s all good.”

I find the idea of every situation being part of an “all good’ totality to be a somewhat simplistic idea that I personally struggle to embrace, but I know for a fact that it defines the way my mother chose to live. She did not believe it was up to her to question the events that conspired to bring her down. Instead she always accepted her realities and then dealt with them as best she could, confident that her God was always right behind her, ready to catch her if she started to fall. Again and again she rallied against forces that might have defeated most of us. I can’t help but believe that her willingness to trust in God without reservation was the main reason that hers was ultimately an extraordinary life. She had somehow taken to heart the idea that “it’s all good.”

I am not as faithful in my religious fervor as she was. I am as doubting as Thomas the apostle. I see the pain of the world and seriously wonder why a higher power would allow it to even exist. It seems a bit ludicrous to suggest that we should all strive to find the good even in our darkest moments, and yet I have seen the power of such willingness to surrender in the saintly glow of my mother’s eyes as she was drawing her last breaths. It is a vision that haunts my thoughts because it tells me that she somehow found the very secret of how to live well that we all seek.

It doesn’t stop with my mother. I saw it in my mother-in-law as well. I have found it in some of my former students like Danny, Jezael, Shaun and Martin. Such people possess an intangible aura of positivity that literally radiates from their very beings. They approach the world not with worries about themselves but continual concern for others. They have found the golden ring that allows them to seize each day with a sense that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

I have to admit that I would so love to become like them. Most of us really do fight battles with ourselves that cannot be won. We lose sight of the endgame and get caught up in the babble and strife of daily living. We forget to be truly thankful for whatever we have, even if it is only the fact that we woke up for one more day.

Perhaps those who face the greatest challenges life are better able to appreciate the small moments of beauty. My mother-in-law had a heart condition that was supposed to shorten her life by decades. She felt an imperative to pack as much into every single minute as possible, and so she did. She did not have time to become mired in the pettiness that so often distracts us. Like my mother she saw her troubles as a gift that allowed her to see her destiny and purpose more clearly. She drew every single breath with profound appreciation.

Life is filled with both wonder and ugliness. How we choose to deal with each aspect is up to us. Perhaps we can learn from those who emerge again and again from the ashes with unwavering hope. I suspect that they have somehow learned that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

When Happiness Is Lost

635954839284874644-229042456_Depression

I often write about being optimistic and choosing to be happy. Of course such prescriptions are fine and dandy for those of us who are not afflicted with clinical depression, but for those who are it is virtually impossible to simply will away dark feelings.

My mother was one of the happiest people on the planet as long as she was not in the throes of her bipolar disorder. When the illness hit, she was literally unable to just wish its debilitating symptoms away. One of the characteristics of her disease was a profound sadness that would overtake her with life changing consequences. She often sat in the dark, drapes drawn tightly closed, crying and worrying for no real reason at all, unable to even venture into her front yard. It was both frightening and heartbreaking to see her in this condition. It was so contrary to the person that she really was.

Mama had shown early signs of her illness that my brothers and I failed to understand. There were times when she would suddenly take to her bed for several days. We always just assumed that she had a bad cold or a virus but it was far more sinister than that. She was fighting away the melancholy that paralyzed her. In the years before her disorder became full blown and noticeably chronic she would feel down for a few days or a week and then somehow return to the person that we knew so well. Unfortunately, in 1969, she experienced a psychotic break that began with crying jags and paranoid fears. Eventually she literally believed that the FBI was trying to frame her for selling drugs. She was convinced that all of us were going to be sent to jail. Her anxiety was so acute that she was in terrible physical pain and even thought that she had died and then miraculously come back to life.

I remember one of my very sweet uncles coming to visit her during this time. He pleaded with her to pull herself together. He reminded her that she had children for whom she needed to care. He argued that she had a wonderful life, filled with love. He felt that she only needed to choose to be happy and all would finally be well. Of course we all learned that such wishful thinking was not going to materialize. It was only after a long hospital stay and medication that she was able to return to us as the person who had always possessed a sunny disposition.

My mother mistakenly believed that her illness had been an anomaly, something that would never happen again. She insisted that she was cured and that she knew how to care for herself in the future. We naively agreed with her, thinking that the worst was behind us. Little did we realize that her condition was chronic, a never ending series of ups and downs taking over the chemistry of her brain. Only with the continual help of psychiatrists would she be able to function. It was a bitter pill for her and a challenge for those of us who loved her. We had to monitor her life to an almost invasive extent because whenever we became lax so did she, and the symptoms would return even worse than the times before.

My mother was known to her doctors as a noncompliant patient. She never admitted that she had a psychological problem, instead blaming me and my brothers for her condition. She wanted desperately to prove that she never needed psychiatric care and that her illness was a figment of our imaginations. Her reluctance to accept her diagnosis and continue her therapy on a regular basis lead to one relapse after another. Her life became far more difficult than it had to be.

Mama had brilliant and caring doctors who became frustrated with her unwillingness to follow their directions. They knew as we did that as long as she followed their instructions she was able to work and be like a ray of sunshine in everyone’s lives. Sometimes her medications had to be changed, but the results were always miraculous. To her detriment and our frustration she chose to discontinue her treatments again and again. As she did so the magnitude of her depression and mania increased. It was as though she was stressing her brain to the point of bursting.

I always understood that my mother wanted to feel normal, and visiting psychiatrists and taking numbing medications with troubling side effects was annoying to her. She gained enough weight from using her drugs to go from being a slender woman to one who was rather heavy. She experienced involuntary tongue flicks and other nervous system twitches. Her ankles would swell to three times their normal size. She hated those things and would quit taking her pills in the hopes of ridding herself of their effects. Of course she would ultimately become very sick again and her doctors would have to restart her therapy from ground zero. It was a hard way of living and I always empathized with her. I tried to imagine what it was like to feel so seriously sad as she often did. I wanted to understand her pain.

Depression is a very real disease for many unfortunate souls. It is not related to an inability to see the glass as half full. Nobody consciously wants to endure its effects. Happily there are ways of improving as long as one is willing to ask for and accept help. It can be a tricky process with a great deal of trial and error in implementing a viable plan. Because it is often a lifetime disorder it can become overwhelming. The important thing is for the depressed person and those around him/her to understand that it is a true medical condition much like diabetes or heart disease. There are treatments that will ultimately work, but they often take time.

Our laws prevent us from forcing adults to accept psychiatric care unless they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. While this protection prevents innocents from being falsely forced into therapies that they do not need, it also sometimes makes it very difficult to get a recalcitrant patient the care that they require. All too often families simply look the other way when their loved ones refuse to accept the treatments that they most certainly need. Such situations create very uncomfortable relationships that are painful to everyone concerned. Still I am convinced that it is up to those who love the sick person to insist by hook or crook that they receive the medications and therapies that they need. We can’t just walk away and hope for the best for them.

Mental illness and particularly depression too often results in dire consequences if left untreated. It is a lifetime battle but it need not overcome those who are afflicted. Each of us must learn to see the symptoms and guide those that we know and love to find the help that they need. Perhaps if we all agree to become more educated about the effects of such chronic diseases we will be more likely to deal with their effects more openly. There is nothing about depression or mental illness that should make us feel ashamed. Just as we would seek the best possible treatments for cancer or heart disease so too must we learn how to properly react to mental health issues. We can all be happy but some of us require a little push to get there. Our happiness and that of others need not be lost.

An Ode to Red

Sun-and-Clouds-Images-of-the-Kingdom-DollarphotoclubRed was a beautiful girl, no doubt because of her striking ginger colored hair. She was always a lady who often loved to wander aimlessly for hours just enjoying the sights and sounds of the world around her. She was a very good friend, loyal beyond imagination and her gentleness was such that every member of my family loved her. When she was with me I felt special. She hung on my every word like nobody I had ever known. I was enchanted with her. Heck, even my neighbors got to know her and they too fell for her magnetic personality.

I remember a time when I was quite ill with the flu, dizzy from a high fever that seemed to be burning my very brain. Red sat right next to me all day long, keeping watch as I went in and out of sleep. It was comforting to see her there attempting to conceal her worry with a weak smile. Somehow I felt that her vigilance was more than enough to pull me through. She was like that, ever faithful and devoted.

On another occasion Red lost one of her long time friends. Her grief was so all consuming that she could barely eat. She moped listlessly for weeks and all I could do to comfort her was to hug her and assure her that everything would eventually be okay. It pained me to see her hurting but it also convinced me that she was quite special and that her feelings were incredibly selfless and real.

Red loved my two girls. She was as protective of them as I was but she also loved to frolic with them, disregarding all notions of dignified behavior. She rolled and wrestled with them on the floor causing them to laugh with unabashed glee. She raced them through the yard and played catch anytime that they wished. She was totally at their beck and call and when they had bored of playing with her she would smooth her hair and revert to the magnificently genteel ladylike behavior that so defined her and sit quietly listening to my rambling conversations.

Still there were aspects of Red that seemed almost contradictory to the cultured image that she generally portrayed. She was always up for a swim and she could hunt with the best of them. It seemed to be part of her DNA to be swift of foot and unusually alert to the comings and goings of nature’s creatures.

As Red got older her scarlet colored hair became more and more tinged with white. She moved slowly and the old energy that had always marked her spirit had faded. Arthritis plagued her joints and I suspected that her hearing was going away rather rapidly. It saddened me to see her in such a state but she continued to attempt to be her old self. Most of the time though she was just too weary to run or play with children as she once did and sadly she often drifted off into an old person’s kind of sleep even in the middle of the day.

It was only when my daughter Catherine brought a child named Maggie to visit that Red found some of her old verve. She was captivated by the little one and seemed intent on forcing herself to rollick as she might have done when she was so magnificent. Maggie didn’t realize that Red was struggling to keep up with her. She only felt the gentle love that Red always exuded and she delighted in the attention from her new older friend.

One day I learned that Red had cancer that was incurable. I was devastated and filled with emotions and memories of all of the good times that we had shared. Our whole family was engulfed in sadness as we so helplessly watched her grow weaker and weaker. It embarrassed her to be in such a state. She didn’t want us to see her like that but I was determined to be there for her just as she had always been for me.

I was with her on her final night. I held her has she moaned in pain and her breathing became more and more shallow. Now and again I grew so tired that I momentarily fell asleep. If my arms slipped from embracing her, she would begin to cry and that frightened and plaintive sound awakened me to take proper watch once again. At some point during that long and horrific night I fell into a deep exhausted slumber. When I awoke Red was perfectly still. Her chest no longer rose and fell. The color was gone from her face. She had died.

I sobbed uncontrollably as I realized that I would never again have those wonderful moments of unconditional trust and love that I had shared with Red for so long. As I gave the terrible news to each member of my family they in turn were devastated. It is never easy to lose such a great companion. Our grief would hang over the household for weeks.

At Christmastime that year I threw my emotions into decorating my home and preparing for the annual celebrations but I was still thinking of Red. Catherine was there with Maggie helping me to complete the chore of trimming the tree that had always been such a delight but was difficult that year because of Red’s passing. As we placed one ornament after another on the branches Catherine came across a trinket that she had made as a child. It was created from an old Christmas card and it featured a lovely photograph of Red back in the days when she was still vibrant and beautiful. Catherine burst into tears as she clutched the worn and tattered memento. When she held it up for me to see, I too lost my composure and cried. The two of us released the pain that we had been trying so fruitlessly to conceal while little Maggie looked on in wonder.

Our hearts eventually healed but we never forget how much Red had meant to us. I still gently place the old paper ornament with her picture on my Christmas tree each year and I remember what a great lady she truly was. Red was as fine a pet as any family ever had. She was a sweet golden retriever who was our friend, our protector, our playmate and a member of our family. She was a wonderful dog.