Thursday, August 13, 2015

Confessions of a Struggling Optimist

Optimism is a choice for me. It isn't "natural"...that is, I didn't learn it in my home or school or even in the church of my youth. Because I was already a young adult when I embraced New Thought philosophy (the idea that we can take control of our habitual thinking and thereby improve the conditions of our lives), I had long established/programmed thought habits that fed into anxiety, shame, regret, and dread. 

As a child and young adult, I worried about almost everything. I saw the world as a challenging place where every good thing and every success could only come by means of struggle. Added to the habitually negative way of viewing the world that I was taught was a family history of depression. I not only "learned" anxiety, in some ways, I biologically inherited it!

Additionally, I was a gay child in a super conservative, fundamentalist Christian region of the country, where fear (fear of God, fear of Hell, fear of punishment, fear of not being good enough, fear of gays!) was practically in the water supply...it seemed ubiquitous, natural, normal, and inescapable. So feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem all seemed to come naturally to me; those feelings certainly dominated my mind for the first 20 years of life (and have paid unwanted visits from time to time ever since).

But I did discover the idea that there is a universal power that flows through and expresses as all life, that this power is the energy of life, the "stuff" from which we are made, and by changing our thoughts and attitudes and expectations we can tap into that power and direct it more usefully for our benefit (rather than unintentionally using it to reinforce our fears). If such a power exists and can be used for our benefit, then hope is reasonable, and I decided to become a person of hope. 

So for almost 30 years I have been an avowed optimist. But that doesn't mean that the first 20 years of programming went away. Some days, I still struggle. My struggles are now aided by the assurance that things will get better, that I deserve for them to get better, and that I have the ability to weather the current storm (real or imagined) and see brighter days again. The struggle doesn't last as long, or occur as frequently, but it does still happen.

I still have work to do. To this day, when I experience inward turmoil, or outer challenges, a negative voice rises within me accusing me of being a fraud: "How can I be an optimist if I'm dreading the doctor visit, or sad that someone didn't appreciate me, or worried about the success of a project?" Those old negative tapes still exist. They are buried, the volume is turned down, but they are still in storage in my subconscious. 

Usually, when I feel badly about feeling badly, I am able to remind myself that optimism isn't a choice I made 30 years ago; it's a decision that I FIRST made 30 years, and it's a choice I must continue to make daily. When I remind myself of this, I start to forgive myself for being overly critical of myself, and I begin again affirming my value, daring to know that things can, ought to, and must get better, and I start remembering the many things for which I can be grateful. I start to see the good that outweighs the bad, the good that the bad can't take away, the good that is waiting for me beyond the bad...sometimes, I even notice that the bad isn't as bad as I first imagined. 

I share this because optimism saved my life. It got me through bouts of depression, including the worst bout of my life about 5 years ago. It also helped me cope with spinal defects, get my weight under control, and even live a healthy life, in spite of a chronic diagnosis, for a couple of decades now. Optimism has helped me survive professional challenges, has made it possible for me to see 22 countries so far, earn multiple degrees, and find and share my life with the true love of my life. 

I believe in optimism, I depend on optimism, and I am grateful for optimism. And I know as well as anyone that optimism is a daily choice, there can be set backs, and it may not come naturally to some of us. But just because we have some troubling days or some old thought habits pay us an unwanted visit, that doesn't make us frauds or failures...that just reminds us (to borrow from A Course in Miracles) to "choose once again." When we hit a rough patch, that's when we need optimism the most, and we can choose the power of optimism again.

There remains a universal power, we are part of it and it is part of us, and we can use it to improve our lives. We can remind ourselves of this fact as often as we need to, and as we do, things start to get better again. So, I remain an optimist. Some days it takes more effort than others, but I still believe that it's worth the effort. And so it is.

1 comment:

Rev. Margie Chapman said...

I never knew there was a term for it until now, but being a "struggling optimist" fits the bill. We all have our hills and valleys to travel in our day to day lives, but somehow I don't think that the trip would be as sweet without both of them. God Bless you, Durrell. May you always spend more time on the hills than the valleys.

Rev. Margie L. Chapman