A Quest for Hope in a Fearful world

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Here are the New Year’s aspirations of a confirmed pessimist in search of hope. To confess, I come from a gene pool that leans towards mild depression. Consequently, when I face a seemingly insurmountable challenge or a negative forecast, my response is to slide into the darkness and maybe even wallow a bit in my pessimist hot tub! This is the time when I need to pull myself up and remind myself of three truths I’ve learned (in this long life of mine), which always turn me away from despair towards hope:

1.  Helplessness is learned

2.  Attitude is a choice

3.  Hope is a habit

My teacher for the last several years has been my wife Kris who seems to always find a way to turn a situation of “lemons” into lemonade. For example:

  • Shortly after we became a couple (decades ago now), we were told we could never afford a house in the San Francisco area. Her response? “Watch me!”
  • Some of our friends are preoccupied with disease (real, not imagined). Her response? “Adopt science-based healing practices but don’t invite the disease to take over your life by ruminating about it all the time”
  • Many today are rightly pessimistic about the political situation in our country. They become a part of the BMW club (Bitch, Moan, and Whine Club). My wife’s response? “Let’s refocus our efforts toward bringing positive change to our community, even if we cannot do it (right now) at the national level.”

So in considering my New Year’s resolution to be more positive and hopeful, here are three pointers on the way towards developing and sustaining a more positive disposition.

1.  Helplessness is learned

The other day on our walk with the dogs, I shared with a tourist we encountered on our path that we were having a La Nina-driven drought in New Mexico. He commented, cynically:

“Soon this area will become a hot desert like Arizona and the river that runs through your property will dry up”. 

Where did he learn this negative fatalistic response?

Researchers in psychology have studied the phenomena of learned helplessness as a habitual response that can lead to depression. People (initially dogs) were exposed in experiments to situations where they were trapped in a mildly painful environment. Initially they were able to escape the situation. However, when all exits were blocked for escape they passively adapted to the pain.

The antidote for learned helplessness is to learn new attitudes and behaviors that will likely produce positive change and to remember and practice old behaviors (like walking to improve mood) that have worked in the past.

Probably the most highly effective behavior of an optimistic person is the way he or she looks at life. Though we each have hard-wired dispositions, we can choose a hopeful, and more successful outlook, as discussed below.

2.  Attitude is a choice

When I find myself under sustained stress and I don’t take care for myself physically or spiritually, I can become grumpy and unnecessarily reactive. For example, when I want to sleep in after a restless night and our young dog starts whining to go out, my first response is to be annoyed and irritable. In so doing so, I allow a dark cloud to enter our home.

In recent months, I have been making the somewhat difficult choice not to react to unpleasant situations with negative comments. At dawn, when the dog predictably whines each morning to be let out, I remind myself to get up without outbreaks of complaining and rather, breathe, stay in the moment, and look out of the window to take in the glorious sunrise while I wait for the dog’s return. It has worked!

Attitude really IS a choice.

3.  Hope is a habit

Some people (like my wife) have a sunny disposition and a bias towards hope (This fact at times really bugs me because I have to spend so much effort re-focusing on the positive). So, since I am not a naturally hopeful person, I have to work on developing hope as a habit.

Here’s how.

o Read less of the bad news when I wake up each day. Starting one’s day by dwelling on national and domestic disasters, workplace toxicity (lately, harassment), and the seeming dearth of values in our society (e.g. civility and respect for truth in our government) is a real downer! So I have chosen not to read the news in the morning. Instead, I am starting my day with a

o Daily meditation. My mind is like a barrel-full of noisy dysfunctional monkeys. It chatters all the time with thoughts de jour centered on worry and ego concerns (“Why am I not getting the respect I think I deserve?” (is this my pathetic sense of white male entitlement?). I don’t make these thoughts disappear but just observe them with compassion and detachment.

Also, as a general practice in my daily life, I

o Avoid Danny and Debby Downer. Neither is good for reinforcing my negative predispositions! I was once told, “surround yourself with truth-telling and supportive friends and not a caseload of negative people.” When it comes to others’ negativity, I tell myself “I am too old for this crap.” This reminder shifts my attention towards people who live and generate hope.

o Focus on making a contribution to others. There is a saying that goes something like this: “A person too wrapped up in themselves makes a small and miserable package.” One of the biggest satisfactions of my last year has been the volunteer work I do in my small community. In these modest but constant contributions, the truth of the quote, “It is better to give than to receive” has come home to me. I am also reminded that hope is sometimes “caught”, not “taught”. You “catch it” from other people–their positive energy, aspirations, sharing, and playfulness. And, especially, the everyday satisfaction of a tight, extraordinary community in northern New Mexico simply enjoying being together.

We can’t deny that there is scary stuff out there in our larger communities and the world. We also cannot dodge unavoidable calamities. Nor can we always prevent our hair from being set on fire from daily tweets and disturbing news headlines.

However:

We can practice being present in the Now, which almost always seems to bring peace, and develop the disciplines of choosing and learning how to hope.

Wishing all of you a Hopeful New Year!

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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2 Responses to A Quest for Hope in a Fearful world

  1. Janice Hill says:

    This blog brought me hope and happiness. I forget my attitude is a choice! Hau’oli Makahiki Hou to Kris and Cedric from Maui.

  2. Beatriz Coria says:

    Thank you Cedric for this I am sending it to my ex husband.
    Please check the Bach Flower Remedies. I take them for40 yrs. they are 39 Remedies
    that cover a range of psicological symptoms
    They come from the Druids
    What you are doing is great , and the Remedies will get you over it
    Check it out on line , get books on it , they are amazing. Homeopathic.

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