The other day I had a discussion with Bernie, a 70-something student in my writing class; about what, I can’t remember. I do remember saying he was thinking negatively and his response was, “I’m being realistic.” Instead of continuing the discussion I stopped talking. I knew it was a “no win” argument and I knew why; his reality is different than mine. Pretty much everyone’s is if you think about it. Most of us think in “absolutes.” We see the world our way and believe we are the rational one and anyone who sees things differently is irrational. I know because I used to think that way.
Cancer caused so many things in my life to change and a big one was how I saw the world or at least my small part of it. I started reading books about health and nutrition which led me to writings about how our minds play an important part. We are a whole being; body/mind/spirit. For example; if I am scared I can feel my heart beat faster and my breathing becomes shallow. My thoughts turn in to action. If I think someone is getting me angry, I feel angry or lash out (although, I am working hard to stop that behavior). Nobody makes me do anything, I just think they are. Its my choice if I decide to get angry or not, which brings me to the most important revelation I had (so far anyway)…. everything is a choice. If we choose to be angry then we can choose to be happy. I can choose to see the world a certain way, like “It’s a dangerous place” or I can choose to see it as “a beautiful place with new opportunities every day.”
Our news media bombards us with images and stories that make us believe the world is a dangerous place. Fear sells newspapers. It seems that we humans like drama, otherwise why are all those “reality” shows so popular? We seem to enjoy watching others fight and argue, but for me anyway, I change the channel. Realizing a few years ago that I might be dead sooner rather than later helped me decide how I wanted to see and express myself in the world. Don’t get me wrong there are days I think our current events really suck but I don’t allow myself to stay in that mindset for long. I don’t want to buy in to the “hype” anymore.
So back to my discussion with Bernie; he sees the world as a terrible place. I know because I’ve listened to him talk with others in the class during break time. I don’t like to label people, even though I do it all the time (don’t we all?) Bernie is what I call a “classic pessimist” and I am working hard to be an “optimist.” Some days I seem to attract a lot of pessimists (I need to meditate more about why that is) and one of two things usually end up happening. But first, let me back track a minute.
Before I got sick I would dive right in to someone’s pity party. I was definitely part of the “ain’t that awful” crowd. These days, I don’t have much patience for that. Instead of “talking” something to death, I search for solutions. If someone is complaining about their situation to me, I offer a suggestion or ask them to look on the bright side which many times pisses them off, or they tell me they are being realistic, like Bernie did. In their view, being optimistic is somehow unrealistic, or Pollyannaish .
I remember now what Bernie and I were discussing. He told me he can’t be happy when there is so much misery in the world, specifically starving people in other countries. I told him that many of those people are happy in spite of their living situation. I’m sure he thinks I’m a selfish ass.
The teachings of Zen (as I understand them) does not distinguish between good and bad. It is what it is. It is up to each of us to determine how we respond to our life circumstances. We create our own world. I can choose to feel bad or hopeless about poverty or I can choose to do what I can to alleviate suffering by 1.) volunteering my time 2.) Donating money to an organization that helps the poor. If I can’t do either of those things I can do my best to not create more suffering to those around me, in other words, “Charity begins at home.” I can choose to bring positive energy to my sphere of influence.
Being negative all the time leads to stress, which weakens the immune system, which leads to disease and I’ve been down that road before and I can’t go back. There was a time not to long ago that my reality was; taking pain meds, getting poked with needles, enduring physical pain and allowing myself to be poisoned (with chemo and radiation), but I was willing to go through all that to end up with something better. I had to keep my mind straight and focus on a positive outcome. I’m sure if I worried and complained my way through treatment my story might not have turned out so good. I’m happy with the choices I made.
Someone else might not be happy with my new reality (a walker and colostomy bag) and choose to be depressed about it, but I choose to be happy. Choosing to be optimistic is my reality. It works for me. Maybe Bernie’s reality works for him and that’s ok too. Henry Ford said, ” If you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”
Be Well and Be Happy… or not. It’s up to you