When Mister Rogers was a little boy and not yet a Mister, he found current events frightening. According to the news, tragedies were happening everywhere. What was one little boy to do? His mother comforted him, saying, “Look for the helpers.” Her words gently redirected him to focus on the rescuers instead of the perpetrators, on the hope instead of the loss. Indeed, in the midst of every catastrophe, Fred could see people coming to care for those in need. Little Fred Rogers grew up to be Mister Rogers, whose TV show educated decades of preschoolers. And using these same words, “Look for the helpers,” he comforted other scared children during times of national crisis.
Such are the times we live in now. There is a deadly virus sweeping the globe, imperiling us all. We are forced to shelter in our homes, waiting for the contagion to pass. We worry about our health, our family’s well-being, our jobs, our bills, and the state of our nation. Bad news marches on like an endless parade.
But look. Every day, armies of men and women toil to help us. Doctors and nurses labor around the clock, clothed in inadequate protective gear, treating patient after patient. These exhausted medical professionals put in extra time, comforting their lonely patients whose families can not visit. Janitors swab down rooms, and mop the floors, fighting infection. Grocery store workers brave coronavirus, endlessly restocking shelves so that we have enough food. People quarantined in their houses spend their time sewing face masks for donatation. Helpers abound all around us. Don’t you feel better, thinking about that?
This is the second of a five-part series on building resilience skills. (For Part 1, click here: https://www.lisedeguire.com/post/finding-gratitude-in-a-desolate-time-building-resilience-skills-part-1) I have developed a mnemonic to help remember five crucial aspects of resilience: G.O.A.L.S. The G stands for Gratitude. The O, subject of today’s blog, stands for Optimism. Optimism is the ability to notice the good, and the propensity to anticipate that good things will happen. If a bad thing happens instead, a healthy optimist will acknowledge the problem, but will quickly refocus onto good possible outcomes.
Optimism is highly correlated with resilience. There could be many reasons for this correlation. Optimists are easier company and tend to elicit more social support for themselves. Also, because optimists imagine positive outcomes, they may be more likely to take action to improve their circumstances. It is easier to act when there is hope.
I have always been an optimist, despite my brutal childhood, which was full of physical and emotional pain, neglect, and loss. You might think my background would have made me pessimistic, but it didn’t. Partly I think I was born this way. Partly Deguires seem to be a cheerful lot. Maybe its the show music I listen to, which tends to be sunny and upbeat. I do know that having a cheerful nature has helped me immeasurably. My optimism enables me to take chances on self-expression, affectionate outreach, and professional growth. Here’s an example.
As part of becoming a writer, I have been working on building my platform, through speaking engagements. Thus I have applied for many opportunities, some quite high level. I have had successes, but also many failures. Each time my application was rejected, I felt crushed for a while. (For example, see: https://www.lisedeguire.com/post/how-to-manage-crushing-disappointment).
My husband Doug, a practical man, has repeatedly said to me, “You get your hopes up too much. I wish you would assume that you might not get these gigs. That way, if you don’t get them, you won’t be so disappointed.”
I tried to do as he suggested but it wasn’t in my nature. Every time I applied for a speaking engagement, I envisioned myself winning the spot. I could see myself delivering my talk to a riveted audience. I could hear the applause. I foresaw the sales of my book booming. It would be a big success! Or so I would imagine, until the next rejection.
“See? Why do you let your hopes go up so high? I hate to see you so upset.”
It was months before I had an answer. Why did I let my hopes go up so high? Finally, the answer came to me. Having high hopes was the only way I could take the risk. If I didn’t imagine the positive outcome, I would never try at all. I had to visualize the optimistic ending in order to have the guts to put myself out there.
Optimism cheers us and gives us courage. Would you like to work on being more optimistic? Here is a great article I found: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/smarter-living/how-to-be-more-optimistic.html One exercise involves imagining aspects of your life in ten years’ time, (your love life, your children, your work, etc). Let’s focus first on your love life. Imagine, in ten years, the best possible scenario. Where would you be living together? (My answer: a sun-filled home with both natural beauty and access to great culture). What would you do together? (Travel frequently, see a lot of theater; spend time with family and friends; share a life of love, humor and intimacy) How would you interact? How would you make each other feel? Answer each of these questions with the best possible vision of your life. Really let yourself go. Imagine the most blissful love life you can.
If we allow our brains to imagine the best-case scenario, we are more likely to feel more cheerful and motivated. Letting our brains exercise optimism on a grand scale will help us notice when we are thinking pessimistically and will train our brains notice the good around us more.
My favorite aunt called me a couple of weeks ago. She is 94 years old, and lives in a senior citizen complex. Aunt Betty is a friendly, sociable soul, and she enjoys living in a thriving community. But, due to the virus, she now has to stay alone in her one-bedroom apartment and she is getting pretty bored. But Aunt Betty has always been a cheerful, adaptable soul, a true model of optimism.
We discussed the news and the virus. She told me that she is getting her meals delivered to her door now, and that she rarely sees her neighbors. “If all this ended, it would be OK.”
A moment passed. This statement was so unlike her, I wasn’t sure I heard her right.
“Are you saying that you would be at peace with dying now?”
I paused again. She didn’t seem upset. Her voice was serene. “OK, I hear you.” And I did. She has been through a lot and 94 is not young.
Gently, Betty said, “Yes, I’m at peace. But, you know… not tomorrow.”
“No. I have some delicious food in my refrigerator that I’m really looking forward to finishing.”
We laughed and laughed. That’s my Aunt Betty, grounded, reasonable, and always able to notice the best in her situation, even if the current best thing is just some appetizing leftovers. Yes, times are hard for her, just as they are for all of us. But having acknowledged her struggle, she could notice a simple joy, and refocus herself onto anticipation of her next delicious meal. And then we could share a companionable laugh together, uplifting us both.
That’s optimism for you. Being optimistic doesn’t mean that life is easy. It just means that you notice the good around you and stay hopeful that good things will happen. That cheerfulness attracts support. And I say to you (optimistically) that you can become a more optimistic person too.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series on resilience skills, focusing on G.O.A.L.S. G is for gratitude; O is for optimism. What do you think A is for?
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.