October 26, 2012

Don't Let Optimism Get in the Way of Hope

My dealings with friends, family, and others in the recent past have led me to think often on the ideas of Hope and Optimism.  I think many of you can relate to this.  These are hard times for most everyone.  "If it rains hard enough, everyone gets a little wet." as the saying goes and it's obviously been raining for quite a while.  How are we to cope with our respective problems and challenges?  

The generic answer is be optimistic.  It's so easy to tell someone that "the grass is greener on the other side" or, "everything will work out."  My personal relation to someone else's hardships cause me to question that generic solution to every problem.  I feel like it's a copout sometimes.  We have to say something comforting, right?  Maybe, but I wonder if we are missing an opportunity.  

Optimism is the positive mindset that everything will work out.  It is a mindset regarding the potential for better things in the future.  It allows people to look past their problems to the potential of better things ahead.  It brings comfort knowing that things could be better than they are currently.  Within optimism, however, lies a problem.  Optimism seemingly lies in opposition with reality.  As time passes and challenges persist, the view of our better future gives way to the reality that we can't actually be sure if it will end up that way.  We end up having to keep revisiting our problems and repainting our desired outcomes in our mind.  This kind of optimism is unfounded and weak.

Hope is often confused as the same thing as optimism when it really is very different.  Vaclav Havel was a president of The Czech Republic as well as an accomplished playwright.  He is known internationally as one of the top intellectuals of our century.  Consider his definition of hope.   "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."  Hope is not about some futuristic picture that may or may not be true.  It is a tangible result of our meaningful acceptance of present situations.  Hope is the perfect balance of optimism and reality.  It doesn't give way to reality because it is founded on reality, and it doesn't overshadow optimism because it leads us to it.  It combines the structure and foundation of realism with the positive attitude and forward thinking of optimism.  

No matter how much we progress in life, there will always be barriers in our way that knock us off balance.  Hope gives us the power to find meaning in these experiences.  So before we try to picture ourselves in a better place, find something to be grateful for where you are now.  Before you tell someone else that everything will work out, help them learn the lessons life is currently trying to teach them.  

October 6, 2012

Finding Your "Walden Pond"

Many of us have heard the wonderful story told by the great author, Henry David Thoreau, as he escapes the distractions of the city in search of a life more fulfilling.  He travels to the rural Walden Pond and settles to begin a journey of life completely independent of others.  In this solitude, Thoreau is able to contemplate everything from economics to human warfare. 

What inspires me most is WHY Thoreau seeks out this experience.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” 

Thoreau’s cause is noble and extravagant.  So much so that many of us cannot imagine doing it ourselves.  The stresses of life make it look so desirable.  The common phrase “I need a vacation” is heard all too often.   It is easy to get caught up as Thoreau did, in the business of life.  It is easy to forget the simple pleasures that make life worth living.  It is easy to get so fed up that we feel like we need to take a break just to regain our sanity.  While I like the courage Thoreau showed in his “Walden” experience, many of us do not have the same literal opportunity to physically and geographically escape the distractions of life.  True courage is finding that same solitude and independence even amidst our career, family, and social duties.  We can find our own, figurative “Walden”.

Here are some pointers:

Be grateful for the small everyday things.

Learn about yourself and what you want to do with your life

Love someone and allow someone to love you

Give service

Work hard for the things that are most important to you

Keep a journal of your thoughts, impressions, feelings, gratitudes, and experiences

Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”  What a shameful thought.  It’s time for us to focus on the revitalization of the endangered idea of living.