Cultivating Hope (and Attitude)

With the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and reports of an over 30% increase in suicides nationwide, much has been written in recent days about who may be at risk for suicide, the symptoms, and ways in which we can all be more aware of and ready to help those who have reached such deep levels of desperation or depression. Social media has been full of posts asking everyone to remember that we are all fighting a battle and to be more compassionate with each other, which is all good advice, of course.

Today in one such post, I read these words of the Dalai Lama and this really stuck with me. “It is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” Two facets of this idea are intriguing to me. First, that our attitudes have such a powerful impact on how hopeful we feel and second, that a more hopeful attitude can be cultivated.

Neither of these ideas is new or earth-shattering. We’ve all heard about the significant role that attitude plays in our day-to-day happiness, but few think of someone who is feeling hopeless as having an attitude problem. And it seems too harsh to accuse a person who is already feeling down of having a bad attitude, doesn’t it?

But listen to the phrasing the Dalai Lama uses… “it is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” The attitude has to be cultivated first, and then the ability to maintain hope will be present. Maybe the very fabric of hope is woven from our attitudes about life.

The last few days I have been feeling really down. There are practical and imagined reasons for this, I suppose, but when and where did my attitude go so far south that I was unable to see or feel any hope? And how does one cultivate the sort of attitude that’s needed for hope to grow and more importantly, to stick around through life’s many difficulties?

Maybe the key is just to recognize that life is uncertain. Period. A resilient attitude, one that encourages us to count the highs and learn from the lows every day, is bound to result in a more resilient spirit, a more hopeful spirit, over the course of a lifetime.

And when you have already begun to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, fear, longing or sadness? My mother often said, “This, too, shall pass.” Such a simple thought, and so true. Can you remember happier times and how you got there? Can you know that those happy times will return? Can you rest in that knowledge just for today and be at peace with it? Maybe one day at a time is how one cultivates a more hopeful attitude, despite whatever is happening in life.

The Dalai Lama had one other thing to say, “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.” And so it does.

Stopping the Runaway Mind

It is 5 am and I cannot sleep. I decided to get up and write, which I wanted to do anyway, though not necessarily this early. But here I am. Author Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because i don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” When I have a “runaway mind”, filled with what ifs and worst case scenarios, writing does help me get to the heart of the matter and know what I really think, want and feel about something.

The question for me this morning, though, is why do our minds go into this type of negative spiral anyway? Let me give you an example of where my thinking has gone already…

My job is currently in question due to some reorganization at the college where I work. I am in many ways perfectly fine with the prospect of moving on, but at the same time, I am scared about having to start over somewhere else, or worse, having to cobble together some sort of income from who knows where. Once I start thinking about it, I become like a dog with a bone. I worry and fret and imagine one scenario where everything will be OK, followed by about ten others where my quality of life deteriorates until I end up a broke, homeless failure. Why is that? When our minds run away with us in this way, why do they always run south?

What if, at 3 am when the race is on, we changed course? What if instead of imagining all the ways in which something could go horribly wrong, we imagined ten different ways it could all go right? What if instead of just dreaming about how maybe we could make something work or we can squeak by without failing, we instead took that time to imagine the most successful outcomes possible? And imagined these outcomes in as much delicious detail as we imagine those worst case scenarios? What kind of power could these dreams have?

Jillian Michaels, the famous trainer from The Biggest Loser inspires people to imagine themselves successfully transforming their bodies and their lives through healthier living and thinking. She says, “Why not you? Why not you to do something for work that you love? Why not you to have a healthy body? Why not you to have healthy love? Why not you to be, have or do anything you have ever dreamed? We are so quick to think others are deserving over ourselves. The truth is that we are all deserving. So why not you?” I love this. Why not? Why can’t it all end well? And if (when) it does end well, how might that look?

A close friend says often that everything starts with an idea. Why not begin by changing the ideas I already have?

Can a Resolution Be Just to Persevere? Maybe That’s Enough

A show of hands from those of you who have already fallen off the wagon of your New Year’s resolution? Right, I thought so. This post, now two weeks past the date I had set on my schedule – one of my resolutions – is living proof of why my hand is raised high, too.

By mid-February, the newness of a January resolution has likely diminished quite a bit, just as the excitement over winter’s snow has worn thin. With each new snowfall, the wonder of it is replaced by the weariness of having to clear the driveway yet again.

In the same way, the excitement and resolve with which we all begin a new year can become frayed as the hard work of keeping a promise to yourself sets in.

By now, I am over winter and ready for spring, but I recognize that no matter the time of year, there are often “winters” of the spirit, too. There are times when we are weary, overwhelmed with the minutiae of our days and weeks, and just feeling uninspired by life. The sky is cold and gray, and so are we.

This would be a moment to say something along the lines of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” True enough, but we all know that it isn’t always that easy. Maybe the tough going we face is related to poor health, grief, financial concerns, depression, or the big life questions to which there are no easy answers, and no readily available bootstraps with which we can pull ourselves back to our feet.

It is during these winters of the spirit, that maybe a gentler approach is needed to achieving the goals set with so much enthusiasm in January.

John D. Rockefeller once said, “I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.”

To persevere through the winter in anticipation of the spring, to not give up, but to do your best to stick with it, even if ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ is – falls short of what you hoped to accomplish – that is the real accomplishment.

So maybe this post is late, but here it is, and maybe that is enough. Enough to do, enough to expect, enough to carry me through until the new habits are formed, and springtime arrives in about a month or so.