Many people talk about being an optimist or a pessimist. They talk about drinking vessels with various descriptions of their contents as an assessment of being one of these. I’ve tried my hand at optimism, and I have been accused of being a pessimist; but in truth, I prefer to think of myself as a realist. I try not to expect the worst. I always try for the best outcomes, but I prepare myself for negative outcomes because I just want to have a fallback plan. Does that make me the harbinger of gloom and doom? Am I a Negative Nelly? I hope not. I certainly do not want to be.
In the course of human experience, I have found that my involuntary, sometimes unconscious response to events in my life, positive or negative, is to expect the worst and take what I get. If things turn out to justify my expectations, I’m never pleased with the results, but I use the outcomes to reformulate a plan to address the situation from a different approach. If things turn out better than I expect, I am relieved or elated. I worry that this approach is more negative than I would prefer, and knowing that negativity can actually serve as self-fulfilling prophecies in a neurolinguistic way, I have spent much effort attempting to change my way of thinking. The best I’ve been able to accomplish so far is to take a neutral stance in my expectations without giving bias to my fears or my wishes. It doesn’t work 100% of the time, though. I still find myself frequently looking over my shoulder and waiting for that alternate piece of footwear.
This is where that “expect the worst and take what you get” philosophy has really been the biggest detriment to my own peace of mind and happiness. While there may be some logical premise in expecting a negative outcome so that I am not surprised or disappointed, the side effect of this attitude is that I am not always able to relax and enjoy the positives that occur.
Perhaps it is a holdover from years of childhood superstitions and folk wisdom that became so ingrained that I cannot seem to shake off their lessons. Perhaps it is a result of traumatic experiences that have indelibly written their warnings on my memory to never get too comfortable with the good times of my life. No matter what the etiology, I find myself (like many others) when things are going too well looking under the bed for the monster, around the corner for the mugger, or over my head for the anvil. I know that I am not alone in this particular human frailty. There are many of us who cannot seem to enjoy life when it seems to travel smoothly avoiding the usual potholes that liter the road. It almost seems that we are tempting or cheating fate when all the stars and planets align to make the path we tread a bit too gentle and pleasant. We expect that other shoe to fall from the sky and squash us like a bug under one colossal heel.
I think it boils down to Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. Anxiety generally stems in some part from the lack of these needs being met. The first tier is the basic needs that each person has for living, in other words biological necessities. The second tier is safety, shelter, and access to resources. People who have threats to meeting these basic of all needs have no energy to expend on other tiers, which involve things like social interaction, belonging, and achievement. For people who have experienced these threats and overcome them, the fear of falling back to that level is sometimes so real that it is difficult to shake off the constant thought that at any time, all could be lost. For others, the fear of losing the respect and love of family or other social supports may be as overwhelming as the idea of wondering where the next breath or morsel of food might be obtained. We fear being defined by our mistakes with the tarnish of failure marking not only ourselves but anyone with whom our lives might be linked.
What it all boils down to is that regardless of what tier we manage to attain, most of us never reach the pinnacle of self-actualization (especially in the current economic and social climates) because like toddlers struggling with learning to walk presented with a staircase, we cling to our highest achieved step looking down with fear that we will plummet back to the bottom. Any rock climber will tell you, “Don’t look down!” To ascend to the top, it is important to keep eyes on your goal, not where you have been. It is easier said than done. The fear of failing, falling, and losing the tenuous ground we have worked so hard to achieve keeps us from risking whatever progress we have been able to attain, but it traps us in the lowest levels of mere existence.
For some, this can become a debilitating depression or anxiety that paralyzes action and activity, isolating us from friends and family or making us such a misery to ourselves that we even shun the company that misery always loves. I have often wondered why this trait plagues some more than others, or if there is some way to inoculate our psyches against such attacks as you might vaccinate yourself against epidemic illnesses prior to a trip to undeveloped territories. Why shouldn’t we have monster spray to ward of the evil unknown lurking in the closet of anxiety? Why can’t we arm ourselves with the Acme Anvil Umbrella (which also protects against falling foot fashions)?
So much of what happens in our lives is a matter of choice. I am not necessarily saying that we choose everything that happens within our experience, but I am saying that choice has a much bigger part in how we approach the life we live than we might realize. This isn’t a philosophy welcomed by many. If life is a choice, then we have to take responsibility for the bad that happens in our lives as well as for the good. Too many of us get caught in the trap of relegating the responsibility for the bad stuff happening to us to the realm of evil or other people who carry out the evil. That is why I have avoided even using the phrase “happens to us”; it implies an external locus of control and puts all the responsibility outside of ourselves. The contradictory part of the philosophy, for me, is that the same people who talk about things happening to them will usually be the first to claim the victory and success in their own actions. Now, before some of my readers start calling “foul,” I know that there are people who attribute all success and goodness in their lives to their higher power. That is very generous of them, and it shows an element of piety that precludes pride. However, I still think that is giving over to an external locus of control that does no honor to human spirit and dignity, and yes, even to the higher power to which you ascribe merit but deny the free will given to humanity by same. For without free will, what is piety and goodness. If it is not by choice, where lies the merit. However, I did not intend to go off on a religious or metaphysical tangent. So, I will try again…
We live by our choices. Consciously or unconsciously, it is true. By saying this, I am not (with intentional emphasis) saying that we choose the negative aspects of our life or the occurrences that impact us in less than positive ways. Our choices are limited to our own responses and actions. We cannot choose for others (with the exception of the relatively brief period of parenthood or some aspects of other types of guardianship and political decisions). We cannot choose the behaviors of others or how they will treat us, but we do have the choice in how we respond, react, and behave.
Our lives are a series of choices that we make. While there are contributions of physical and biological directives that compel some of the actions that we take, we are unlike the rest of the animal kingdom in the development of a prefrontal cortex in our brains that provide us the cognitive benefit of decision. We can decide, maybe not so much what occurs by the choices of others, but we have the power to choose our own emotional and behavioral responses. This may not seem like much of a superpower to some, but it’s is one of those “sleeper” powers that have more impact than you realize. If you believe in evil or a spirit of antagonism, the inability for those choosing to act against us to impact our spirit, will, and emotions greatly reduces their powers.
So back to those monsters and shoes and such… We do have a built-in monster bane that we just need to activate: The power of our choices. We may not be able to entirely dismiss the monster under the bed, but we have the choice of whether we allow it to prevent us from taking actions of our own. We have the choice of whether to allow the fear of loss or failure to paralyze us. I think that I will start making some active choices in my life about how I respond and what (and who) I allow in my life to impact my emotions and self-concept. Will I be free of the monsters and anvils, probably not, but I can try to reduce their perceived control.
9 Chickweed Lane is a daily comic strip by Brooke McEldowney. It can be found at http://www.gocomics.com/9chickweedlane