Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Don't let the sky fall

I saw an old friend this week – meaning I've known him for a long time, not that he's old. And I must admit that his most recent job has beaten him down, considerably. I understand the feeling. I've had jobs like this – too many. He's much more subdued than usual, he's looking at the world more cynically. He's been betrayed by people at his job to the point that he thinks absolutely no one is ever looking out for any of us so the best we can do is only look after ourselves. He's so beaten down that he is actually considering his kindness and desire to trust people to be his greatest flaws and he says he thinks nearly every decision he's made in life is a bad one. This is a sad road to be on, and I am sorry to say that I know it better than I'd like.

I have another friend who is a perpetual pessimist. Everything in life is always awful. The sky is falling every time she and I have a conversation. The saddest part is that the fixes are easy – truly. All her misery and unhappiness is self-generated by her ardent refusal to change. Several times I have tried to broach the topic with her, and I have seen other friends of hers do the same. Nothing works. She becomes enraged when anyone suggests a change she might make to improve her lot in life. We've all but given up and accepted that she may just always be our "Eeyore" friend.

I recently heard a statistic that 80% of our job satisfaction comes from whether or not we like our boss. 80%! Not our co-workers or even the work we're spending all this time doing. It's our boss's personality that makes the difference. And it's also amazing to me that if a job beats you up, as it did my old friend, then it beats up your whole life, not just the part of your life spent at work. It's about energy and enthusiasm – some activities give us energy and some "taketh away".

This recent conversation with my old friend also had me considering how much we beat ourselves up because of our defeats and failures and how little time we spend really celebrating our triumphs. When something doesn't go our way, we're more likely to think "well it figures." (My mother is fond of the saying, "Everyone's got to have something [wrong in their lives].") And when something does go our way, we often say, "it's about time SOMETHING went right." I couldn't disagree more. Our lives are very much a function of the attitude, energy, and hopefulness that we send out to the world.

If my hypothesis is true, then the next logical question is "well if everything in my life is so messed up then how do I get a better attitude?" I think it starts with accepting responsibility for what's wrong, even if we didn't cause it. And then it's about forgiving ourselves and accepting that learning, and we are all always learning, is not a straight-line path. We can't learn if we don't make mistakes. Part of making mistakes is getting burned here and there, and sometimes that here and there is much more frequent than we're comfortable with.

I think there is also a lot of power in believing, truly believing, that unhappiness and disappointment are NOT a way of life. They are temporary conditions. Everything is a temporary condition. And this means that more good times and more bad times are on the way. We need to learn to roll through them the way sand rolls through the tide. It washes into the ocean on the top of a wave and then sinks to the bottom and heads back to shore. But if it never sank to the bottom, how could it ever ride atop another wave?

Yes, people disappoint us. We get less than we deserve from time to time. We have all felt crushed. And my hope in getting some of this written down is that we can still be hopeful about life; that even when we're down and out, we can keep smiling, keep believing that tomorrow with be better. When a reporter asked the Dalai Lama how he could cope with fighting his people's struggle for so long he simply said, "We do the best we can." I figure if all the Dalai Lama can do is his best (and he's enlightened!), then that's all I can do, too. Anna Quindlen expressed the same eloquent sentiment when asked how she handles the ups and down of life. "No matter what, I show up, I listen, and I try to laugh." If your sky is falling, give it a whirl, and when that triumph comes along, take the time to crack open the bubbly!

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