Monday, June 29, 2009

Attitude. . .

Attitude is everything.

Among the mysteries that I contemplate is the way some people can have life difficulties repeatedly come their way and yet maintain a sunny upbeat approach to life.

Herewith an example. When I was working in an organization several careers back in my life, I was in a position where I had two secretaries. These women had been in their jobs before I was promoted to mine, so they knew the ropes of the daily operations better than I. As I got to know them, I was struck by their different approaches to life.

The one—let’s call her Kim—had been married when she was quite young. She and her husband very quickly had a daughter. Before the daughter was a year old, the husband began abusing Kim. He also drank excessively. In addition to this domestic violence, a natural disaster here had wiped out their house, and they were temporarily living in a government trailer. One evening, after a particularly vicious fight between Kim and her husband, he jumped in the car, and roared off in anger. That evening, he was killed in an auto accident. In a sense, Kim’s problem of being married to an abusive husband was solved. However, when the insurance company paid out his death benefit, his mother was the beneficiary. He had never changed his policy to make his wife his beneficiary. And the mother refused to turn the money over to her daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

Life changed for the better for Kim when she met a wonderful man, and got married. They too had a daughter. While Kim continued to work where I did, her husband became the owner of a local business. One day, an irate customer began arguing with him, and the argument continued out into the parking lot. The customer then jumped in his car, and pinned Kim’s husband up against a wall. Kim’s husband ended up with such extensive injuries that he nearly lost his leg.

Not long after that, central Pennsylvania, where we all lived, was hit with a freak tornado. We do not get many tornados in this part of the country. When the tornado touched down, it wiped out only a few houses in the area—Kim’s house was one of them.

All these catastrophes had happened to Kim before I met her. She was the sunniest, most upbeat person imaginable. She was a delight to work with, she never complained. In fact, the only problem I ever had with her was her irrational—at least I considered it irrational—fear of mice. We had a mouse problem in our office, and the maintenance staff had placed those sticky strip traps under desks. Sure enough, a mouse was caught on the one under Kim’s desk. By the time we got to work, the mouse was the LATE mouse—but Kim freaked anyway. I thought it very funny—she was not amused.

Now, to the second secretary—let’s call her Marcella. Marcella was the oldest child in a middle class family of three. She had many opportunities growing up, but the only thing she ever talked about was how her younger brother and sister got to attend college and she didn’t. She began having health problems a few years before she was married, with a series of migrating symptoms. She underwent endless medical tests with seemingly nothing being found. She did eventually have her gall bladder removed, and in fact was married so soon after that operation that she still had surgical dressing on the surgery wound. When her first child was born, that baby began to have a series of medical problems. I really began to wonder if Marcella was suffering from M√ľnchausen syndrome, that she had now transferred to her child—M√ľnchausen syndrome by proxy.

No matter what subject you might talk about with Marcella, everything came back to how she was cheated in life. Her parents favored her siblings, she never got to go to college, her husband wasn’t attentive enough, she was sick, her baby was sick. Nothing ever suited her. And of course the irony was that in life she had been dealt a far more favorable hand than Kim.

Yet Kim never complained and Marcella ALWAYS complained. It will come as no surprise that when it came to getting work done, Kim was SUPER efficient, and Marcella always had some reason why she couldn’t do a particular task.

Clearly, the outlook on life each of these women had shaped their approach to life.
When my brother was studying in seminary he took a course on family counseling. I may not precisely remember the details of a class exercise he had to do (he can correct me, as he reads this blog), but I recall that he had to interview some family members and ask if they saw life as in the red or in the black. Think accounting. If you saw life in the black, you figured that on the whole, life’s balance was positive. If you saw life in the red, you figured that life’s balance was negative—that life owed you something. I always loved that analogy. On the whole, I am a big “life is in the black” person. Clearly, with my colleagues Kim and Marcella, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who saw life which way.

Attitude. How we view something can alter how that event or circumstance affects us. Please understand that I am not ignoring the fact that some people have incredibly difficult circumstances in life. Some people are truly dealt hard times. I have always been mesmerized by the story of Helen Keller. If ever anyone could have been forgiven for being angry at life’s circumstances, it would be Helen Keller. Yet, through her own grit, and through the loving dedication of her teacher Anne Sullivan, Helen rose to national prominence as an advocate, author and activist. She could have simply been content to live a life where others waited on her every need. But her attitude was turned outward to the world.

Now, comes the hard part—what makes the difference? I really don’t know. It would be easy to say—always look on the bright side of life. You decide, you control. But that really is too glib.

A recent poem featured on The Writer’s Almanac captures this conundrum of how someone can view catastrophe in a positive light.

by Richard Jones

In the desert, a traveler
returning to his family
is surprised
by a wild beast.

To save himself
from the fierce animal,
he leaps into a deep well
empty of water.

But at the bottom
is a dragon, waiting
with open mouth
to devour him.

The unhappy man,
not daring to go out
lest he should be
the prey of the beast,

not daring to jump
to the bottom
lest he should be
devoured by the dragon,

clings to the branch
of a bush growing
in the cracks of the well.
Hanging upon the bough,

he feels his hands
weaken, yet still
he clings, afraid
of his certain fate.

Then he sees two mice,
one white, the other black,
moving about the bush,
gnawing the roots.

The traveler sees this
and knows that he must
inevitably perish, that he will
never see his sons again.

But while thus hanging
he looks about and sees
on the leaves of the bush
some drops of honey.

These leaves
he reaches with his tongue
and licks the honey off,
with rapture.

"Rapture" by Richard Jones, from The Blessing: New and Selected Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 2000.

Here's to the honey in life, and to the ability to see it, taste it, and relish it.


Anonymous said...

Reaching for happiness is important. Thanks for the reminder!

Anvilcloud said...

I have also noticed this: sisters raised more or less the same way. One has an upbeat attitude; the other doesn't. To some degree, I believe it's a choice, but I also believe that it's much easier for some to make that choice than it is for others.

Dog_geek said...

So true. Some people make a choice to be happy - they look for ways to be happy even when life may not be easy. Other people can't be happy anywhere, because they expect that happiness is going to come from something external instead of from within. I would rather be like the former, but I always have to remind myself that it is a choice!

Mary C said...

A thought-provoking post, Donna. It's amazing how one's attitude in life can "paint" one's personality and choices that are made.

possumlady said...

I've been thinking about this all day. I wanted to write something meaningful but my brain is just too tired. I think a lot has to do with your basic brain wiring and genetics. I've always been a rather melancholy person but over the last 10 years or so I've really been trying to be thankful and grateful for all that I have. It also helps that the things that really make me happy are very simple things. Nature, my cats, good food and good conversation.

I do have to say though that I work directly across from someone who is so happy and Pollyannaish all the time that on some days it REALLY bugs the heck out of me! I would love to see some emotion other than sweetness and light all the time. Does that make me a mean person? I don't know.

KGMom said...

Possumlady reminds me--I don't mean to be syrupy in attitude. Nor do I want anyone to not respond with full range of emotion to whatever events.
I have known people who smile blithely at everything, and I always wonder what planet they come from.
So, frown, complain, cry--whatever--as well as laugh, smile and enjoy. Attitude is different from emotion.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I have come to believe that attitude toward life is by Nature in the nature/nurture debate. For this reason I am not a big fan of cognitive behavoural therapy, which is the basis of so much therapy these days.

Island Rambles Blog said...

This post made me think of the old lady going into a nursing home and everyone said to her we hope you will like it and she said she already knew she would like it because she had arranged her mind to think that way! Sometimes to get through a really difficult situation I have to arrange my mind to think only of the positive.