Profound suffering and darkness mark the human condition. Given that, sometimes it seems like having a positive outlook is delusional, naïve, or even irresponsible. I have come to believe, however, that having a positive outlook is one of the most helpful things in life. Adopting such an outlook is not naïve or delusional, and it does not require us to ignore the bad things in the world.
We can have a positive outlook and still mourn evil, darkness, and violence. We can have a positive outlook and still work for justice and a better world. In fact, having a positive outlook can actually help us to make the world a better, more just, and more humane place.
Although I have come to believe a positive outlook is a great gift, I did not always think this way. For a lot of my life, I spent a great deal of time stewing in worry, fear, melancholy, and occasional despair. I am not sure how exactly this bitter stew developed inside me, but I know that it made me miserable for many years. In my bitter stew, I would spend a lot of time ruminating on all of my past, present, and (inevitable) future failures and faults.
In addition, every time I heard about something bad on the news, I would obsess over it and despair about the state of the world. I would also spend hours worrying that people were scrutinizing me and finding all of my faults. I would often start the day worrying about all I had to do and how I wasn’t going to get it done, and I would think about all of my faults and shortcoming.
When I became stuck in my bitter stew, I felt trapped by fear. I felt that fear and anxiety were the only intelligent and responses to a confusing and painful world. I was actually afraid, I think, to let go of my fear and anxiety. Deep down, I thought that if I let go of my bitter stew, I would be naïve, out-of-touch with reality, and left without any skills for coping with life. In my bitter stew, it felt like happiness and confidence were irresponsible.
Although my bitter stew often made me miserable, my life was certainly not all gloom and doom. In addition to all of the bad thinking habits I picked up along the way, I also had some good ones. One of my favorite memories is of me walking down my school hall in fifth grade—before I got stuck in my stew of melancholy.
I was really excited about something I had learned in class that day, and I remember thinking, “Every day is like an adventure. You never know what exciting things you are going to learn.” I love it that my fifth grade self had this insight. It would later mean a great deal to me, although I forgot it for a while.
Growing up, I also had this idea that whenever I was confused or despairing, I could always ask God for wisdom and help, and I would receive it. For me, God was not a set of doctrines that I learned in church, although I did learn some cool things about God in church. God was this infinite, mysterious, quiet force of Love in my life that I did not completely understand but that I knew was friendly and there to guide and help me.
Many times when I got stuck in my bitter stew, I asked God for wisdom, and inevitably in the next couple of days, I would read or hear something that helped me understand my problem better. Some might call this coincidence. Some might call it my own self-consciousness working on itself. Of course, people have to believe whatever they believe about such things. I am not the boss of others’ beliefs.
I do know, however, that early on, I found what I called God to be a consistent source of help when I needed further wisdom. This brought me a great deal of comfort, even when I got stuck in my bitter stew.
My mother was also a great source of inspiration for me whenever I faced difficult times. I have written in another post about how my mom was in a serious car accident when she was in her early twenties. She has been a paraplegic and in a wheelchair for my entire life. Although my mom is paralyzed and cannot walk, she is incredibly active. She drives, swims, teaches, and helps with Meals on Wheels.
My mother is not perfect—she will be the first one to tell you—and yet, I have never once heard her complain about being in a wheelchair. She told me once, “Life is not your circumstances. It is what you make of your circumstances.” Her example, as well as other things, have helped me realize that life and other people do not write my story for me; rather, I am the final author of my story, and I get to decide how it ends and what I make of the events in my life. I get to decide if my life is a tragedy, comedy, or story of triumph (or perhaps all three.)
These hopeful lessons I learned growing up helped me to make it through difficult times, but eventually, my bitter stew, and the bad habits I developed because of it became so unbearable that I knew I had to change. When I realized this, I asked God again for help. I asked for a new outlook. (If you do not believe in God, but want a new outlook, you can just be willing.)
Soon after this, I realized how much I had been trapped and imprisoned by own fear. I also realized that my fear made me feel safe, and that is why I kept returning to it. It was like a self-imposed prison. One day shortly after this, I wrote this poem:
One day I realized
I was in love with my fear.
It was then I awoke from
My murky dream
In which I’d been swimming
For far too long.
I knew I was willing to change, and this was a beginning of a new outlook on life for me. I began reading and hearing new ideas that helped me craft a new outlook. Here are some of the things I realized along the way:
- We all have beautiful, wise, profound light inside of us. You can call this God’s image in you, your Buddha nature, or your baby nature. The more we cultivate this light, the more joy we have, and the more our light connects with the light of people around us. That is when amazing things happen.
- No matter what happens in life, I decided how I interpret it. I can always learn something about myself and about the world. I can turn anything into a gift of wisdom for everyone.
- We do not have to figure out how things will work out tomorrow. We only have to figure out this moment, and this moment contains infinite riches.
4. When we stay in the current moment and are lovingly present with ourselves and the world around us, we gain wisdom about how to love ourselves better and how to love the people around us.
5. Our job is not to save the world, although we might end up doing this. Our job is to light up our corner of the world with love. When we do this, we save the world together.
6. We are a part of something bigger than all of us. We can call it God’s plan, compassion, the logos, or loving wisdom. Whenever we choose love, we become a part of this thing that is bigger, and amazing things happen.
7. We do not have to understand everything. We just have to take loving steps forward. That is enough.
8. We have a deep wisdom inside of us, and if we commit to love and goodness, we can trust ourselves that we are going to figure things out and connect with other people who commit themselves to love and goodness.
9. There is love, wisdom, and beauty all around us, and every day is an invitation to see more of this.
10. Committing ourselves to loving ourselves, loving the Divine (if we believe in the Divine) and loving the world around us is the foundation for a positive outlook.
As I cultivated my new outlook, I suddenly realized how powerful and responsible it was. Before, when I was in my bitter stew, I felt powerless, deflated, and debilitated. I just wanted to go into my room and hide. As I cultivate a more powerful outlook, I gained more love for myself and others. (I certainly still have my days in which I want to go hide.)
I had more emotional resources to give to other people. I got better at setting boundaries, and as I did so, I had more joy, confidence, and strength to face difficult times. I could think more clearly and think of ways to solve problems in my own life and in the world.
My life is not perfect. Everyone’s life is full of joyful and hard days, and wonderful as well as tragic events. My life is no different from anyone else in this respect. My new outlook does not take away the hard things, rather it helps me bring light, love, and wisdom to pain in order to understand how to heal and transform it.
I think alchemy is a helpful metaphor here. Ancient and Medieval alchemists searched for practices and recipes they could use to turn base metals into gold. Some alchemists were just out to make a quick buck, but many alchemists soon realized that the true alchemy was about the human spirit, rather than about manipulating metals. They realized that the greatest alchemy of all is turning the base metal of human suffering and finitude into the beautiful, precious metal of wisdom, love, and compassion.
This is an invaluable insight. When it comes down to it, cultivating a positive mental outlook is not about ignoring the bad things in the world, denying suffering, or closing our eyes to the difficulties of the human condition. It is not just about adopting a good attitude in order to win at life. Cultivating a positive mental outlook is practicing the art of alchemy and using love to transform our suffering into a gift for our own lives and for the world around us.
 This idea is inspired by a conversation I had the other day with my friend, Joseph, in which he talked about being the author of our own lives.