Outlook on life is not a black and white issue
Mind Moves: We don’t need to choose optimism or cynicism, writes Tony Bates.
“I see friends shaking hands
Saying how do you do,
They’re really saying . . .”
I hear that familiar tune through the mists of sleep, mingling with the sound of raindrops tip-tapping sharply on the windowpane.
A woman with a soothing radio voice follows with her “thought for the day” on positive thinking. The skies may be dark and heavy with rain, but she clearly agrees that this world is wonderful.
I lie as still as I can, hoping life won’t mind if I defer my awakening to full consciousness.
All this 21st-century emphasis on “thinking positive” makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because people who advocate it speak about it as though it were the simple and obvious solution to all of our woes, as we face the complex problems and emotional upheavals that we encounter every single day.
Now there is nothing wrong at all in facing the day with a positive frame of mind. It’s certainly a lot more fun than facing the day with a clenched stomach, a tightened chest, and a mind permanently on the alert for some new disaster.
I imagine some poor soul stepping out with a firm resolve to be positive, only to find him or herself being jolted by the shock of some terrible news, or being disappointed to hear that a cherished project they had worked hard to make happen was being discontinued. I can see him – or her – recoil in pain and I feel for them.
I don’t want to be that soldier. I don’t want to be the guy who gets stung and who is left floundering in his hurt, wondering why he didn’t see that blow coming. And yet I am that soldier, because I’ve never been able to not get hurt. No more than anyone else have I been able to find a vaccine that protects against heartache.
Sometimes it feels like survival depends on choosing to see life through one of two lenses: we must focus on life’s positive energies and risk being seen as naive optimists, or we must focus on the harsh reality that things do go wrong and people do get hurt, and become defensive pessimists.
Lying there in a reflective mood, I remembered how an entire civilisation wrestled with this problem of extremes and how they created a symbol to help us to think about life as both positive and negative.
The ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol is a closed circle with a wavy line down the centre dividing a black shape and a white shape. The outer circle represents “everything”, while the black and white shapes within the circle represent the interaction of two energies, called “yin” (black) and “yang” (white), which cause everything to happen. While “yin” is dark, cold, contracting and weak, “yang” is bright, hot, expanding and strong.
Yin and yang are not completely black or white – the black shape has a white dot at its centre, the white shape has a black dot – because life is never completely black or white. The curvy shape of yin and yang gives you a sense of the continual movement between these two energies. The wavy line down the centre is the most interesting part of this circular symbol. It is the path along which we move or, for the ancient Chinese, dance through life.
Illness from a Chinese point of view was seen as a disturbance in the balance of yin and yang energies in one’s life. Therapy depended on accurate diagnosis of the source of the imbalance.
Right now in this country I suspect many people are feeling overloaded with negative energies.
The smooth-talking lady is qualifying her earlier comments on positive thinking. Life can be a messy business, she implies, and you need a strong heart and a clear head to make it through any given day.
We survive the various shocks and jolts life gives us not so much by any particular mental attitude as much as by drawing on the energy of kindness.
With some relief, I step into my day knowing that I do not need to choose to be a know-it-all cynic or a born-again optimist. I will expect both delights and disappointments and, when I can’t figure everything out or stop bad things happening, I can ease up on myself and dance.
Now, does that sound positive enough?
Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, www.headstrong.ie.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times. Headstrong would like to thank the Irish Times for their ongoing support.