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Spirituality Essay:

Optimism    ( November 2006 )

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Will your life be better five years from now? Will the world be better off or worse?

I was watching one of Bill Moyers' "Faith and Reason" interviews recently. His guest, Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, was commenting that she chose to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic about things . . . her life, the world's future, etc. She added that whether or not it worked, it sure made her life a whole lot happier and warmer.

Sounds good, but to what degree can one choose to be optimistic?

To be optimistic about how the future will work out springs, I think, from our core ability to trust . . . and that's not something particularly easily willed, or chosen. Psychologist Erik Erikson says our most fundamental core attitude we carry in life is our predisposition to either trust or fear -- something we developed, deep in our unconscious, during our first six months of life . . . an attitude, or perhaps more appropriately, a response mechanism, we create, based on how we're treated and how our primal needs were responded to in our most vulnerable infancy.

It's therefore inevitable that many of us carry the shadow effects of difficult childhoods, when fear was more justified than trust (for survival). As adults, we see it manifesting not only as a general fear of the future, but in its other myriad permutations . . . negativity, worry, pessimism, depression, self-doubt, and addictive behaviors . . . all making optimism difficult.

Then add the world around us: Iraq, terrorism, North Korea and Iran and nuclear proliferation, global warming, overpopulation, a society increasingly dehumanized, the Religious Right's agenda . . . further ammunition for feeling pessimistic.

It may be more likely that Pema Chodron's optimism stems from good parenting (or good life-work) than her belief that she's choosing it, but it's a good start, and she's certainly right that feeling optimistic always makes one happier. And when one is happier, all sorts of wondrous self-feeding things inevitably and naturally start occurring, which then help make one feel even more optimistic.

So how do we get there if our inclinations, from forces buried deep in our childhood, tend to pull us in the other direction.

Though we may not be quite so able to simply "choose" to be optimistic, we can certainly start doing things that will get us there in time. For starters, we should acknowledge where we are on the fear-trust spectrum, and observe how it shows up in our lives.

Adding in the "Power of Desire" is also most helpful . . . .from the precept that we tend to get what we want because we start orienting and marshalling all our conscious and (importantly) unconscious thinking in that direction. Just saying I want to be more trusting and more optimistic sets in motion all those powerful forces that will start making that happen.

Visualizing what our lives would be like if we felt optimistic and more trusting, as if love and warmth had filled those holes created long ago, can open new insights and pathways.

And, the more you do to proactively help the world's ills always seems to return large dividends of well-being and renewed trust in the future.

Mere attention to all this, of course, starts bringing results . . . dedicated work even more so. So, be sure to notice those delightful little changes, as they start appearing . . . and expressing gratitude for those openings as another power action . . . as it always reinforces and stimulates future growth.

May we all grow more trusting, hopeful, positive, and loving in our challenging world.

This is one in a series of essays on spirituality by Rick Childs, lay leader of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Mendocino Coast. You may want to:
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