Pollyanna’s Not an Idiot After All

25 Oct

That giant hurricane that hit land here in Mexico this weekend started forming just below us earlier this week. It soon became apparent that it would pass us by, and the clouds overhead disappeared along with our chances of dealing with a tropical storm. “There goes our last chance for rain,” some of my (cooler-weather-loving) coworkers lamented. “Back to the stifling heat!” My favorite rain-lover grouched. Meanwhile, I was doing happy sunshine dances, ecstatically grateful that a) I didn’t have to face a tropical storm this week (before I even knew it was going to be a monster hurricane) and b) it didn’t even do more than drizzle on my way to and from work, which I was extra relieved about because our car is busted and I’d have no ride to work in the rain. It was a very happy week for me. But then, I’ve mostly been happy lately anyway, so what can I say.

If you know me, you know that I am a critical person. I might have been born with one raised eyebrow. I was a rebellious teenager that still needs to QUESTION EVERYTHING. I’m sensitive and empathetic and therefore intent on social justice and changing the system. But that doesn’t mean I have to be pissed off all the time.

“You sound like you’re in a great mood,” my mom said when she called this week. “What’s up?” As I started telling her about stuff going on in my week, I realized that the bad stuff was pretty heavy bad stuff. But we have electricity! I was listening to music! And our car breaking down meant going on a bike ride for our errands, something I rarely get to do anymore since I can’t take the kids on the bike. And my three year old is thoughtful and caring and smart and funny. And my baby is driving me crazy because he’s bursting with so much movement I can’t contain him long enough to change his diaper, which is good because that’s exactly how he’s supposed to be right now. And I’ve discovered a whole new world of recipes for oatmeal that you make in the refrigerator overnight! And I’m getting an inspiring and moving piece of artwork from Louisville for my early Christmas! It’s hot and sunny! I love my house, even though it’s eternally messy. I love my life, even though there’s always something going wrong. Might as well be joyous.

For a long time I’ve been confused about the difference between feeling happy and being complacent. I think I thought- at least internally, if not out loud- that this whole glass-half-full idea was just an excuse to not do anything differently. That by looking for the good stuff you’re ignoring the bad stuff, which we can’t ignore if we want everyone to have good stuff. I think I kinda thought Pollyanna was like this Rainbow Brite / Orphan Annie-type cartoon character with constantly pointy pigtails- another shallow Disney thing, another be-grateful-for-whatever-the-system-deigns-to-give-you character being sold to us.

But Pollyanna was actually a character from a book, and she was inspired to look for the positive because she liked people and wanted everyone to be well- not just to feel happy (thanks again, Mom, for making me read). She tried to make a difference in people’s lives. She didn’t just walk around singing about rainbows and sunshine all the time. Reading Pollyanna didn’t change my life; there were lots of other things going on with me already that have been changing my life. But it did help me quit thinking that “happy people” are shallow, and that happiness (and optimism) is something innate, or something you either are or aren’t. It’s a practice. It’s something you have to do, not something you magically are, and it’s not eternal, either.

Lately my gratitude practice is overflowing, seemingly of its own accord. Instead of struggling to find 3 little things to be grateful for everyday, somedays I find myself scribbling whole paragraphs in my notebook. It’s taken a long time to get here. Like doing endurance exercise or strengthening your muscles, feeling real gratitude is sometimes a struggle, but one that gets easier. It’s become just as important to me as exercise, too- something I desire to have a good day, to feel good.

I still want to change the world, and I still want to change some things in my life. I don’t think I’m content and complacent, by any stretch. I still feel sad, frustrated, and angry on a regular basis, too- which is fine. They’re just feelings. Conan thinks I’m focusing on the negative every time I voice a complaint or ball up my fists and make ridiculous caveman grunting noises (yes I really do this). Every time I get bummed out or overwhelmed by the struggles (be it our personal life struggles or bigger things like government inaction on climate change), Conan thinks I’m letting the bastards get me down. But they’re just feelings. They come and go, and for me they can go faster if I can safely voice them first. I’m still dramatic sometimes, because, geez, I feel things really f****ing intensely sometimes. But that’s not all bad either! It also means I feel so much joy that I could explode with it, on a regular basis. Which is pretty damn cool, thank you very much.

These days, I don’t think happiness and complacency do actually go hand in hand. I think, in fact, the more you encourage yourself to feel good about life, to find the good, to feel gratitude, the more you want to share the goodness. The crappier you feel, the more bogged-down, too-many-problems-to-even-get-started you feel, the harder it is to make a difference in the universe. Optimism isn’t hedonism. Gratitude is certainly not complacency.

Looking for and relishing the positive aspects of what life gives you does not mean you accept life and society exactly how it is- it doesn’t mean giving into the system, or accepting abuse, or tolerating degradations just because. Relishing the positive just makes you less of a grouch. You can be a critical thinker without criticizing everything. Not that I had a raincloud over my head all the time before, nor am I a constant rainbow now, but I certainly feel less overwhelmed with my levels of stress and anxiety lately. Making a practice of noticing my gratitude isn’t some forced/pretend happiness, it’s food for my spirit.

So hopefully I’m not pissing off my grumpy friends with my incessant sunshine, with all my reasons to be glad. But it’s okay if I am, because I feel great! Viva Pollyanna!

Pollyanna’s not happy all the time. She works hard to find a reason to be glad.

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