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…on optimism

I am often accused of being an optimist. Now, I will readily admit that I’m a relatively happy person, and (mostly) pleasant to be around. I may even be guilty of having a rosy disposition. But optimist I am not. I will explain.

I have the best family and friends in the world, for whom I am extremely grateful. As a result, I spend inordinate amounts of time worrying  about them–a habit I blame on my latent maternal instinct. One of the problems with being an historian by both nature and training is that I am constantly aware that each of the people I love is bound to die. Bracing my self for that eventuality not infrequently keeps me up worrying long past my bed time.

Et in arcadia ego. Or perhaps I mean, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. The thing is, I’m not particularly afraid of death itself. But I do hate the thought of people (especially people I love) suffering, either physically or emotionally. It is that fear which has a strong effect on me.

My worrying does have one positive side-effect. Since I know that I’m powerless to prevent or ease physical suffering (what am I, some sort of wizard?), I try to channel the energy I expend on worrying about bad things happening into showing my family and friends how much I love and appreciate them. It may be all I can do, but it seems a jolly good thing to do all the same.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying that “Once you can accept the universe as being something expanding into an infinite nothing which is something, wearing stripes with plaid is easy.” So too, learning to misapply my deep seated fears about death’s accouterments, I fin that it’s relatively easy to use similar sleight of hand to dispel pessimism’s other attempts to seep into my life.

This is, in part, what I mean when I say “we make our own reality”, a personal motto which I suspect drives Andrew a little bit nuts. How does it work? I’ll tell you. Whenever I’m presented with a set of imperfect options, it can be tempting to focus on the failings of each potential choice. As an example, let’s say that it’s approaching 6pm and I’m still busy at work. I find it very easy to think “I can’t win: either I’ll have to lose my evening OR  I’ll have to do a bad job on project x“. Well, instead I turn that on its head and think to myself “I can’t lose: either I’ll do a great job on this project, or I’ll have a lovely evening.”

It takes practice to be able to do this effectively. But once you’re looking at the benefits of various options (rather than their drawbacks), I find it easier to rank the set of options based on my values and priorities. which I suspect is a good thing.

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