Trying to Stay Positive

Most of us have experience of trying to stay positive when everything seems to be negative. The weather’s ‘wrong’; our job’s ‘wrong’; people around us are ‘wrong’. Everywhere we look we see division, squabbles, blistering rows and the most heartless violence. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain upbeat. Often it looks to others and to ourselves like foolishness or a flight from reality. Our determination to hold to our course is interpreted as stubbornness, our refusal to give in to lowness of spirits is a mere pose. Or is it?

One of the things I have learned from having metastatic leiomyosarcoma is that many of our reactions to people and events are affected by matters beyond our control. The various drugs I have to take affect my mind as well as my body. Steroids make me peppery; the anti-emetics make me tired and depressed; the chemotherapy drug itself can reduce me to a little heap of negativity quite unlike my usual self. But — and it is, as always, an important ‘but’ — there is something else at work, something that, until now at least, has always got me through. It is grace, but not necessarily grace as usually portrayed. I have no doubt that the prayers of all praying for me play a huge part in keeping me going, but there is also an element of choice. I have to choose to keep going, and I honestly don’t know where the power for that comes from. I assume it is grace, an unmerited gift of God, but I don’t assume that it will always be there or that I’ll always respond. That is not to doubt God. On the contrary, it is to assert the glorious freedom of God and our own free will and to recognize that what is possible to one person at one time may not be to another at another time. I have, so far, been able to choose to go on; others, alas, have not.

What of those who can’t go on, who are too tired/ill/broken in spirit to make choices or stay positive? We are often severe on them without meaning to be. We avoid X because he is always down in the dumps; we think Y would do a lot better if she didn’t keep harping on about what’s wrong with her life. Either way, we tend to judge them wanting because they do not conform to our idea of the brave cancer patient/the doughty battler against all odds we would like them to be (fill in as appropriate). We do not stop to ask ourselves why they should conform to our expectations in the first place, and are sometimes very grudging in our assessment of what they are struggling to cope with.

There is a sentence in the Rule of St Benedict that is well worth pondering in this context: ‘Let them bear with the greatest patience one another’s infirmities, whether of body or character.’ (RB 72. 5) Body or character . . . there’s the rub. We frequently mistake the one for the other, but that doesn’t mean we can make distinctions, saying this person is worthy of our compassion and that person isn’t. We are asked to bear with every kind of weakness with the greatest patience, and I think that stands the whole concept of staying positive on its head.  The emphasis is not so much on the one trying to stay positive as on those who have any kind of dealings with him/her. So, the person locked in clinical depression, the one who feels he/she cannot go on, the person overwhelmed by sickness or sorrow, it is not for them to feel guilty because they cannot be positive, it is for us who know them or come into contact with them to stay positive; and I suspect we can only do that by grace. In the end, it all comes down to grace, doesn’t it?

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9 thoughts on “Trying to Stay Positive”

  1. I am a care-giver for an exceedingly difficult woman. Thank you for this beautiful post! It is a great help to me, and hopefully, through my adjusted perspective, it will be for her as well …

  2. The idea that being able to choose positivity is itself a grace is well worth reflecting on.

    Your last paragraph also resonated with me. I am a clinical psychologist in training. One of the psychologist’s or psychotherapist’s tasks is simply to give the patient space to express his or her emotions (which the patient would often much prefer not to have to acknowledge even to himself or herself). To listen compassionately to and “contain” the patient’s emotions, however painful, without becoming rejecting, upset or argumentative or otherwise indicating to the patient that his or her experience is unacceptable and too much to deal with. Obviously, ordinary life and psychotherapy are two different things, but mutatis mutandis I think something similar applies in many other contexts where we come into contact with other people’s sadness, despair etc.

  3. Being a person with generalized anxiety disorder and panic syndrome, I know how difficult it can be to try to appear Ok all the time, and how hard it is for my friends to understand and accept. Thanks for helping me know I am not alone.

  4. Well this was great food for thought. I am one of life’s optimists (usually!) but I really hadn’t thought about how I did or didn’t apply that positivity to others. It is hard not to be impatient with those who don’t have the blessing of a positive outlook (for whatever reason). I shall take more care to share it in future rather than use as a measuring stick by which to judge. Thank you

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