Staying Positive – How do You do it?

by joshhanagarne on October 18, 2011

plus-sign-positive

Positive - easier said than done sometimes

Maybe a year ago I was reading local news online when I saw a headline that I knew I shouldn’t click on. Not if I was interested in feeling good or staying positive for the rest of the day. I knew myself well enough to know that the headline told me everything I needed to know, and that nothing good was going to come of me clicking on the article.

I clicked.

A four year old boy had been murdered by his mother and stepfather. I only read the first two paragraphs before I hit the back button, but it was too late. I had certain images in my head. I had seen a photo of the smiling boy.

I felt…how did I feel? The hair on my arms was standing up. My mouth was dry and my heart was beating more quickly than made sense for someone who’d been sitting in a chair for 30 minutes.

I went upstairs and sat in my chair. Everyone else was asleep. I tried to read and couldn’t. I turned on the TV, then immediately turned it off.

Have you ever been to a funeral, gotten seated, and then thought, “Hmm…maybe I’m going to be all right?” And then suddenly things have gotten away from you and you are wracked with grief?

That happened to me as I sat in that chair. Suddenly I was crying and all I could think of was the picture of the smiling boy, his life ended by the people who were supposed to care for him.

Nobody is more aware than a parent of how helpless and vulnerable a human child is. I don’t know if there’s another organism on earth more dependent on its parents for protection.

I dried up quickly, but unsurprisingly, I couldn’t sleep. The endless loop played on. After tossing and turning for maybe an hour I called a friend.

He had served in the military and had more horror stories than anyone I knew–not that I was ever eager to hear them, or that he was eager to share them.

He listened to everything I had to say. Then he told me a story about one of the worst days of his life.

“How do you get these things out of your head?” I asked when he finished.

He laughed a humorless laugh. “Who says I do?”

“Oh.”

“But what’s the alternative? If I take every single tragedy personally I’m going to curl up into a fucking ball and never go out again. But who would benefit from that?”

“Okay, so if getting the things out of your head isn’t the goal, then–”

“It is the goal. I just don’t know if it’s always possible.”

“So what do you do?”

“Whatever my life looks like normally, I try to do those things. As far as my actions go, I try to structure things so an outsider wouldn’t know anything nastier than usual was going through my head.”

“And?”

“And eventually I feel better. Better actions lead to better thoughts, hopefully. Eventually. I sleep. I get distracted. The things bug me less and less…but that doesn’t mean they’re not in there.”

By the end of the conversation I felt better. But I wondered about my reaction to this specific story–I try to stay informed and educated on what’s happening in the world. I almost certainly saw a headline about some atrocity the day before, and probably the day before that. But nothing that had upset me like this.

Maybe it was just the proximity. It had happened mere miles from where we lived.

Maybe it was just the mood I was in. Maybe it was a full moon. Maybe I had morphed into one of the hyper-sensitive empaths Octavia Butler puts in her novels.

I didn’t know. But I hated the thought that my peace of mind or happiness was contingent on what I could see as putting my head in the sand. That the answer to “How to stay positive” could be “Don’t pay attention to what’s happening.”

I know it’s not that black and white. But it didn’t feel like it.

And, to trot out a cliched phrase, “staying positive in tough times” wasn’t even what I was really after. I just wanted to know why I had reacted the way I had so that I could avoid it next time around, or do something better.

But I had known. I knew I shouldn’t have clicked on the link. I did it anyways.

Why? I didn’t really want to know what had happened. What had happened was obvious from the headline. A boy was dead.

Did I really need to know more? Would informing myself of the details make me more informed in a way that mattered? Would ignoring it and going to Amazon to read some fun one star reviews (yes, one of my more peculiar pastimes), or doing something else for my own pleasure have made light of that kid’s short and tragic life?

These aren’t questions with clear answers to me. Maybe they’re not even the right questions.

Another question that I find more distressing than just about anything else:

How often do you read about something wonderful than happened in the news?

Not often enough.

Have you ever had a similar experience? How do you deal with it? How do you stay informed without becoming cynical or depressed?

Staying grateful for what I have is a good start–but in those moments after reading the story, knowing that I am fortunate would not have made the nauseating sadness and senselessness of it all less real to my guts.

J

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric | Eden Journal October 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I believe on of the things we are meant to experience while here in human form is emotion. Staying positive all the time would not allow us to experience the full range of our emotions. While staying positive is good to do most of the time, sometimes we need to feel negative emotions as well. Every once in a while I’ll listen to some sad music, just to experience it. Sometimes we watch horror movies to be scared.

In fact, I think one of the reasons the world always seems in turmoil is because part of the human experience it to feel the range of emotion. Many of us are pretty lucky that we can more or less choose when to feel the unhappy side of emotion, as you did when you read that article. Read it, feel the pain, be thankful for the emotional experience, and then be thankful that you’re loved ones are safe.

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joshhanagarne October 18, 2011 at 7:59 pm

You are wise, sir. I’m going to manifest another Kindle for you.

Speaking of music, nearly all of my favorite music is melancholy, if not downright bleak and depressing. Go figure, huh?

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Sarah October 19, 2011 at 8:51 pm

I’ve had many similar reactions to horrible news stories, and some have been fairly recent. The current news in my area may have reached out west by now: the 4 adult mentally handicapped people that were found chained in the basement, and I’m not too far from there. Reading about what happened to those poor people just makes me want to hate the whole world…

It’s usually when I’m at work, and need a break so I read the news. But then I get so unbelievably sad I need to medicate myself, pretty much. Panic attacks and everything (though those happen when I’m not reading bad news to.)

The only way I snap myself out of it is by either hunting down happy news or funny websites, or I call my mom on my way home from work (through Bluetooth of course). I don’t know why, but it always makes me feel better talking to my mom. Maybe that’s just a sign of what a great parent she was, and still is.

I’m still working on any real way to stay informed without it weighing me down all the time, but like I’ve begun working on handling my anxiety, I’m working on it!

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joshhanagarne October 20, 2011 at 2:20 am

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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cinderkeys October 21, 2011 at 6:37 am

You can find the opposite kinds of stories on heroicstories.org. Though it’s not good to stick your head in the sand, it’s nice to know that good people exist too — they just tend not to make the news as often.

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Michelle October 21, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I’m blessed to have a wonderful world inside my head. (Man, that makes me sound insane. Perhaps I am, a little.) Usually I can keep my emotions in check during the day. But when I’m laying in bed trying to sleep, all the stuff I distracted myself from during the day comes back to me.

So I make up stories. Sometimes it’s a plan on how to handle something, how I can help. Sometimes I’m a superhero stopping stuff that’s bothering me. Sometimes it’s something entirely different, a fantasy of living on the beach or being a famous author on my favorite talk show. I can get myself so wrapped up in the story that I can lull myself to sleep.

And this is the stuff that doesn’t get written down. It’s self-indulgent, mary-sue character type stuff. If I do get a story idea, I mentally bookmark it, and if I remember it in the morning it’s worth writing down. I never write anything down at night, because although I will have distracted myself, I still won’t get any sleep.

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