Optimism and Gratitude

When I was traveling in India, one of my companions asked me if I had a particular spiritual practice that I did daily.  I guessed she meant prayers or meditation.  I told her I had 2 daily practices – optimism and gratitude.

It is my observation that our culture has created a kind of cynical elitism: the more cynicism you express, the (theoretically) hipper you are because you are in touch with “reality” so you are cool.  I have noticed how this cynicism has darkened conversations about politics, money, world peace, the environment, hunger and many other overwhelming issues of our times.  And it drags down our spirits.

I find nothing nourishing about cynicism.  It is a kind of intellectual one-upmanship that leaves me cold and empty.  And the best antidote I can muster is a display of grounded optimism.  So when people start with their “Life sucks and then you die” attitude, I counter with “Since you’re not dead yet, why not have some fun and enjoy yourself?”  Not all politicians are crooks, not all priests are child abusers, not all musicians are drug users.  If you always see the glass half empty you will go around feeling empty.

The spiritual practice of optimism involves actively looking for positive reality in any given situation.  If you hear an odd noise in your car engine and have to take it in for repairs, think of how this saved you from potentially breaking down during your trip at Thanksgiving.  If you have maxed out your credit cards, think of how that saves you from buying more stuff you really don’t need, or forces you into creating that budget you’ve been avoiding for 2 years but really need to do.

The alternative is to feel victimized by your life’s circumstances, which is not useful or even true.  You can either make yourself miserable or make yourself happy.  The amount of work involved is the same.  It’s your choice.

Gratitude accompanies optimism.  They both spiral upwards.  When I was in graduate school I was overly tired and grumpy and a friend suggested I keep a gratitude journal.  She suggested that at the end of each day I write down 3 things I felt grateful for, even if one was only that the day was over.  As I began to do this I noticed I was looking for things during the day that I could list in my journal that night and as I kept looking it changed the way I experienced myself and my life.  I began noticing the positive things and ignoring the negative things.

I also began telling other people when I felt grateful to them and why, and I saw that appreciation, or gratitude has a multiplying effect.  People feel fed by gratitude and then may want to share that with others.  I decided I felt better being optimistic and grateful rather than pessimistic and cynical and made a promise to myself to pursue this path as an expression of my spirituality.  So far, it has been the right path for me.

I offer these thoughts for consideration as we approach our official day of giving thanks.  Why limit it to one day a year?