The Struggle Between Optimism and Authenticity

Having woken up in a pretty sour mood, I got into my exercises after a pretty lengthy bit of procrastinating. While doing them, I watched Michael J. Fox’s Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, a one-hour documentary on his search to understand more about what makes us optimistic, and how it might impact things.

It’s a lot of food for thought. I found myself with a few questions.

Am I optimistic? I’m not sure. Some of the time. I ultimately have faith. I don’t worry about my life longterm. I believe in myself and my fortune, despite this 12-year track-record of some seriously hard times.

I not only understand the adversities I’ve faced thus far, but I’m absolutely convinced more (and probably even harder ones) will continue throughout my life. And that’s okay.

Optimism isn’t about thinking everything’s going to come up roses and making it so. It’s not about having blinders and ignoring the bad stuff in the world. Optimism is simply the faith that you will do all you can to weather whatever comes, and that you’ll get through it. It’s about choosing action over fear, possibility over resignation.

Bill Murray commented in the show that optimism’s not about having great results, but about your willingness to keep trying in the face of struggle.

I suppose, then, that this makes me an optimist.

I’m not one of these frou-frou types who spouts all these happy-fab slogans when I’m bending over and taking it from life. I own whatever pissiness or angst or dejection I might feel from adversity, I accept that, and then I find a way to battle through it. I don’t apologize for finding myself angry as a result of things life brings on me, but I also choose not to inhabit that place for long.

I don’t do mantras and puffery, and that might work for others, but I think there are more brands of optimism in the world than maybe get noticed.

My sarcastic, wry take on the world means I approach optimism differently. But it doesn’t invalidate it. It just means that I have to understand that a different interpretation doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just me.

The next question, then, is the important one:

Am I optimistic enough? No, not really. Not at all. But that’s situational, that’s the result of year after year of life, going on 12-15 years, being more hurt and hardship than happy. I’m finally free of that. Okay, that’s a lie, considering life’s still hard, but now I enjoy it more than I endure it, so I’m moving in that direction of having more hope than hard-assed determination, more faith than resoluteness.

But two years ago, I was a very, very, very negative and resentful person. I felt like Michael J. Fox’s father, whom he described as “feeling like everyone in the world had lined up for a turn to kick him in the ass.” I had come to hate the way I was projecting myself and “being” in the world. That’s what began this massive climb to change.

Then, I was working with this woman who was as negative as I’ve ever seen and more toxic than Chernobyl. Her venom would infuse you like an IV drip. I worked with her for 6 months. I slowly found myself losing my soul and hating life. I was 10 feet away from her on a daily basis, as she’d piss and moan on phone calls and try to manipulate others just because she had a sense of entitlement about life.

I’ve never hated myself more than the woman I became working in close proximity with that.

I quit, moved on, and it’s been 19 months. I’m still becoming more positive and hopeful, but I still find days of poison in me.

And I suspect there’ll always be days when I feel the weight of the world and perhaps I embrace apathy and loathing, because I’m a complex and layered person. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. I’m plugged into life, so how can I enjoy and experience one part but never the other?

Our lows define our highs. A million wise souls from Kahlil Gibran to the Dalai Lama have said this with more profundity than I’ll ever master, but it’s through our sufferings that we learn how great it feels to soar. It’s pain that makes bliss feel so fucking good. If you don’t know one extreme, you’ll never know the other.

Me, I know the extremes. Been there, done that, using the t-shirt to clean my toilet.

And yet my future excites me. It really, really does.

Because, I guess I know now, deep down, what I can handle, what I can take, but more importantly, I know how to find the good in the bad so I can both enjoy life whilst enduring it. And I suppose that’s ultimately the end game. That one can have both in life simultaenously. One can smile through tears, laugh through pain. It’s a choice.

It’s not about getting past hardship so you can land on happy. It’s about understanding that you need to be able to find happiness even when your days are hard.

It’s why surfing is the ultimate analogy for a happy life. Whatever waves come, whatever their size, all waves can be ridden if you have the right board and take the right approach. (Doubt it? Look at the 70-foot waves ridden by folk life Laird Hamilton with suspended surfboards.)

There’s the old saying out there, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” Well, I think a lot of folk would do well to start realizing that life’s adversity-dumping upon us, well,  it’s not personal, it’s existence.

Adversity’s universal, and pain is felt by us all. Difficulties pepper our lives. It’s our resilience that makes the difference, and resilience comes from understanding that the adversity doesn’t know you, it’s not about you. It just is. Fuckin’ deal with it, you know? And don’t let it win. Stay up. Believe.

The only questions left for me now, and I don’t know the answers, are: How optimistic would I like to be? How positive and bouncy and up do I want to seem to others? Do I care? And at what point would it stop being “authentic” me, because my rants and satire are truly “me” too?

I have days, and they’re still somewhat rare, on which I am about the most engaging person you’ll ever meet. On those days, I make strangers laugh and smile, people gravitate to me, and everything comes easily.

I know I have that effusive, fun, contagious quality about me, but it’s few and far between. Often, I’m moody and distant, reflective and subdued. And that’s not inauthentic to me, either, but it’s not particularly accessible for others, and that’s what troubles me about my moodier writerly self.

Life’s been a lot of struggle, and when it is, there’s always stuff processing in the back of my mind, and I know something about that escapes me and is readable by others. We’re all more perceptive than we realize, so those little mental nuances are more influential in how others receive us than we might want to acknowledge.

Increasingly, I’m aware of this and trying to affect it through conscious choices and behaviours, but I have a long ways to go.

I think, ultimately, that something Michael J. Fox also said in that documentary really resonates with me, and I’d like to be able to say — 10, 15 years from now — that it’s how I too choose to live my life. Should I manage it, I suspect I’ll be able to be all my authentic selves while still being captivating to others.

So, while I don’t have a lot of defined “goals” in life, I know MJF’s words will likely serve as the foundation for what I build on in the years to come:

“Because I’m not sure of the address where to send my gratitude, I put it out there in everything I do.”

It’s time I start.