It’s not easy to be positive. Some days I just want to curl up on the couch and Netflix binge on Gray’s Anatomy and play solitaire on my iPhone. Occasionally, I do just that. On those days, my only other alternative seems to be to sit in front of a blank screen, wishing I could think of something to write about. Since August, when Rosemary’s breast cancer recurred, it has been even more difficult to fight the dragons that life presents. I read blog posts from the past and wonder, “Who was that person who took over my body and wrote all those upbeat things?” It’s not that the person who wrote them isn’t me. It’s just not me on my bleak days.
One response to my last blog post on regrets, was from a reader who thought it was awesome that I don’t have any regrets, but that she, the responder, lived with many, and that sometimes, those regrets made it difficult for her to face the day. She was speaking of her own situation and not judging mine, but it did get me thinking. I question what kind of person I portray myself as on my blog.
Do I give the appearance of being someone without a sad or remorseful thought, someone always able to manage in the world? I worry that people will read my blog and think everything is all jolly and bright with me. I want my struggle to come through. I don’t want anyone to think it is always easy. I do try to end up on the side of the light, but I want to make it clear, that, often, I do not get there without effort; that I spend time in darkness as well.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Rosemary and I studied Appreciative Inquiry (or AI), a model for organizational change which, instead of a taking a problem-based approach that starts by looking at what is wrong in the organization and then working to fix the broken places, begins from a question of what is working well in the organization and builds upon that. The premise of AI is that you get more of what you focus on.
One story about Appreciative Inquiry that we learned was told by a mother who was traveling to other cities to lead AI groups. I probably have forgotten some of the details of the story, but basically, the mother told about leaving her young child – maybe 5 or 6 years old – at home with a sitter. The mother would instruct the sitter to write down on a pad on the refrigerator all the things that her son had done wrong while she was away at work. Each time, the list got longer and longer and the son hid from his mother when she arrived home. Then it dawned on her to try an appreciative approach. The next time she left, the mother instructed the sitter – in her son’s hearing – to write down all the good things her son did while she was away. Within a short time, the mother was greeted by a smiling child, proud of his long list of accomplishments.
We began using this approach in our own work and it still forms a starting place for much of what we do. An additional benefit for a consultant is that you spend your day listening to happy stories instead of a list of vented woes.
You may be familiar with this approach in other venues. In social work, we call it a strengths-based approach, a determination to focus on the strengths that people have, rather than working on eliminating their weaknesses. I have long been impressed by the work of John McKnight, a student of Saul Alinksy, in community organizing. His approach, called asset-based community development, helped folks in poorly-resourced communities to identify the skills and resources that they did have and use them to build stronger communities. All these approaches are really about how you choose to see the world.
Probably the most recent evidence of the importance of looking at the positive is a video our daughter Shannon posted in response to my blog post about regrets. In my blog post, I pondered how I had doubted my abilities as a single mom. Her response was a video that shows a series of moms talking about their own challenges as mothers. Then the video shows interviews with the children of these moms, talking about how beautiful, caring, and attentive these moms were. Needless to say, the video brought tears to my eyes, but also a reminder that there are (at least) two ways of seeing any situation and that dwelling on the worries doesn’t get you anywhere.
Still, on days when I wake up to a bleak world, I can struggle to find my footing in these positive approaches. Being convinced of the efficacy of a positive approach doesn’t necessarily get one to a happy place. When the day ahead seems fraught with despair, I force myself to get up and go the post office or buy some potting soil at the hardware store – some errand I have been putting off. Walking in the fresh air sometimes helps, but mostly, I just want to have something to show for the day, a few steps on my pedometer to prove that my day was not a total waste.
My friends often use a little expression that my mother often fell back on in such situations. They remind us, when we are confounded by a situation, “As Vera used to say, “Buck up!’” It doesn’t usually work very well with me. I don’t think it ever did. I try giving myself a little pep talk. Mostly, when I am in a dark place, I convince myself I just don’t have time to wallow. “Just buck up, Brynna! Stop wasting time feeling down.” I have too little time as it is – none to waste on being negative.
Keeping my unhappiness to myself is a sure way to prolong a negative framework. I’m fortunate to have someone who is adept at helping me find my way back. Rosemary has an amazing ability to listen and ask the right questions. She has a way of taking the conversation to a meta level, to set my sights on the bigger picture or the long term, to see what is really important to me. Talking to someone – not about just anything (although that might help too) – but sharing my dark thoughts with a receptive listener is probably the way that works the best for me. It is important, however, that it not be a friend who is into problem-solving or advice-giving.
Rosemary and I – and several friends – engage in a writing practice called Proprioceptive Writing (PW). It is a meditative practice in which you each write for about 22 minutes what your mind is saying to you; in other words, you “write what you hear,” as you meditate to Baroque music and a lit candle. You use a process of asking the “Proprioceptive Question” at appropriate points in the writing. Rosemary and I use PW to dig more deeply into things that are on our minds and, since part of the process is to read your finished “write” to the other person, to share what is on our minds. Through the writing and reading, we connect more deeply with each other, and can see our own thinking through the other’s eyes, without judgment. It is a way of gaining perspective.
These are not the only tricks that I have learned from others that help me reframe my thinking. My friend, Mary McCarty-Arias was training on the 17th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. She made it down the stairs and home, but it had to have been a traumatic day for her. However, as a result, she started a gratitude journal, a tally of a few things that she was grateful for each day. Oprah, a longtime writer of gratitude journals, told Mary’s story on television, of her escape from the Tower and the things Mary was grateful for on that day. One that I remember is that Mary was able to get a pair of sneakers from a near-by store, which made it possible to walk several miles uptown and eventually get a ride home. Writing down what I am grateful for can help me to change my frame of mind and step into a more positive place.
Often, though, instead of talking myself into positivity, I need a time to be sad, to experience the dark side, and to move through it. Giving myself over to darkness, I curl up with the dragon and say, “OK, Puff, you win.” And I have a lovely day.
 A model for organizational change that developed from an article written by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva at Case Western Reserve University.