Thursday, December 20, 2012

How Do You Stay Optimistic?

So. It's been about a week since the Newtown school shooting. Like everyone else in America, I am totally heartbroken for the people who lost friends + family to such a senseless act of violence.

I've been thinking a lot about the 'appropriate' way for me to respond to this tragedy. Is there any benefit to a blogger from Minnesota adding her voice to the millions crying "This is awful! Things need to change!" Should I cobble together a post with lots of music videos in the theme of 'peace'? Or put together a list of ways you can help and places you can donate money?

I'm not sure. And, of course, this isn't about me. It's about those families and parents and school children. It's about mental health services and guns and school safety. But, on some level, it's also about all of us and how we can maintain faith in humanity.

What follows is a blog post I originally published in 2011 in response to a reader's question. I do hope some of you find it helpful.



Dear Sarah Von, 

How do you stay so optimistic even though the world around us has so many problems? Everyday I see awful things on the news (war, famine, class inequality, etc), and even my work is slowly taking a toll on me. I work in the environmental jusatice field, and it's just sad to see how unfair the world is. I used to be a much happier person when I was younger and more oblivious to these sorts of things! Is this just a normal part of growing up? 
- Maya


Girl, I hear you. Just like a lot of people, I spent several years feeling certain that bad things only happened to Other People and that what happened in those dirty, war-torn countries didn't particularly apply to me. 

Then I started watching the news and paying taxes and paying attention to someone other than myself. And stuff got real preeeetty quickly. Here's how I try to stay positive and optimistic.


1) I pick my battles. 
I have three causes that I actively donate to and support: marriage equity, reproductive rights, refugee resettlement. This is not to say that I ignore all the other problems in the world, but these are the issues that speak to me. I find it's a lot easier to feel good about the world and the difference I'm making when I narrow my scope.

2) I choose my news sources carefully.
Fox News melts my brain as does any radio or television show in which people raise their voices or call each other names. Nope, not interested. I read headlines on The Morning News, I read Slate and Salon, I listen to public radio on the weekends. That's it. I also make an effort to read things like People Are Awesome and 1,000 Awesome Things to level things out a bit.

3) I deal with worldly issues in a way that works for me. 
Sometimes I donate money. Sometimes I donate my time and skill set. Sometimes I donate products or ad space on this blog. Sometimes I say "that's totally, totally awful" and then I turn off the radio. I donated money to earthquake relief in Japan, but knowing exactly how many died and exactly how much radio active waste is leaking into the ground isn't going to change anything or make me feel better. (Please note: I'm not advocating putting your head in the proverbial sand in regards to current events but I don't think knowing every.last.detail about every.single.catastrophe is productive or beneficial.)

4) I surround myself with positive people.
This isn't to say that my friends and I ignore current events or never complain about anything. But we try not to snipe or to let conversations deteriorate into negative commentary about our jobs/bodies/relationships/the state of the world. Because why talk about that stuff when there operas to go to and fried green tomatoes to eat?

5) I realize that the world has been going to hell in a hand basket since ever.
My grandparents grew up during The Depression and had to drop out of high school to support their families. My mom grew up with neighbors who built bomb shelters in their backyard. My dad and uncle were in the military during the Vietnam war. All of those things are scary and challenging and fairly horrible. But you know what? All of those people now lead happy, healthy, productive lives. 

Again, this is not to downplay the scary things that are happening in our world today, but scary things have been happening since time immemorial. Lovely, wonderful, amazing things have been happening for that long as well. 

How do you stay positive and optimistic? Leave happy-making links and tips in the comments.

original photo (without text on top) by artnmc, for sale here

11 comments

  1. Great post. Wonderful/Helpful in times like these. It's hard for people to stay positive sometimes, and its great to remind people little ways to do that. Thank you.

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  2. This is oh so necessary for a bundle of anxiety like me. Especially this:

    "I don't think knowing every.last.detail about every.single.catastrophe is productive or beneficial."

    I become consumed with the need to do just that when disaster, large or small, strikes. It's as if I could just read enough, I'd be able to gain some understanding of why? and how? and be able to protect myself in the future. But that's not how life works, is it?

    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. As someone who works in the news business, it's particularly difficult for me to shut out all the awful stuff and just Go To Sleep Already/Enjoy Life/Get Stuff Done. I've been programmed to want to know every.last.detail about every.single.catastrophe. It's what journalists do! And I haven't even been covering the Newtown tragedy... imagine what it must be like for those guys (who are, believe it or not, human).

    The only thing that seemed to quiet my chattering brain was spending a day snowshoeing out in the lovely snowy mountains with no cell reception and therefore no access to my Twitter feed.

    Sometimes you need to withdraw from reality entirely, just for a few hours.

    That way, when you return, you can deal in a calm, rational, productive way instead of just being completely overwhelmed by it all and of no use to anyone.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this! I've had a hard time knowing how to react and what to say in light of the terrible things happening recently, and your words are very helpful. Let's focus on the positive and the things that we can do right- not what the world isn't doing right.

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  5. I do things for others. As it is in dealing with any type of pain, giving back to the community is the surest way to feel better and regain your faith in humanity. This coming year I'm supporting The Portland Kitchen (theportlandkitchen.org) and the Children's Cancer Association (joyrx.org) as a volunteer and it's been not only rewarding to get started on this, but a source of strength as well. We have to focus on the world we are in today and every small thing we do adds up.

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  6. I think turning off the news helps. I hate seeing footage of grieving families and wish their privacy would be respected more.

    I get so tied up about donating money. So much of the money donated does not ever get to the victims so do you give and hope that at least some of it gets to them or try to find other ways to help. I'm never sure.

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  7. Thank you for sharing this post again. So many things have been happening in my personal life and in the greater world that it's so hard to stay strong and remember that it's going to get better. Your point that bad things have always been happening is strangely comforting!

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  8. I really appreciate that you've posted about the tragedy, but just wanted to point out that it's Newtown, not Newton, CT. This could have happened anywhere, but as someone who grew up in one of the nearby towns it saddens me that the Newtown I know for the $2 movies at the town hall and Ferris Acres Creamery (among other things) has been eclipsed by this horrible event. My optimism begins with these memories.

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  9. Perspective. That "birds eye view" is very helpful in acknowledging the horrors of the world without becoming engulfed by them. Like your post said, generations before us have had their own hardships to overcome. I like to remember "Anne Frank's Diary" as a reminder that even in the worst of times, there is good and beauty in this world. Good and bad, yin and yang, all a part of this here life. Thanks for the post, we all needed it.

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  10. I'm not a terribly positive person myself, but your philosophy on staying up to date on the news and mine are similar. Perspective is a powerful thing, thank you for reminding us of that.

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  11. Thank you for this very thoughtful post. Another thing to think about with the Newtown tragedy is the "26 Random Acts of kindness" movement that took off all over the world. We all should do whatever we can to spread the kindness and humanity around us.

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