It’s taken me more than a week to get my words onto paper, as I’ve been contemplating the mass murders that have recently occurred in our country. Psychologists and politicians alike are trying to understand the motives, if any, behind the perpetrator in Las Vegas, as well as others who inflict senseless violence onto innocent people.
In my own community, there has been a serious energy shift this past week. My sense is that the Las Vegas event touched many us at a more profound level than we even realize. People are either feeling a need to come together to foster a sense of community, or they’re retreating into reflective states. Whether pondering the nature of fear or wondering who we can and cannot trust, many issues have come to the surface.
Personally, I’ve noticed a shift in myself. First, I felt anger, which shifted into a need for activism, and now I’m feeling more contemplative, wondering what everything that’s happened means for myself and all the rest of us. A Holocaust survivor, my father taught me many wise lessons, two of the most important ones being not to live in fear and to maintain a positive attitude. He believed that fear and negativity are roadblocks to leading a fulfilling and blissful life.
In the wake of random and senseless violence, it takes a great deal of effort to remain positive, but like anything else, we need to be mindful of the events that transpire but not allow them to overshadow our lives.
In his writings about how to enjoy life, Thich Nhat Hanh (2017) says that ease and joy are elements of enlightenment. He also teaches that sometimes our tendency is to lose ourselves in and become overwhelmed by, strong emotions such as fear. When this occurs, we become victims and slaves to our emotions and may find it difficult to go on with our ordinary lives. He suggests that in order to avoid this state of anger and fear, we should try to breathe and retain our sense of calm. When we’re less afraid, we can more easily focus on all our blessings, which can lead to more positivity.
He also says that we each have positive seeds inside of us, and sometimes they lie deep within our consciousness. “Those we water are the ones that sprout, come up into our awareness, and manifest outwardly” (p. 15). If we tend to let negativity and our past pains take over, then we will be wallowing in our sorrows, which isn’t healthy. If we find this happening, he suggests inviting a seed of positivity into our lives, which usually includes a dose of compassion. Practicing compassion leads to positive thinking. In essence, this doesn’t mean that we ignore or aren’t mindful of our suffering, but it does mean that we let positive emotions take precedence over the negative ones.
Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind (2011) is an interesting read. Through his research, he shows that unlike the belief of behaviorists who say we’re created by our environment, the way we think is really what matters. In fact, by thinking optimistically, we can change things for the better. Conversely, by thinking pessimistically, we can change things for the worse.
Seligman shares a test in his book that can help you figure out your own style of thinking. There are three particular aspects to measure:
- Permanence: If things are good (or bad), do you expect them to stay like that for a long time?
- Pervasiveness: If one thing is good (or bad), do you expect everything else to be like that?
- Personalization: If things are good (or bad), who gets the credit (or blame) — you or somebody else?
When it comes to pessimism, I’ve concluded that creative individuals, particularly writers, are typically very hard on themselves and their creative processes. They often err on the side of pessimism, thinking their work isn’t good enough and will be rejected by agents, editors, and publishers. The positive side is that those who are in negative frames of mind tend to be more alert to their surroundings, compared with those who are in positive states of mind.
In summary, it might be a good idea to simply find a good balance between the optimistic and pessimistic states of mind and always try to be in the moment. Here’s a poem — and a nice reminder from Thich Nhat Hanh:
I am becoming calm,
I am letting go.
Having let go, victory is mine.
I am free.
— from You Are Here (2010, p. 76)