Tag Archives: Positive Thinking

There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.

Live as You Dream

30 Oct

Central Park. Photo by DMT

I’m keeping my New York City dreams alive.

In part two of my “Optimism 101” course, I’d like to offer a list of movies and videos I frequently watch in order to remind myself to keep dreaming and, maybe even more importantly, to keep believing in my dreams.

These movies and videos inspire me for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that each one of them gives me faith.  None of the “heroes” in these digital motivators is perfect.  In fact, that’s precisely what I love about them.  Infallible heroes are not interesting or inspiring, what’s inspiring, to me, is the idea that the challenges presented by human frailty are used to shape spirit and mold character.  I love the flaws, and I love those who can get knocked down over and over, and yet continue to rise.  I love the heroes who have faith in their convictions, but who also aren’t afraid to admit when they’re wrong and change direction.

Oh, and I’m a sucker for great quotable lines.

Optimism 101 Movie List

1. Peaceful Warrior [2006] – This movie is based on the real life story of Dan Millman, a former UC Berkeley gymnast who underwent a personal transformation after a terrible accident and later founded The Peaceful Warrior’s Way, a self-help motivational teaching movement designed to help people empower themselves.  The movie is a cross between a drama and a philosophical life lesson, and it does an incredibly good job of driving that lesson home through the lessons that Dan learns when he meets a gas station attendant, Socrates [convincingly played by Nick Nolte]. My favorite lines in the movie are “Take out the trash. The trash is anything that keeps you from focusing on the only thing that matters – this moment.  And when you’re truly in the present, you’ll be surprised at what you can do, and how well you can do it.”

2. Interstate 60: Tales of the Road [2003] – This movie is a hilarious trip down the fabled “Interstate 60” as Neil searches for answers to his life’s purpose after meeting the elusive O.W. Grant [Gary Oldmam].  Neil’s lesson is about how to let go of the need to look to others for answers and to trust what he knows is right for him.  One of the best scenes in the film is when Neil takes a woman to the town of Banton to look for her missing son, and ends up in the office of the local sheriff [Kurt Russell].  There he learns an important lesson about the ways in which trading individuality for the perception of happiness is an incredibly dangerous choice.  My favorite line is uttered by Bob Cody [Chris Cooper] who tells Neil, “Say what you mean, mean what you say. You know that if everybody follow that rule, there’d be a lot less trouble.”

3. Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address – This video makes me simultaneously cry and cheer when I watch it.  Jobs reminds the audience of newly minted graduates that they should “follow their bliss” and do what they truly love.  It is very simply the best reminder that while circumstances and events in your life are not within your control, your choice to see them as obstacles or life lessons is.  My favorite lines are after Jobs explains that Macs have such beautiful fonts because he dropped out of college. He says, “Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

4. Tombstone [1993] – I love this movie because it is about loyalty, friendship, love, and the strength of believing in one’s convictions.  Wyatt Earp [Kurt Russell] follows his conscience – and his heart – and does what he believes is the right thing to do, knowing that it might very well cost him his life.  The friendship between Wyatt and Doc [Val Kilmer] is an amazing thing to behold, and is the source of my favorite quote.  On his deathbed, Doc tells a conflicted Wyatt, “There is no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life, and you live it.”

5. Simon Sinek – How Great Leaders Inspire Action [2010] – This talk is based on Sinek’s book Start With Why.  In it, Sinek discusses “The Golden Circle,” the basis for his theory on why great leaders and corporations inspire action and loyalty.  My favorite line is Sinek’s thesis, “People don’t by what you do, they buy why you do it.”

6. Freedom on My Mind [1994] – This California Newsreel documentary about the struggle to gain voting rights in Mississippi in the 1960s should be required viewing for every American.  The film goes to the heart of the movement and combines actual footage shot during the Mississippi Freedom Rides with 1990s interviews with the people who were involved in the rides and in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  I love this film because it illustrates the enormous complexities that were involved with the struggle without trying to provide a monolithic narrative.  My favorite line is from Endesha Mae Holland who, at the time, was viewed by the town as a teenage girl with no morals.  She recalls, “The whole town looked down it’s nose at me, but the movement told me I was somebody.  They said I was somebody.”

7. A Man Named Pearl [2006] – In 1976, Pearl Fryar was s a black factory worker who bought a house in an all-white Bellville, South Carolina neighborhood.  When the real estate agent informed the residents of the neighborhood that a black family would be moving in, they were upset because “Black people don’t keep up their yards.”  As a result, Mr. Fryar, who had no artistic or horticultural experience, created a yard that is now considered a topiary masterpiece in both the art and horticultural worlds.  My favorite line comes from an interview with the Reverend of Mr. Fryar’s church.  When people ask him how an old man can do what Mr. Fryar does [he was in his 50s when he started the garden], the Reverend says, “Sometimes blessings come early and sometimes blessings come late, but they are always right on time.”

8. Braveheart [1995] – The epic story of the fight for Scotland’s freedom, William Wallace is one of the best heroes on film.  He loves his country, his friends, his family and his late wife, and while he isn’t perfect in any way, he is deeply committed to doing the right thing to the end.  There’s a tie for my favorite lines in this film, it’s either “Every man dies, but not every man lives.” or “In the year of our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom.” The last one leaves me sobbing every time.

These are a few of the films that give me hope, and allow me to keep my faith alive.  If you’d like to share the movies or videos that lift your spirits and help you keep your faith in your own dreams, please do.

I’m always looking for new inspiration — and my students would probably appreciate it if I’d add some new quotes to my repertoire.

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Live Like We’re Dying

26 Oct

Photo by DMT

I am a sliver lining kind of woman.

No matter how awful things seem at any given time, I always seem to be able to find the good side of any situation.

A few weeks ago, J. asked me how I maintain my fairly consistent positive outlook on life.  I had to think about it for a while because I had no clear cut answer for her.  Some days, I’m not really sure how I do it [many of my students might suggest it’s the result of watching the film Peaceful Warrior twenty-five times], and some days I’m not very successful at it.  I thought about her question for a few days, and took a close look at what things contribute to my ability to maintain an optimistic attitude, and I’ve come up with a few lists of things that help me.

For the next few posts, I’d like to offer up these lists and ask those of you who read, to contribute whatever it is that helps you maintain an optimistic outlook on life.

I’d like to say from the outset that these are the things that have worked for me – your mileage will vary – so take what you can use and set the rest aside.  Trust your instincts and do what feels right for you, but keep an open mind and remember that what doesn’t work today, might work tomorrow or next week or next year.

Optimism 101- Mary’s Reading List

1. Simple Abundance – Sarah ban Breathnatch — I’ve read this book of daily meditations for women for the past four years.  Some of what she writes is unrelated to anything in my life, but a lot of her short essays hit at the heart of something I’m struggling with, and I’m finding that with this latest reading, the essays are like old friends that I love, but haven’t seen in a while – familiar and comforting, but new again.  [Lest you think I’m a goody-two-shoes, on my earnest days, I jump in ready to believe, but on my cynical days, I roll my eyes and wonder who in the world could be this optimistic.  That usually makes me laugh at myself].

2. Choosing Happiness – Stephanie Dowrick — This book is made up of short readings about how to develop, cultivate and maintain happiness.  It is full of helpful offerings that are designed to give the reader a way to envision their life in a more positive way, and then to follow through to reflect that outlook.  I frequently turn to this book when I am experiencing a difficulty that causes me to revert back to unproductive [read: negative] behaviors.

3. A Girl Named Zippy – Haven Kimmell — Forget the fact that Kimmel is the author of my all-time favorite book, The Solace of Leaving Early, Zippy is quite possibly the single funniest memoir I’ve ever read.  Seriously, how could you not love Zippy’s mother? She tells Zippy that instead of being birthed at a hospital, she’d been acquired in a fair-ground trade with wandering gypsies in exchange for a special purse. As Zippy is taking in this information her mother throws in an “oh by the way” comment that Zippy had been born with a tail, which they’d had removed so she could wear pants.  When I need a laugh-out-loud read, I reach for this book.

4. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand — This might seem like an odd choice for me since Rand’s book basically extols the virtues of unchecked capitalism, but I read this book with D. last summer and I loved it.  I read it less as a treatise on how to get rid of socialism, and more as a psychological drama about how individuals wrestle with making decisions about what they “should” do and what they want to do.  I loved Dagny Taggert because she was a strong woman who wanted to do what was right for herself, her company, and her dream – and none of her decisions were easy.  I liked the book even more after a new biography about Rand revealed that she violated the ideals she’d written about in Atlas in order to get the book published.  Breaking rules in pursuit of a dream makes me cheer!

5. Stone Butch Blues – Leslie Feinberg — If I could make this required reading for every individual in the world, I would.  A novel based on Feinberg’s real-life experiences being gay and transgender in Buffalo, New York during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this book breaks down the ways in which homophobia is insidiously woven into the fabric of every aspect of our lives.  And yet, even in the most horrendous experiences, Feinberg manages to hold onto the thread of human dignity and the power of friendship and kindness.  If you can walk away from this book unaffected, then you need to find the Emerald City and ask the Wizard of Oz for a heart.

6. Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live – Martha Beck — This book took me a long time to read because it was frightening to have someone who has never met me, seem to know me so well.  Dr. Beck is a well know life coach who has written numerous books and also writes a monthly column for Oprah Magazine.  I love her writing because she is forthright, but understanding and kind.  This book helped me understand what it would take to actually live the life I love, and love the life I live.

7. Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters – Dr. Phil McGraw — I love this book because it is a no-nonsense, in-your-face, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee kind of book.  When someone recommended this book to me, I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, the person recommending it said “I know, I think he’s hokey too, but give this book a chance!”  I’m glad I did.  Dr. Phil’s ten Life Laws are probably the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read, and I love his unsentimental approach.  He recognizes the difficulties we all face, but ultimately says “Man up, and do something about it.”

8. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith — Actually, I own the entire series of the Mma. Ramotswe mysteries, and I love every book in the series.  Mma Ramotswe is a wonderful, beautiful, and resourceful character who is absolutely human.  I love her acknowledgment of the ways in which all of the pieces fit together – of a mystery or a community.  She radiates love, and as a result, I love her, too.

9.  A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose – Eckhart Tolle – This book surprised me when I read it because I was expecting to cast it aside after a chapter or two.  I thought Tolle’s combination of philosophy and spirituality would be far too over the top for a pragmatic dreamer.  I was wrong.  What I found when I read this book was that I was fully engrossed in what Tolle was explaining, and I actually ended up reading the entire book in a weekend because I couldn’t put it down.  What resonated the most for me, at the time, was Tolle’s explanation of how the ego drives negative action through fear.  Critics argue that Tolle’s discussion is nothing new, but it was a new way for me to understand my own life, and I appreciated it.

10. The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor – This is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.  Naylor captures the spirit of a community of women in a way that no other author ever has.  This book is uplifting and heartbreaking.  It underscores the courage and dogged determination of the women who live in Brewster Place, and the writing is absolutely breathtaking.

I know this seems like an odd mishmash of reading materials – it is.  It is in no way comprehensive [as if any list ever could be].  This list simply represents books that have been useful to me as I’ve searched for answers to my millions of questions.  And after reading these books, I find that not only do I not have any definitive answers, I have actually come up with more questions.

Read it Again Books, my local used bookstore, and Amazon.com love me.

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Don’t Stop Believin’

13 Oct

 

 

Slide by MAG, Photo by DMT

 

Changes are afoot!

It’s been a while since I posted anything, but as I reminded students all last term, “One thing at a time.”

My journey continues as I find myself taking a second job in order to help build my New York City fund.  That’s not the only reason I am taking this second job, but it’s a big part of the reason why I can dig down deep and find the will to work more.  I’m also excited about the opportunities this new job might open up, and even if it doesn’t end up being a direct stepping stone, it will be something I enjoy doing.  Or at the very least, something I learn from!

During my blogging hiatus I thought a lot about what it is I need in order to shape my life into something I really love, and last week I think I came up with some basic answers.  I was inspired to do so because, a few weeks ago, the head of the Academic Advising center where I teach asked me to give the key note address at our Honor’s Brunch.  So, last Friday I showed up with a Power Point presentation for a talk entitled “Success: How to Achieve and Maintain It.”

Those who know me would probably be surprised to know that I was scared to give the speech.  Why?  Because I don’t know that I know what success is, and because I was afraid of embarrassing my students in front of their guests if I didn’t know.  I need not have worried so much.

I explained to the audience that I think success is about the combination of attitude and action.  The three factors that I see as most important to achieving and maintaining success are: dreaming, trusting, and choosing.

 

Slide by MAG, Photo by DMT

 

This blog contributed to my first point – we need to give ourselves permission to dream big, we need to plan, and we need to adjust.  It always amazes me how inflexible people become when they don’t get exactly what they want, but then for a large part of my life, I’ve been one of those people.  It wasn’t until I realized that the branches on a tree that survive the storm, are the ones that bend and sway when the storm hits.  The ones that lack flexibility are the ones that crack and come crashing to the ground only to wind up in the wood chipper.

Motivational or depressing?  You make the call.

The second point I made was that we need to learn to trust.  Mainly, we need to learn to trust ourselves, and this is a constant struggle – for me, anyway.

 

Slide by MAG, Photo by DMT

 

D. once told me that the key to happiness is to “…do what you want to do, and don’t do what you don’t want to do.”  The first time he said this to me, I got defensive because it sounds like such a selfish life philosophy.  There are many things I don’t want to do, but are necessary if I want to live within civil society!  Over the past year, I’ve done some very deep soul searching about this, though, and I’ve realized that he’s right.

Everything I want to do is what makes me happy, and everything I don’t want to do ends up undermining my confidence in myself and leaving me feeling unhappy.  I may not love the administrative work related to teaching [recording grades, filling out forms, or attending meetings], but I love reading my students work, seeing evidence of their successes, and feeling like I’ve contributed to making our school a better place in which to get an education.  So, when I really think about it, I am always doing what I want to do – even when I think I’d rather be doing something else.

I think the key to trusting oneself is to follow your heart.  When you are doing what is right for you – you know it.  You feel it.

However, in order to be able to trust yourself, you also have to build a network of people who are willing to give you unwavering support, honest feedback, and the gift of truth — even when it hurts a little.  And you have to be able to trust that those people are the ones whose investment in you is in helping you find a way to express your authentic self and live a life that makes you happy.  However, you also have to realize that each individual has their own wants, needs, hopes and fears, and that sometimes even the best intentions of the people you trust will conflict with what you feel is right for you. That’s when you have to trust yourself.

As I told my audience, “You need to know that everything that has to do with your life – who you are, how you behave, what you believe and feel – is all about you, and everything that is outside of “you” has absolutely nothing to do with you.”  It’s a hard lesson to learn.  Believe me.  I know.

 

Slide by MAG, Photo by Sandra Arundini

 

The third point I made was that life is all about choosing.  Many people argue that emotions are not things that can be controlled, and on some basic level they are right.  It’s  not the emotion that can be controlled, it’s the choices about how to express those emotions that are absolutely within our control. Every single reaction, emotion, and response to every situation in our lives is about choice.

We shape our own reality.

A few terms ago, I had a student in one of my classes who was my resident skeptic.  She didn’t believe a lot of what I was teaching because it didn’t fit her view of the world, and I recognized that it was partly because she needed her views in order to fortify her own well-developed defenses.  What was interesting to me was that she never missed a class, failed to complete an assignment or hesitated to participate in a discussion.  She just needed to find her own way and all I could do was supply the information she’d need to make her own choices.

On the last day of class, I asked the students to write an honest review of the class, the materials, and the teaching methods.  I explained that since I had been evaluating them all term, it was only fair that they have the opportunity to evaluate me.  This is a difficult exercise for a lot of people because we are taught to say what we think we should say rather than what we really think. Students, in particular, don’t want to say anything critical because they recognize that they are not in positions of power, and critical comments could adversely affect their grade.  However, one of my basic beliefs is that honest feedback should always be welcomed because it’s the only way we ever learn anything.  As a result, I try and model the kind of behavior that instills trust – and then teach students diplomatic ways of expressing their truths.

My skeptic hemmed and hawed about writing the review and proclaimed, several times, “I just can’t write it, Ms. G!”  I assured her that I had no doubt that she could write it, but that she was choosing not to.  I finally reminded her that if she chose not to complete the assignment, the consequence would be that she’d lose the points.  After about 30 minutes of protesting, she got down to some serious writing.  Her responses about the class and the materials were helpful, but it was her response to the teaching methods that was fascinating.

She complimented me for directing the class and maintaining a stable, peaceful environment in the classroom, and then she added, “What probably needs improvement is her perception of reality (I guess).  She has her own opinion and she needs to be more open to the real world.  I think she lives in her own little optimistic, chirpy bubble.”

I stared at the paper for a few seconds, and then I started laughing out loud – at myself! She was right, I do choose optimism!  I choose to see the good in people and situations, I try to be understanding of human frailties, and I try to be kind whenever I can – we’re all fighting a hard battle. I recognize that this can be frustrating and annoying to those who choose to see the glass as half empty because it conflicts with their protective mechanisms.  I explained to the audience that I could see how many instructors might view this kind of statement from a student as overly critical, and they would act defensively, and that I understand why they would.  However, I chose to see my skeptic’s assessment as an indication of the trust she had placed in me – she trusted that she could tell me what she really thought, and that I would read it with an open mind and understand.

I did.  Whether or not she intended it to, it took my breath away.

To sum up my talk, I put up a slide that contained the words to a poem that is commonly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but was actually written by a woman named Bessie Stanley.  The poem is called “Success.”

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of
false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden
patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

We all have the potential to be successful.  We just have to have the courage of our convictions and do what makes us happy — the rest will follow naturally.

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