Positively half full

Some days I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. On these mornings, my first thoughts generally run along the lines of “I have so much to do today, I’m so tired, can’t I sleep for just ten more minutes, it’s raining out. Again.” As these thoughts flow through my head, dragging my spirit down, I physically propel my body out of bed and into the shower. As the water rains down on me, I try not to let the negativity overwhelm me, resisting the undertow that threatens to engulf me and cast a shadow upon my day.

And then, inevitably, as I walk into my son’s room, listening to his squeals of delight as he talks to his brown and yellow bears, outlining his plans for the day, my spirits begin to lift. As I see his smiling face, radiating an expectation that only positive and good things will happen throughout the day, I am struck by how much our perception shapes our experience.

As a child, my mother tried to be positive. To this day, she thinks that she is a positive influence, emphasizing only the good. And, although she is supportive in terms of the bigger picture items, as an adult, some of my strongest memories are of her petty negativities that permeated our daily routine.

When I asked my brother if this was also his experience, he started to laugh. In response to my question, he reminds me of the times when my mother would inevitably pick the wrong line up in the supermarket and, as other shoppers in longer lines would be rung through first, begin to tap her foot in annoyance and complain under her breath, making the extra minutes not only feel longer but leaving a sour aftertaste our mouths that would bleed into our next activity.

And then I realized how much this all-pervasive negativity had become my own default mindset, occurring as if by generational osmosis. As a parent, I find myself in constant battle between the now innate negativity that I have absorbed and the parent that I want to be – positive, nurturing, and ever-hopeful.

Looking at my son, I see a clean slate. In his world, only the good exists. Snow coming down in white silver wet sheets is as fantastic as melting ice cream dribbling down his chin on a sunny summer afternoon. The world is new to him, unmarred by the scars of experience, each moment savored for its unexpected novelty and beauty.

And I know that if I can keep his rose colored glasses somewhat intact, he will always operate from a better vantage point. Since the ability to take pleasure in the world’s tiniest joys, from the gleam of a shiny green apple against a smooth slate brown plate to the warmth that a stranger’s smile generates, can make or break your day, having a constant perspective of the cup being half full means that the world seems infinitely more hopeful, with endless possibilities for delight around each and every corner. And, it is this expectation that often allows us to see the beauty that is otherwise hidden beneath life’s mundanity while allowing us to be open to its unlimited opportunities.

The body vs. intangibles

I recently dated a ‘beautiful’ man. At first, it was a pleasure. Looking at him and taking in the contours of his form while exploring the hard but defined hills and valleys of his physique filled me with delight. But, as I began to notice that this pleasure was uniquely one-sided, my own joy in the physical and visual quickly diminished.

When I looked at the dynamics of our relationship, I realized that his behavior was not personal. His mother repeatedly extolled his virtues, stating “my son, the hunk… he could have any woman he wants, you know.” And it was obvious that he had absorbed this message wholeheartedly, coming to believe his own press.

Thinking about this, a memory from when I was fourteen came to mind. At the time, I was friends with two sisters, both of whom were older than me. The eldest, at nineteen, was undeniably beautiful – tall, sleek, with long dark curly hair and blue eyes so large that you had to almost pull yourself away. The younger was her sister’s physical opposite – short, chubby, with a square face that lacked in delicacy. But, she had something more: a warmth and vitality that pulled you in, making you feel loved and safe while creating a haven from which it was hard to escape. And, when you did, you wanted to fight to get back inside the strength of her energy.

One night, sitting around her mother’s kitchen table, we were talking about the bikini commercial the older sister was going to be shooting in the coming week. As the discussion took place, I noticed that their mother was supportive but not ecstatic about her daughter’s endeavor.

When I asked her why she didn’t seem more thrilled, she told me that although she thought that it was great that her daughter was able to make some money by making a commercial or two, she didn’t want her girls to think that the only thing important about them is the shell in which they are encased. And, to this day, her answer sticks with me. “My girls are so much more than their bodies. I want them to value themselves and others for their skills, talents, and intrinsic worth, not for what they were born into, have no control over, and will eventually decay.”

Looking at the man I dated, I realized that he was an extreme example of what my friends’ mom had feared her daughters were in danger of becoming: he had valued his outer shell so deeply and had this belief reinforced for so long that he had forgotten that he had other, more important attributes on offer. As a result, he had lost the ability to develop his talents and appreciate another for their intangible qualities.

As a parent, when people comment on my son’s good looks I quickly thank them for the compliment. But, for myself, my son, and those close to us, I find myself consciously trying to emphasize the value of his happy personality, generous nature, and multiple aptitudes. Although I believe that it is important for him to carry into the world a comfort and confidence in his body, ultimately I believe a stronger confidence in the value of the intangibles that make him him and his ability to develop these is what will allow him to develop a strong sense of sense, value himself and others, create deep relational ties, and keep him away from the danger of being immeasurable potential that remains unrealized.

Happiness

For years, I was involved in a bad relationship. It’s not that the man I was involved with was a bad person or ill intentioned. In fact, he had a lot of great qualities. Nevertheless, being with him felt off, a slight but constant irritant that eventually became an abrasion as if sandpaper were rubbing against my soul.

Once we parted ways, I realized that not only had I become the worst version of myself, but I had started to protect myself against his fear and negativity by putting up walls that eventually turned into fortresses against which nothing could permeate. For a long time, nothing touched me – not pain, not pleasure. It was as if I existed in an emotional wasteland where reactions beyond a narrow range were frozen in ice – I could see the emotions in others, and even identify them by name but could no longer feel them myself.

As I emerged from my turtle’s shell, it was as if I were watching the icy barrier around the world slowly thaw and the innate beauty of my surroundings come back to life as they shimmered with vibrant colors, textures, and emotions. And while I often found myself tearful or veclempt for no obvious reason other than something mundane touching my heart or a feeling of general gratitude overwhelming me, one day I woke up to the sure knowledge that I was happy. The world was once again a sparkling and welcoming place in which I could dance.

Reflecting on the notion of happiness, I realized that happiness is not about always having a smile on your face, being positive, or even laughing with joy. Instead, happiness is a more encompassing state defined by being fully present in each moment, open and vulnerable to whatever arises without judgment, withdrawal or self-condemnation. Ultimately, happiness is the acceptance of what is and the freedom to feel any and all emotion that arises while holding the intention to feel good high in your heart. For it is in the fullest experience of emotions coupled with complete acceptance of what is that the richness of the universe presents itself, the miracle of life can be felt, and you can take the next step on your journey with grace and ease.

As a parent, what I hope to pass on to my son is the knowledge that while no one can make him happy, surrounding himself on an ongoing basis with those who have a negative perspective or who operate from a place of fear can whitewash the color from his life and lower his own vibrations. By nurturing the seeds from which happiness can thrive I hope to help him develop a nature that is positive in orientation and open to the richness and complexity that a full life provides so that when encountering adversity or negativity, instead of buckling inwards, he can hold true to his innate self, retain his vulnerability, and remember to surrender to and rely on his own happy nature.

Humor

I come from a family of talkers. As a close friend of mine often reminds me, it’s no wonder that my son is so verbal – he has to be in order to get a word in edgewise. We talk about what we’re doing, what we’ve done, what’s happening in the world at large, our dreams and secret fantasies. For us, it’s our primary means of connection.

As a kid, we did the usual things a family does – picnics, camping, exploring the city, playing at home, and taking road trips into the unknown. Although these events blur into one another in my memories, creating a canvass of a seemingly ordinary life, what stands out in my mind are the running jokes we used to create.

From the silent Mr. Strange who was our ever-present and unpredictable companion on our long road trips across the country to the delightfully erratic and fickle characters my father would introduce into our bedtime stories, humor was the currency that united us. And so, now, although we don’t always see eye to eye on all matters, sometimes disagreeing on the way in which we want to live while having to renegotiate the boundaries and roles that we will play in each others lives, I know that no matter how serious the atmosphere gets or how hurt someone feels, a perfectly aimed humorous comment can remind us all of the deeper connections that we share, reuniting us into the loving entity that we are.

For myself, I’ve also found that this ability to notice the lighter side in life has helped me to see the humor in the direst of circumstance, even if hidden under a dark and dreary rock, ultimately enabling me to cope with situations that initially make me feel like curling up in bed and covering myself up with blankets until the year is done. And, it’s these stories, carefully woven of joy and pain, that have created the landscape of my existence, allowing me to see blessings that are initially disguised, fostering forgiveness for perceived transgressions, and helping me to create closer bonds with those I love.

As a parent, I take my cue from my father who, accompanying me on an early expedition in my parenting career in which my six week old son developed an acute case of road rage anytime the car fell below twenty kilometers an hour causing me to near a level of nuclear exasperation, decided to write a verbal letter of complaint to the mayor from the future pint size citizen sitting in the back seat about the decidedly unnecessary extensive roadway construction. As he infused the monologue with humor, my mood lifted and I was once again able to view my son’s unhappiness with compassion and tenderness for the pain he was feeling but incapable of articulating.

And so, as our days drift by in a haze of similarity, I try not to engage in battles over the little things, using humor to get my son and I to the end point that I think we need. And, in the telling of ridiculous stories that I make up to get my son to see the reason in my requests and the in-jokes that I try to make, my hope is that as he grows up, not only will he be able to see the humor in most situations while dealing, gracefully or not, with the obstacles he encounters, but that humor will become an intrinsic component of his internal topography, weaving a magical spell that he can speak at will, lightening his load while enriching his daily experiences.

Self-esteem

This week I watched a documentary about the history of a certain institution in BC that took care of developmentally disabled people. Although watching this type of video is quite routine in my line of work, this one was particularly poignant, striking my heart and staying with me ever since. The story followed a young man who was severely disabled. At the time of his birth in the 1960s, his parents were told that he would never walk, never talk, never be able to do basic human functions beyond that of a baby and that, in fact, he would die before the age of five.

By the time he was a teenager, his parents were ecstatic that he had survived beyond their expectations but they still treated him like a baby – feeding him, carrying him, toileting him as if he were an infant. And then, one day, as his mother carried him back to the institution one of the nurses stopped her saying “you can’t carry him, he’s just too heavy for you” and showed her how to help him walk by placing him behind her so that he could hold on and mimic her steps.

Although it was a slow and painful process, the moment was a defining one: her expectations of what her son was capable of exploded to encompass the unimaginable. She then set out to teach him the “impossible”.

By the time he was a young adult, not only was he able to feed and toilet himself, he was living on his own with a reduced level of care. He never did learn to walk on his own, though, since his mind, if not his body, was already imprisoned by the earlier often articulated expectations.

Reflecting on this, I think about how expectations have shaped my own life and perceptions of who I am and what I’m capable of. Since as far back as I can remember, I always believed that I could do whatever I set out to do, and accomplish any goal that I dared to dream. From the beginning, this was the message that I was given by my parents and everyone else who loved me, and it has fundamentally shaped the way in which my life has unfolded, helping me to take risks and achieve successes that many along the way told me were impossible.

Equally true, however, is the fact that as a child I was often given the message that I was difficult to love, requiring extra effort on the part of those who did love me. As an adult entering relationships, this expectation had already entrenched itself into my unconsciousness, making me desirous of finding love but partially disbelieving of the possibility of it for myself. And so, when I met my ex-husband, I fell into his arms, not so much because I loved him but because he appeared to love and want me as I was. In the end, although the relationship broke, what had healed in me was the deep-rooted belief that I should accept anyone who was willing to love me but was less than I needed and deserved. In essence, I had finally developed a sense of self-
esteem that allowed me to value myself as I am.

As I try to untangle how all of this fits together, I realize that as a parent, one of the greatest gifts that I can give my son is a strong sense of self-confidence so that he can dare to dream big, take chances, and go against the odds, with the expectation that he can achieve whatever he sets his sights on without fearing the risk of failure. And, on the flip side, to set the expectation in him that he is someone of worth, who deserves to be treated well and loved for the less than perfect person that he is, so that he surrounds himself with people who will bring out the best in him, reinforcing his best qualities while allowing him to accept his weaknesses with grace, flair, and affection. For, ultimately, it is these intertwined parts of self-perception that will create the foundation by which he sets his own expectations of who his is, what he is capable of and worth, and the measure of happiness and success that he will achieve throughout his life.