Sunday, May 20, 2012

How I can be an optimist, despite it all

Over on the Daily Plate of Crazy, Big Little Wolf is having a conversation about how our principles and our pragmatism operate when we're at our worst.  I'm starting to see that principles, attitude, and pragmatism all come together in something that I think gets at the essence of who I wish to be.

 In her comments to me on my prior post, BLW wrote:

I say these things only to make this point: a good attitude is extremely useful (very helpful with our kids), but attitude and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive. Understanding that many of us are at our worst during and after divorce, we can prepare for that if necessary. We can also use that knowledge to understand that it's a painful process, with many tentacles, but pain often comes before healing - even if healing takes considerable time.

This is important thinking for a self-proclaimed optimist of the PollyAnna variety.  There are plenty of people who believe that optimism is for fools, and that it can be dangerous for its lack of pragmatism.  (Perhaps I should revisit Barbara Ehrenreich's book on the subject in another post, for she's covered it in great detail.)  But BLW points out, correctly, that pragmatism must be linked to optimism, and this is when it starts to get exciting.

I'm convinced that to dismiss optimism is to miss the whole point of being alive. I think it matters.  And I think that the best optimism comes with pragmatism, and the two operate hand in hand.

A fool disregards the facts, refuses to look, pretends that there is nothing amiss.  If that fool puts a positive spin on things, people call her an optimist, but at heart, I believe that she's more fool than optimist.  The Secret swept through America a few years back, proclaiming that all we had to do was declare our intentions and life would give us what we asked for; this is the ultimate in foolishness if you ask me.  (Don't even talk to me about how angry I got, reading it as a bald, breastless woman.)

A pragmatist, on the other hand, trudges through things, one foot in front of the other, acknowledging that life is difficult and that there are difficult tasks to do.  Pragmatism itself is not about joy, and so sometimes pragmatism is confused with optimism's opposite, surly negativism, but this is no more accurate to me than calling an optimist a fool.  It's tricky business, though, trying to make pragmatism and optimism meet. 

In divorce, optimists might believe that the future is rosy, that there is a new life waiting to be found.  Pragmatists, on the other hand, have a to-do list that is daunting, and they're too busy trying to figure out if they can pay the mortgage AND keep junior enrolled in piano lessons, and they have to cancel book club because they can't get childcare, and, well, who can blame them for being a bit joyless.

But it can come together.

Optimism, Pragmatism, and Principles

When I gave birth to my daughter, I knew that I wanted that baby more than just about anything, ever.  I had visions of our life together, of motherhood, of all I wanted to give her.  I knew I'd go to the ends of the earth for her, and that doing so was part of my deal with my unborn baby.  I wrote her letters before she was born, promising: "I will do whatever I can to keep you safe."

I didn't have to wait long to get tested as to how far I was really willing to go to protect her.

At the end of my delivery, everything went wrong.  My baby's heartrate dropped in panic inducing ways, and my own blood pressure went sky high into dangerous levels.  Two crash carts were called in, and the room filled with a dozen doctors ready to face the worst.  To say that it was frightening doesn't even touch on how I felt - I was in agonizing pain, and suddenly I understood that my life, and my baby's, were at stake.

 My gynecologist looked at me, and raised her voice to me (the only time she ever did so).  Get this baby out NOW, she commanded.  DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?

Yes, ma'am.  I understand.  If I don't get the baby out, both of us are at risk of dying.  I understand.

My principles laid out, I knew what to do. My principle was clear to me from the onset: do anything to protect my baby.

My principles fed my attitude: my baby was worth whatever it took, and whatever I gave her was from love.  I would give her everything I had to save her, because she was worth it to me.  I would give her anything, including my pain, and maybe my life, with love.

And then pragmatism had to do some work.  As people called, "we're losing them" my gynecologist said, "NOW.  I mean it.  Get this baby out NOW!"  I knew something inside me was wrong, that things were scraping, that my body wasn't "right," but the pragmatist said, "We have to do this.  We will push with all of our might, and when we feel tearing, we will not stop.  We will bear down, and we will force this baby out."

When my daughter was born in the next contraction, her hand was above her head, and she scraped my birth canal; it felt like birthing a cheese grater.  When I tore, I knew I was tearing, and I kept pushing anyway, making the tear worse...but delivering the baby.  It was a physical feat, but more, it was a feat of will and desire.

And it was worth it.  So, so worth it.  Delivery complete, both of us left the danger zone we'd been in.  I had lived by my principles and done my best to protect my baby, taking a pragmatic approach (I was under no illusion as to how ugly it was going to be, but I did it anyway), and in doing so, uncovering the greatest joy I've ever known.

Principles + Pragmatism = Joy

I happen to be very, very, very fond of living with joy.  I'll go out of my way to find joy, to identify it, and to keep it.  And I have learned that if I apply my principles with pragmatism, I'll find joy eventually.....and this keeps me optimistic.  Eventually, if I apply my principles with pragmatism, I'll find joy.  There is reason for optimism!

It's not a secret.  It's not The Secret.  But my optimism is founded in the truth that I Know How To Find Joy.  If I live according to my principles (which requires first, knowing what my principles are, and second, taking a pragmatic approach to living by them), then I will locate joy....and that is why I can be an optimist.  It might not work out entirely the way that I want (I still do involuntary Kegals when I think about my stitches after birth), but there is joy in doing what I believe, and this allows me to approach life with optimism.

So how does all of this apply to divorce?

Divorce is it's own kind of ugly - I don't know how many (metaphorical) stitches I'll need by the time this is over.  I can already feel where I will tear, though.  And this leads me back to the inspiration for this post, BLW's words:

I say these things only to make this point: a good attitude is extremely useful (very helpful with our kids), but attitude and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive. Understanding that many of us are at our worst during and after divorce, we can prepare for that if necessary. We can also use that knowledge to understand that it's a painful process, with many tentacles, but pain often comes before healing - even if healing takes considerable time.

I know what my principles are.  They are:
- honesty to self and others
- compassion to self and others
- protect my daughter
- be a great role model for my daughter
- live the best life I can live
- make the world a better place

I already know that divorce is not my best time.  It's been an ugly road to get here, and I'm not okay yet.  I am operating low on Maslow's heirarchy, even as I fantasize about operating at the top.  And my ex is an angry, depressed person who self-sabotages and acts passive-aggressively and it's hard to have a logical conversation with him because he either shuts down or blows up, and I feel judgemental about him and angry that he put us in this position.  I know I'm in the danger zone for acting like this:

I know lots of people who wouldn't blame me (although the "cheater" label doesn't apply....I don't think....).  Sometimes he behaves badly, and I really want to act the way he does in response.  Who could blame me?

But I won't act like that, because then I couldn't look our daughter in the eye.  I won't act like that because it's not who I want to be.  There are days when I think he deserves it, true, but *I* don't deserve it.  I want to live with joy, and for that, I'm going to have to take the high road.

I have a lot of to-do lists.  We're meeting with the mediator soon.  And I've run the numbers more than I can count (thank you, Excel).  I have plan A: he pays what he ought to; and I have plan B: I get nothing.....and I'm determined to make it work even if it's plan B.  I'm working on keeping the house, but I'm talking to a realtor too.  And I know that whether I get plan A, or plan B, I'm going to try to live my values, and that will give me some joy along the way, even when I feel tearing.

And I've got an ace in the hole.

Childbirth introduced me to pain.  I healed from that pain, and marveled at my body's ability to do so.  But it was nothing.

My real pain looks like 15 surgeries related to breast cancer, several of them with more complications than I can list.  My real pain looks like the doctor telling me that it's 50/50 that I only had a few months left to live (yet here I am, healthy again).  My real pain looks like radiation burns that made my skin crack open and ooze unmentionable things....and it looks like caring for my daughter and my husband yelling at me in the middle of it as I was hunched over from that pain.  My real pain looks like riding a bus to chemo while my husband slept at home.

So, I know a thing or two about pain, and I know that it goes away: either you die and so you don't care any more, or you heal.  I have healed, over and over again.  I know how to heal, and I  know what it looks like.  I know that there can be unheard of complications, but still, eventually, I can heal.

So yes, I'm an optimist.  I believe that I can heal, over and over again, no matter how deep the wound, no matter how terrible the odds.  I'm a pragmatist, because I know how to thank the surgeon for her care, right before she cuts off my breast, and because I know that it doesn't matter how much I hurt, if my little girl needs dinner and nobody else is feeding her, then I need to make dinner.  And I know what I believe in, and who I want to be, so I let that guide my decisions.

Forgiveness falls in there somewhere, in the neighborhood of compassion.  All of the intentions in the world can not control every word that comes out of my mouth; I'm not infalliable, and I wonder what my ex would say if he read this post.  But I can say this with certainty: I try my hardest to do my best, and I apologize if I screw up.  Maybe it's optimistic to think so, but I think that is enough.

So, somehow, this is going to work out.  I will make mistakes along the way - oh, I've made many, including along that cancer path - but I believe in my ability to recover from them.  I will lose my optimism some days, and my pragmatism other days, but it's okay, because I won't lose what I believe in. 

I'm alive, and I'm glad to be alive.

No matter how many tentacles reach out to squeeze me.


How do you hold your sanity when the tentacles of pain grab you?

What tools do you use to live your principles when you're tempted to throw them out?  What's your ace in the hole?

Are you an optimist?  How do you maintain optimism in a world that is often ugly?

I hope to hear from you.


  1. Hi Polyanna, I just found you through Big Little Wolf. This post just hit home in so many ways that I had to comment and tell you. I am newly divorced and grappling with some of the same things you are. It is the worst of times and the best of times. My life has changed completely in the last 2 years as I struggle to be a good mother, be happy as a single person, and somehow survive financially. It's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done but as you say, living with integrity, optimism and pragmatism is the only way to honestly move forward in the face of all of this. I wish you strength and joy. And I look forward to reading all of your posts.

  2. Hello - thank you for your comment. I think it helps immensely to know that we're not alone, and I hope you feel less alone, as do I, for knowing that there is someone out there who gets it. I wish you strength and joy, as well, and look forward to seeing you around here.