I came across this beautiful Facebook post by Elizabeth Gilbert recently, in which she shares that our souls have two ways of communicating with us about what they are on the earth to do… they communicate through joy (the easy way) or by being appalled (the hard way). As I reflected on what she shared, I wondered if there’s a third way. I think my soul communicates with me through yearning. Yearning to find ways to have a positive impact.
Your brain is a highly accomplished normalisation engine.
What do I mean by that?
Anything that happens frequently loses it’s novelty and we start to think of it as ‘normal’.
I’m interested in how the news affects us, and how a culture of ‘not good enough’ affects us, and how settling for ‘as good as it gets’ affects us. And importantly what is the cumulative effect of that on society as a whole?
In short, I’m curious about how a small number of people can remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of a world that conspires to show us the darkest and most painful sides of our humanity with alarming regularity.
More importantly, I’m curious about what we could all learn from people who can do this consistently.
Our love/hate relationship with novelty
Our brains are biologically designed to ‘get used to things’ that happen a lot. Have you ever noticed you leave work for your commute home and suddenly you’re in your driveway with no memory of the intervening journey?
No, you haven’t discovered teleportation, your brain is just “blah, blah, seen it all before, blah, blah, ooh – squirrel!”
So our brains become very good at tuning out ‘sameness’. Because generally sameness carries no risk. We know it. We can predict what will happen…
Which sounds kind of useful, right?
Except that all sorts of things can be normalised. People experiencing violence at the hand of their intimate partner normalise their experiences so that it no longer shocks them. People living in war-torn countries find their ability to be shocked diminishes. People living in extreme poverty can become blinded to what surrounds them. And there is probably some protection afforded to your soul when you do this. Living in a constant state of surprise and shock is not particularly healthy.
But normalising isn’t healthy if it prevents you from taking action and creating change.
Change on the other hand, is something most people’s brains aren’t particularly fond of. Change – or novelty – carries unknown risks. It could be a tiger rustling in the bushes – not just the wind.
Unfortunately, our brains tend to have a stress-like response to novelty – an amygdala hijack as it is affectionately known – that triggers our fight or flight reflexes before we have a chance to evaluate the situation.
Now you can see why this might have been an excellent protection mechanism in earlier stages of human evolution, when fear of predators, or fear of eating something poisonous, all had very real life-or-death consequences.
But in the modern day we live in, this biological quirk also means we fear change that could greatly benefit us. Leaving an abusive relationship might mean we’re alone and no-one will love us, or we can’t afford to feed our kids, even if it ends the abuse.
Yet I think that most of us know that without some ‘ups’ and ‘downs’, life can get a little dull.
Normalising our experiences''Crazy-busy' is a great armor, it's a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we're feeling and what we really need can't catch up with us.' ~ Brené BrownClick To Tweet
In today’s modern world we are bombarding with ‘stuff’ all day. In our social media feeds, during our commute, throughout our work day, and on the news – however we consume it. There are bad things in the world. Things that we should be shocked by, or appalled by, or devastated by. But the trouble is that we see it so often we become numbed to it. We become immune. So the news editors and marketers have to find new ways to shock us in order to break through the noise. ‘Click bait’.
In many respects, this ‘normalising’ is a protection mechanism. If you and I became overwhelmingly upset every time there was a fatal car accident on the news, we’d never function in the society we’ve built.
By the same token though, I’m not very comfortable that we are conditioned to see a report about a toddler being killed by his or her own parents and think “oh dear, but there’s nothing I could do” or marginally better, change the channel/scroll down to avoid feeling upset…
So on the one hand, this mental normalising is a protection mechanism… but on the other it prevents us from being appalled enough to take action. To do something.
And sure, I know that some of the problems in the world are big – they might seem huge and overwhelming – but all problems throughout history seemed that way until somebody fixed them… that’s been the pattern since the beginning of humanity. Someone needs to fight off the numbness and decide to do something.
Finding light – embracing joy… and being appalled'If there is dissatisfaction with the status quo, good. If there is ferment, so much the better. If there is restlessness, I am pleased. Then let there be ideas, and hard thought, and hard work. If man feels small, let man make himself bigger.' ~ Hubert H. HumphreyClick To Tweet
Optimists, pessimists and realists all get a bit of a bad rap (mostly from all the others).
Unrealistic, Polly-anna, doom and gloom, Eeyore. But that’s not how we make the world a better place. It’s easy to go around pointing out why everyone else is wrong, and the terms themselves are a bit impotent. They’ve been interpreted and reinterpreted so that they mean different things to different people.
Optimism isn’t simply ‘thinking positive thoughts’. An argument has emerged that optimists deny reality and can’t cope with the eventually bad circumstances that come their way, but this denies the many ways that optimists find positive ways to cope with negative experiences, and choose to look for opportunities even in their darkest days.
Pessimism isn’t simply ‘assuming the worst’. It means recognising that things can turn out badly, and do – more often than not. But more than that, pessimism is often a shield – a desire to be mentally and emotionally prepared for the inevitable disappointments that occur throughout life.
To me, both terms have become slightly derogatory and superficial.
Instead, I prefer complacency and activism.
Complacency is accepting the status quo and assuming it can’t be changed (or worse, doesn’t need to be).
Activism is being prepared to act. To not accept the current state is as good as it gets. To get up and to try and figure out what to do about it.
Which are you?
Are you finding light or cowering in the darkness?
Hear me chatting with Hayley Collins…
Hayley’s podcast is great, I strongly recommend you subscribe so you don’t miss a single one!
In Episode 25 she chats with me about what it means to be a Chief Executive – some of the things that people tell you but you don’t really understand until you’re alone in the hot-seat.
This is a side of me you won’t have seen, as I don’t talk much about my ‘day-job’ here on the Blog.
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2 thoughts on “Finding Light in the Darkness: Hope and Optimism”
This might actually be slightly off-topic, but when I read your thoughts on “sameness”, it resonated deeply with me – because I follow the thought that “sameness” carries no risk.
However – during the years I have grown to know that the best “sameness” has to do with personal relations. People that I know sufficiently well to have a mutual understanding of the ground rules, the “sameness” that we operate within – but where we are so deeply rooted in the sameness to also have a mutual understanding that it is OK to step out of the sameness and take an opposite point of view with the sole purpuse of challenging the sameness – to force some diversity where there initially was none. The first times it can be necessary to reassure each other by saying “I’m just going to take the opposite point of view here” – but gradually, it becomes so natural that it is possible to float out of and back into the sameness without warning.
As one interpretation of the Tao Te Ching has it: “When everyone agrees on the beautiful, that is ugliness.” – so it is of great value to be in an environment where anyone is free to – and indeed expected to – challenge the places in which everyone obviously agree.
All the best,
This is a lovely observation. I think you’re describing the freedom to be yourself that emerges when people are very comfortable with each other – no fear of judgement. It stems from trust, in my view. It applies in teams at work too, just in a slightly different way… if a team doesn’t trust each other, then conflict becomes unhealthy patch-protection and jockeying for favours, instead of a healthy exploration of the ideas on the table! A necessary step to improve and create good ideas!
Writing from London – so about 19,000 kms closer than usual!! ?