Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’ve noticed lately that the older I get the more cynical I’ve become. I remember that in my 20s and even in my 30s I was much more trusting of others, taking their word at face value, for example. I’ve lived longer now and have had more personal and interpersonal battle scars. In the past 10 years, I’ve been through a divorce, been betrayed by my best friend, been asked to lie to get ahead at my job and lost my father to cancer. I don’t like being cynical and mistrustful, but it seems realistic. I know painful things happen in everyone’s life. Is there a way to go through hard times and not end up jaded? I don’t want to be naïve, but I would like to be happier.
Dr. Norquist responds:
How is it that some people become stronger with adversity and others become cynical, anxious, angry or depressed? Still others develop serious health problems as a consequence of adversity and stress.
I have a friend who lost all three of her children due to a genetic disorder, and then her husband passed away. I personally doubt that I could cope with such a massive amount of loss.
I find the way my friend dealt with this adversity to be exceptional and inspirational. She started ministering to the parents of hospitalized, seriously ill children, providing them with what she knew she needed when she spent days and nights with her own hospitalized children. She offers them support, understanding and the experience of God’s love.
Later she went to a seminary and also ministered to a congregation’s needs. In her 70s she enrolled in a Ph.D. program, further developing and refining her ministry to ill children. My friend, Julia, is an angel in the lives of all who know her – always positive and loving. She is an example of God’s love in action.
Julia is an extreme example of someone who has been able to create gold from adversity, akin to bringing light to darkness. The easiest course to take when confronted with adverse circumstances is to allow negativity and darkness to take over our thoughts and feelings.
The ever-present losses, betrayals and injustices that we encounter as we journey through our lives tend to accumulate and consolidate into a habitual attitude of cynicism, resentment, mistrust, anger and fear. As a child and teenager, I used to wonder why most of the adults I knew were so uptight, often seemingly bracing themselves ‘for the worst’ and talking about all the bad things that could happen. I couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t just enjoy life.
Now I understand how life’s scars can become like a noose, choking the joy out of life – for the more weighty the negativity we carry, the less positive life energy we can imbibe.
So, given that adversity is unavoidable and that the natural human response is to accumulate feelings of fear, anger and cynicism, how can we free ourselves from this weighty noose that chokes the enjoyment out of life?
The first thing to recognize is that you have to consciously choose to take a positive approach towards all that you encounter on life’s journey.
1. Choose to look for the good.
2. Practice gratitude.
3. See the glass as half-full.
4. Generously wish others well.
5. Laugh and love, whenever possible.
Certain daily practices make it easier to stay positive. These include meditation, prayer, service to others, yoga/tai chi and visualization, among others.
Good self-care is surprisingly important as well in maintaining a positive attitude towards life. This includes healthy sleeping and eating habits, managing your stress and activity levels and integrating fun and relaxation into your life. Practice treating yourself with loving kindness.
What inspires me most about my friend Julia is that she has been able to remain positive and even to thrive, despite the tragic loss, one by one, of her whole immediate family.
She thrives because she has been able to keep her heart open, despite these tremendous life tragedies. She has developed the courage to live with an open heart and in so doing, her life and the lives of others around her are blessed. What a great example she is of how to best deal with adversity in life!
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)
Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2009 Chaitanya Counseling Services