There are Two Sides to Every Story

It has been a significant couple of weeks for me and my family. Lots of things happening that reinforce that time is racing by, as well as things that are gradually occurring that make the same point. Here are a few:

  1. Our youngest child just turned 18. Our days of raising children are fading away, which means I am getting old. All five kids are now adults.
  2. My EC had a birthday, and she is now my age. I’ll leave it at that.
  3. The dermatologist took a piece of my cheek and shoulder to do biopsies to check for skin cancer.
  4. My left knee is kinda sore.
  5. I have hairs growing out of weird places on my ears.
  6. Etc.

Yeah, it sounds kinda whiny. Maybe everyone needs to sing me a song:

“If you chance to meet a frown, do not let it stay. Quickly turn it upside down and smile that frown away.”

Thanks. That was super helpful. Telling me to “turn my frown upside down” really changes things. Right?

But..hang on…I’m gonna give it a try. Wish me luck!

A re-wording:

  1. My youngest son turned 18. He is a strong, brilliant, young man whose future awaits. He got accepted into the colleges he wants to attend, and he is heading off to mission prep class, because he could be serving as early as this summer. He joins his other four sibs in being good, valiant, happy adults that I am very proud of.
  2. I have spent more than 34 years with my EC. I love that we are the same age, and are growing old together. She is my favorite person.
  3. It amazes me that a doctor can take a little sample of skin and send it off to a lab, and within a week they can tell me how dangerous it is. This is a blessing for me, as my father died from melanoma.
  4. My knee feels pretty darn good, considering I walked over twenty miles last week at Disneyland. I’m surprised that the fitness app on my Apple watch didn’t report it as stolen.
  5. I’m glad that I still have a full head of hair.

Hmm. That wasn’t so bad after all! Could it be that maybe, just maybe, there are two attitudes to look at things – or everything?

With the stresses and strains, and woes and worries, of mortality, it is easy to get sucked into a pessimistic mindset. Some people, by their natures gravitate towards pessimism, others are naturally optimistic.

A scriptural example:

The prophet Nephi had a rough life, full of trials, afflictions and constant family feuding. As his days were winding down, he took some time to write about all the things he and his people had been doing: Working, building a temple, keeping the commandments, farming, raising flocks, building homes, having kids, and more. (2 Nephi 5)

How did he describe how they were living? “And it came to pass that we lived after the manner of happiness.” (2 Nephi 5:27) Pretty optimistic view, right?

Then we look forward a few years to the prophet Jacob. Remember, he was Nephi’s brother. They were part of the same family, went through the same trials, had the same struggles, and the same battles. Here is Jacob’s take:

“And it came to pass that I, Jacob, began to be old…wherefore, I conclude this record… saying that the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.”

Kinda dark, don’t you think?

Similar experiences, vastly different interpretations of those experiences – and these are prophets.

Last week I posted a quote by Albert Einstein that reads, “I’d rather be an optimist and a fool than a pessimist and right.

I tend to gravitate towards that mindset. The way I look at it goes hand in hand with another well-known quote from Earnest, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man dies but once.” (A Hemingway riff on the Shakespeare quote, “The valiant never taste of death but once.”

The way I see it, is that by being pessimistic and focusing on the negative, we experience the same negative emotions that we would experience whether the thing we fear happens – or not. Einstein’s point is that being a pessimist is a miserable way to live – even if you are proven right. I agree with him. Personally, would rather be optimistic and be proven wrong, and not be miserable along the way, that to be miserably pessimistic and be proven correct. I don’t want to be miserable because of a hypothetical.

I would rather die once than a thousand times.

Along these lines, but not something I’ll delve into today, is a study that came out this week that says, “Having an optimistic partner may stave off dementia.” (Interesting, but they don’t imply that having a pessimistic partner might encourage one to forget!)

One thing I know for sure is that choosing optimism over pessimism is not as simple as “turning a frown upside down. The mere suggestion of just “flipping that switch,” is pretty irritating, and overly simplistic.

So how does one move from pessimism to optimism?

First – and maybe the most difficult part – is recognizing when we are doing it. Part of the idea for this post is the result of a conversation I had with my EC, where she said she felt dumb complaining about her leg being sore, when she knows someone who recently had his amputated. She is making an effort to pay attention to the old adage, “I cried because I had not shoes until I met a man that had no feet.” I’m proud of her, and need to follow her example more often.

It is the application of empathy. When we try to understand what others’ struggles are, it surely makes ours more bearable.

Catching ourselves, and rewriting our thoughts, (Like I did at the beginning of the post) is a way that will eventually help us move away from pessimism to optimism bit by bit. I imagine it may take a lifetime, but that’s ok.

Some men who have spent a lifetime working towards this sort of optimism have wise words of counsel:

President Gordon B. Hinckley: “I see so many good people everywhere—and there’s so much of good in them. And the world is good. Wonderful things are happening in this world. This is the greatest age in the history of the earth. …

We have every reason to be optimistic in this world. Tragedy is around, yes. Problems everywhere, yes. … You can’t, you don’t, build out of pessimism or cynicism. You look with optimism, work with faith, and things happen.” (link)

Or President Russell M. Nelson: “Saints can be happy under every circumstance. We can feel joy even while having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year!” (link)

You know what can make me negative and unhappy? Someone telling me to be positive and happy. Telling me to be optimistic is just gonna get you a withering glare.

Then how do we find this optimism? Maybe by aiming higher than mere optimism: Hope. While optimism can be naive, hope is a refined, and educated version. Hope is a product of well-applied agency. We sort through the information we have, and choose to look at things with an eternal, optimistic focus.

Some would say, “I’m neither and optimist or a pessimist: I’m a realist.” Which is just another way of saying, “I’m a clever pessimist.”

The focus that can lead towards hope and optimism is this:

President Nelson: “My dear brothers and sisters, the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.

When the focus of our lives is on God’s plan of salvation… and Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening—or not happening—in our lives.”

#1: Focus on the Plan of Salvation, and Jesus Christ and His gospel.

Next, President Hinckley: “What I am suggesting is that each of us turn from the negativism that so permeates our society and look for the remarkable good among those with whom we associate, that we speak of one another’s virtues more than we speak of one another’s faults, that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.” (link)

#2: Speak well of others and focus on the positive that they do.

Elder Neil A. Maxwell: “Significantly, those who look forward to a next and better world are usually “anxiously engaged” in improving this one, for they “always abound in good works” (D&C 58:27). Thus, real hope is much more than wishful musing. It stiffens, not slackens, the spiritual spine. It is composed, not giddy, eager without being naive, and pleasantly steady without being smug. Hope is realistic anticipation taking the form of determination—a determination not merely to survive but to “endure … well” to the end.” (link)

#3: Get busy doing something productive.

Also Elder Maxwell: “Hope feasts on the words of Christ, “written for our learning,” so that “having all these witnesses” through the “comfort of the scriptures [we] might have hope.”  (2 Ne. 31:20). (link)

#4: Dig into the scriptures.

Those are just a few suggestions. I am mindful that being optimistic can be tough. The very idea can run counter to some of our natures – but that is precisely one of the tasks we have – to put off our natures.

“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord…” (Mosiah 3:19)

#5: Let the Spirit do the heavy lifting, especially the lifting of our hearts.

At this very moment, it is easy to feel a sense of hope. We got home from a lovely sacrament service and our primary class went well. I am sitting on the patio, enjoy a lovely 72 degree day, with a gently breeze and birds chirping. What’s not to love? It is easy to feel hopeful and optimistic right now..

Undoubtably, that will change. The question is, will I?

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  1. Great post! Reminds me of the story Dr. Murray Banks used to tell that goes something like this: A mother of young, identical twin boys took her two sons to see a psychiatrist to see if he could help them. They were the very extreme of each other, one being an over-exhuberent optimist, the other a constant and whining pessimist. The Doc decided to try something: he filled one room with all the toys a kid could imagine to make one happy his entire life, and put the pessimist in it. Then he filled a room with manure and placed the optimist in that one. After a few hours he and the mother checked in on them. The pessimist never touched the toys but complained and complained he never got anything he ever wanted. Then checking in on the optimist, they saw that he was digging frantically in the manure. The mother said, “Son, what are you doing?” The boy happily exclaimed, “Where there’s manure, there’s got to be a pony somewhere!”

  2. I am still recovering from a craniotomy for a benign (ha!) brain tumor. I’ve always been a super optimistic person and most of the time I’m still chugging along with that mindset. But it never hurts to be reminded once in awhile when I realize I’ll probably never be exactly the same. I like the poem your wife thinks of because I’ve known of several people who had malignant brain tumors and are now deceased. So I have nothing to whine about! With the Nephi and Jacob comparison, it reminded me of my eight children. Some of them just seem to be naturally optimistic and a couple are pessimists. They all had the same parents and environment.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post. I have been feeling different lately, not pessimistic but reflective I think. I love living on this earth, having my family here, and like you, I have a wonderful spouse and children. I think all this is a symptom of growing older. We see how fast things are going and having loved our lives that have already happened, are a little sad it is past us and we have less time left than we have already lived. But this life is wonderful! We have so much to be thankful for and the gospel has never been more available to us than now, in every aspect. If we have a question, turn to the scriptures. If you can’t find it there, ask someone you think is more knowledgable than you and if they don’t know, GOOGLE IT 🙂 So much to be thankful for.

  4. I know we’re counseled to never say “never” or “always,” and much of the time it’s respectable counsel. However, I’m *never* disappointed to read your perspective on things, and I’m *always* blessed when I do, because it’s either a hearty amen on my part or an ouch, I need to do better with that. Thank you, my cousin/brother/friend!

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