Tag Archives: optimism

Hoarding and Gifting

We live in a culture where wealth is expressed through hoarding, and through the ownership of prestige things – big houses, yachts, aeroplanes etc. However, this is not the only way to express wealth and power. Many of our Pagan ancestors were much more into the idea of showing off your wealth by ostentatiously giving it away. The underlying psychology of the two positions is fascinating.

Hoarding is what you do when you fear scarcity. You create a big pile to sit on, so that you, and you alone can benefit if things get tough. Hoarding is the response to an unfair, unkind world that will turn on you and take away your good fortune. The pile is never big enough to let the hoarder feel truly safe.

Gifting assumes that you have the power to generate more resources. You can give away everything, because there will be scope to make new. It assumes your own prowess is equal to whatever the future throws at you and comes from a place of optimism and confidence.

There are things about both stances that create feedback loops. If you hoard, then you will generate jealousy and resentment in those around you. Your bigger pile may increase their feelings of scarcity. Hoards invite theft, and in an every man for himself scenario, people won’t help if things go awry. The gifting approach by contrast creates loyalty and support. These are the people who will cheerfully go on the next raid with you, plant the next season’s crops for you, pull out all the stops in an emergency because when times are good, you share it around. When it’s their turn to be the one who can give ostentatiously, the odds are that they will. And thus the person who can gift well and reliably has every reason to expect help when they float some crazy new project out there.

Hoarding takes resources out of use. Gifting keeps them moving towards where they are needed. Hoarding leaves the hoarder fearing the jealousy and theft of others. Gifting lets the gifter feel bountiful and in control.

Positive thinking for the slightly unhinged

In theory, positive thinking ought to be a good thing – by its very definition if you do it well, it’s got to be good. All too easily, it becomes a way to explain the people who aren’t winning, rather than looking at wider factors (poverty, access to resources, education, opportunity, disability, race, sheer bad luck and all other such things of that ilk). It can be a way of denying what’s going on.

I can track a process, where I fall into dark and destructive thinking. And then, as part of that process I notice what I’m doing, and I recognise that I’m on a real downer, pessimistic, defeatist, and the like. I can readily latch onto this as an explanation for why everything’s going awry. I am causing it to go awry (like attracts like, right?). The problem is that I’m not grateful enough, blind to the good stuff, looking the wrong way, focused on the wrong things.

And so my own lack of positivity becomes a stick to beat myself with. Because underneath it all is a self-destructive inclination that will use any weapon it can get its grubby hands on. And I can turn anything into that sort of weapon. I suppose that if your urge is to find a means to push away, or put down the inconvenient and the uncomfortable, then pointing at the lack of positivity is a comfortable solution, and so there can be a quiet complicity between those who wish to explain the damned and those who do not know how to do other than damn themselves.

I can only be genuinely positive if I start from where I am, in a state of honesty about how I feel and what I’ve got. From that honesty I can recognise the good bits, without getting mired in bitterness, resentment, or being too down to see anything good. When I recognise where I am, I have more scope to be hopeful about the room for productive change, and see the potential for good bits. I don’t convince myself that all will be well and glorious, but I can get a sane balance between the hope and the anxiety, and I can be passably functional.

If I try to make myself be positive about things where I don’t genuinely feel it, the results are generally messy. Fake positivity brings on the bitterness, the self-loathing, and a keen sense of futility. The attempt to seem, or to foster a sense of positivity can breed in me the most toxic reactions. ‘Fun’ can start to sound like a threat.

A measured, realistic kind of positivity makes it possible to appreciate the good bits, without going mad. As with most things, its about balance. For me its also about what’s socially acceptable, and it’s about putting down the weapons I’ve been using to hit myself with, and recognising that maybe I don’t have to keep beating myself up for not being cheerful and carefree enough.

Benevolent Challenging

One of the consequences of suffering intermittently from depression, is that sometimes my perceptions are wonky. There are days when I can only see the bad stuff, the dangers, the trouble. I’m not especially paranoid, I don’t tend to imagine problems that do not exist. It’s about my ability to see an overall balance and to be able to find and make good bits amongst the hard stuff.

I am blessed with a number of people who make it their business to challenge me, when I get like this. They do so warmly, reminding me of alternative perspectives, of things I’ve done well or could feel good about, and that input reliably helps me get back on top of things. Sometimes it takes a while. I value that gentle challenging as an expression of care, and if you’re one of the people who knows how to poke in kindly, timely ways, thank you. It makes a huge difference.

However, there are other schools of thought around how best to challenge people. There are those who will see a person struggling and turn up with helpful suggestions like these. Stop making a fuss, you’re not as badly off as someone who has some other problem. You just need to be more positive and it will all be fine. You are being ridiculous and selfish. You are attention seeking and vamping energy from other people. Quit whining and fix it!

The trouble is, this approach assumes that the problems are trivial and fixable. People don’t always express distress over the real problem – if your parents have dementia, maybe you would feel disloyal about talking in public about the loss of dignity and the challenges. Maybe a small problem breaks you, and you get kicked by these fake do-gooders for making a fuss, because they do not know and lack the imagination to consider they may be missing some things. Sheer weight of many small problems can also break a person, and fixing a thousand issues is a large, intimidating task. If you’re hurting, you are hurting and some other person saying they’d be fine in your shoes, solves nothing.

Problem two is that if you are depressed, your self esteem is low, and your confidence is low. Someone turns up and tells you that you are stupid and useless to feel this way. For the person who was suicidal already, this confirmation that you’re a waste of space can take you closer to not being able to function. Many suicidal people do not feel able to talk about it, and fear of being called melodramatic and attention seeking certainly doesn’t help. People who can’t talk are more likely to die.

What really gets me, is that the people who are in many ways most damaging to people in pain, claim to be believers in positive thinking. They claim to value optimism and a ‘good’ approach to life. In order to maintain this comfortable bubble, it is necessary to avoid hearing anything that might burst it. It’s easy to feel positive if you are snug, secure and privileged, and hard to hear that this may be more about luck and privilege than your innate worth. If you are willing to hear when others are suffering, you might feel some moral obligation to do something about it. If you can rubbish and dismiss them, your world view is in tact, you still feel morally superior and you don’t have to do anything at all! You can even demand positive feedback for having been so good and useful in telling them how it really is.

My patience with this is at an all-time low. If you genuinely care about positivity, you respond to pain by trying to encourage, uplift, support and enable people. I’ve seen it done beautifully by people whose belief in the power of being positive is not a cover for being shitty. It’s very easy to subvert the language of positivity into something destructive, and it’s worth watching for the people who do that. Generally, anyone who feels the need to tell you they were doing you a favour and you should be grateful, was probably not doing you a favour, and is not worth taking too seriously.

The power of (not so) positive thinking

There is a school of thought that encourages positive thinking, as the best way of attracting good energy into your life. The person with the positive outlook will see the opportunities and grasp them. The person who believed they can succeed will have a go in the first place. Like most excessive simplifications, it’s not actually of much use. People who go around expecting things to go well for them will spend a lot of time let down, disappointed and potentially confused. Sure, a positive attitude may help you take the leap into the unknown, but that can also lead to falling flat on your face.

People who practice optimism can end up needing to also practice cognitive dissonance, in order to deal with the way experience fails to tally with expectation. Pessimists, on the other hand either get to be a bit smug (didn’t I say that was doomed?) or pleasantly surprised when things go better than anticipated. The downside to pessimism is that it can reduce the urge to get in there and have a go. It’s not so easy as a pessimist to work up the belief that you can make a real difference.

Nature does not teach us optimism. Nature teaches us that everything dies. Many of those things will die in sudden, violent ways as a consequence of something else wanting to eat them. Nature shows us that no amount of positive thinking will stop winter being a hard time of year for most living things, and very hot summers from being potentially lethal, too. Nature shows us the unexpected arrival of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, droughts and famines. A positive attitude and a belief in your own ability to survive will help you there, but it won’t make the disasters go away.

The person who anticipate shit can plan for it. Strategies of avoidance, mitigation and so forth are available if you firmly believe the universe will dump on you every now and then. It comes as no surprise, when, like Eyeore, we find a ‘well, that’s just what would happen’. There’s less trauma in it going wrong predictably.

If it’s all lovely, all part of the grand plan, the best imaginable world… if it all happens for a reason and the gods never send you stuff they know you can’t take, if the universe is love, then when it goes wrong, either you need a very twisted take on what ‘love’ means or your reality takes a pasting, too. If you see existence as neutral, and potentially hostile, then you can just accept the horrible stuff. It fits with your reality. That doesn’t make you blind to the good stuff, it doesn’t undermine the love, beauty and wonder when they manifest, but sets them in context. Understanding the crap can help you hone an appreciation of that which is not crap, too. If you don’t have to pretend it’s all love and light, it is easier to recognise and honour the bits that really are about love and light, and therefore also easier to work with them in more meaningful ways.

Finding the good

There are days when my sense of all that is wrong in the world overwhelms me. From the small, everyday cruelties through to the epic injustices, there is so much to grieve over. I’ve had too much contact with sadists and sickos, people who hurt and use others, and feel entitled to do so. Any contact would be too much. The perception that the bad far outweighs the good, can be crippling. To keep going in any positive way, requires hope.

Looking for the good in things is a choice. It is about holding optimism in the face of experience, and the more crap life throws your way, the harder that gets. Refusing to be beaten allows me to stave off both cynicism and despair. Apathy and a defeatist attitude are not good tools to work with, even if lapsing into them may seem easier. Sometimes optimism is a full time fight, but the alternative is a loss of self, a loss of belief in the future, and a loss of belief in the humanity of others.

Sometimes you have to be looking hard for the good things, to spot them. The worst people I have known in my life had their moments, even. One, who went to prison, had a deep and abiding love of dogs. That doesn’t redeem him in any way, but I make a point of remembering that. Sometimes entirely selfish motives will push a person towards doing the right things anyway.

Sometimes the good in a day is small and subtle. It’s a burst of birdsong, or a smile from a stranger. It’s seeing the little plant that has managed to break through the tarmac, or the way the sunset catches the water. When you’re paying attention to these small things, they start to seem a lot bigger. Getting away from what is solely human to find the good in other things can be a great help. The trees are not thinking about the economy, only about budding and spring. The hills do not care for our laws and troubles, they just are. There are different perspectives to find, and solace to be taken from them.

Making a conscious effort to find the good in a day takes practice. However, there are aspects of misery and despair that are all about cutting ourselves off from everything, retreating deeper into the self. It may seem like a protective move, to disengage, but it also deprives us of the connections we need. Seeking the good is also about an attitude shift, because it assumes there is good to be found. Often it’s easiest to find what you’re looking for, and expecting the worst brings it into focus.

When you find something good, share it. Celebrate it. Even the smallest gestures towards making better, are precious. A kind word, a tiny gesture of compassion or friendliness, a joke shared. These are all ways of fighting back against the forces of misery and apathy.

When something or someone seems impossible, you can still change how you think about it. Every set back, every new problem, is a challenge to rise to. Every idiot and asshole making your life difficult gives you opportunity to be a better sort of person. Every difficult thing is an opportunity to prove something, and to shine. Often no one else will notice, but in singing your own triumphs you can get something useful out of the crap. And sometimes, when you voice the little wins, the things faced, the idiots well handled, someone else will share that with you in a good way.

Today I am ill, but when I looked up from my editing job, I saw an egret fly past my window, its form a magical, ghostly white against this dingy sky. It looked so pristine, like an emissary from the otherworld. And yes, it is cold, but I have a man who has brought wood in and made me a fire. I’ve lived in far harder conditions than this, having to build a reality out of crumbs. It can be done, and often there are more than crumbs to work with, especially once we start passing them around. Good things have a habit of growing and expanding, if they are given the chance.

This is all about belief. We can choose what we believe. If we choose to seek the good, to believe in the existence of silver linings in clouds, and frogs who turn into princess, and wool that turns into gold, then perhaps we can make it happen. The only thing I am certain about is that the person who keeps striving has a little hope of success, but the person who gives up, has none.


And it’s a bit of an irony, having written that this morning, and sat here the recipient of yet another slap from reality, and wondering how not to give up. But life goes on, somehow.