Friday, January 15, 2010

How Can Anyone Stay Positive in the Midst of Tragedy?

Just two weeks ago we entered 2010 with a sense of optimism and hope for a better year...just as we do every New Year's Day. For many of us, the last strains of "Auld Lang Syne" were still ringing in our ears, and "Happy New Year" was still on our lips, when things seemed to take a nosedive.

Shortly before 2009 ended, my son-in-law's uncle died suddenly, and a week later his fraternal grandmother passed away -- a very rough ending to the old year. Then, less than two weeks into the new year, his maternal grandmother also died. A couple of days later, a 7.0 earthquake leveled much of the island country of Haiti, leaving unimaginable death and destruction in its wake. Local newscasts reported that car and snowmobile accidents had taken the lives of other people's family members, and a talented folk artist took his own life. Both close to home, and on a broader scale, it didn't look like 2010 was off to a very auspicious start after all.

How can anyone stay positive when their world is turned upside down by the loss of a loved one, the devastation of a natural disaster, the loss of a job, the breakup of a marriage, the diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness, or countless other things that make us ask "Why?" and want to throw up our hands and hide in a dark corner.

If you're looking for an answer, I don't have least, not the one you may be looking for. It's natural to ask "why" or "why me" when bad things happen to us, to those we care about, or even to strangers who live half a world away. And, unfortunately, it's human nature to want to point the finger in blame.

Being positive does NOT mean ignoring the reality of injustice and human suffering. It does NOT mean pasting a phony smile on my face and telling the world I'm "just fine" when I'm not. It does NOT mean living in denial, spouting empty platitudes, or pretending to have all the answers. What it DOES mean is doing my best to respond to negative things, people, comments, situations in a positive way instead of becoming negative myself. I can rail against the injustice of a country being senselessly reduced to rubble, but that won't help alleviate the suffering of its people or rebuild their homes. I can pronounce angry judgment on those who abuse children, commit murder, or torture helpless animals, but that won't help the victims or comfort those they leave behind, nor will it put the criminals behind bars. I can blame my company, my boss, my coworkers, or the President for losing my job or my home, but that won't provide shelter or food for my family, nor will it help me find employment.

When we ask "why," we're often asking the wrong question. Unless we know the answer to "why" and can do something about it, that question only serves to keep us focused on the negative and prevents us from doing anything constructive. "Why" either makes us look outward for someone else to blame, or makes us look inward to blame ourselves, making us feel guilty and depressed. So, if "why" is the wrong question, what are the right ones?

Asking "how" or "what" is much more productive when faced with negatives. For example, with the disaster in Haiti, it helps no one to ask why this happened. But if we ask "how" or "what," those questions can be answered and produce positive action to alleviate suffering. We can pray for the people of Haiti. We can donate money to relief efforts. Some can even volunteer as relief workers and go to Haiti to personally lend their strength, time, and energy to assist those in need.

What about things closer to home? If we lose a job, we can ask what we need to do to find a new one, and take positive action: update a resume, start reading job ads and setting up interviews with prospective employers, see what lessons and skills have been learned at the old job that may help us to be a more desirable employee. We can also ask how we can manage until that happens and take action on that front: register for unemployment, see where we can cut expenses, sell things we don't need, apply to a temp agency while looking for permanent work.

What about other negative news items: a family whose home burned, animal cruelty, child abduction? For some, positive action might mean turning off the TV to avoid depression. For others, it might mean donating new or gently used items to replace what the fire victims lost, volunteering at the local humane society or donating to one of the many animal relief organizations, or signing up for Amber Alerts on their computer.

The next time you find yourself asking "why" or "why me," stop and ask yourself two things: (1) does this question have a cause/effect answer, and, if so (2) will the answer help change the situation or make me feel better? If the answer to these questions is "no," consider asking some "how" or "what" questions that will result in positive action.

Staying positive isn't easy, and we need to be gentle with ourselves, and forgive ourselves when we fail. It takes work, practice, and patience in the daily-ness of life. It is a discipline to cultivate, not a prize to be won. Sometimes, the most positive thing we can do initially is to allow ourselves to feel our emotions, give ourselves time to grieve, reach out for support, and just keep breathing. But eventually, we need to take action, to move forward. And, sometimes, when we reach beyond our own need to help someone else, we'll suddenly realize that we've found the strength to meet our own as well.

How do you deal with negative people/situations? What keeps you going when you feel like giving up? What helps you stay positive when bad things happen? Share your thoughts in the comments section. You can also share your daily gratitude list for the past week.


  1. This week I was thankful or grateful for:

    1/8--for wake-up calls, the kind that make you realize you need to make some positive changes in your life;
    1/9--for Susan Tweit's inspiring and encouraging blog post today about feeling "lucky;"
    1/10--for being able to go out to dinner with family and spending time together in person and on the phone;
    1/11--for the accessibility of medical care when it is needed, and for tests and treatment plans;
    1/12--for the lives that were spared in the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti, and for those from our country and others who mobilized so quickly to lend aid;
    1/13--that my friend had an enjoyable birthday;
    1/14--for a productive day: clearing out clutter, getting my pet column written and sent to my editor, getting my blog entry written, and getting my other website updated.

  2. Hi Donna,

    How very odd...I just posted on the same topic! Except my post posed more questions than answers.

    Thanks for your insights.


  3. Jennifer, thank you for stopping by to say "hi" and for taking time to comment. Please drop in any time.

  4. There will always be death, illness, and generally bad things happening all around us. We just need to not dwell on the bad things. Focus on the good things. It is something that we have to train ourselves to do but we can do it.

    On another note, I think I've found another blog to read! Thank you!

  5. Thank you for your comments, Andey. What you said is very important--to not dwell on the bad things. We can't help seeing or hearing about them, but we can choose not to internalize them and make them part of us. I hope you'll visit here often.

  6. After 3 deaths in the family so close together, I have been physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted - more so after this last one than the previous 2. Today I started to feel overwhelmed by all that I need to get done between now and May - college classes, trips to other states to spend time with family, studying for 2 certifications through work, preparing my scholarship application materials, getting my community service hours for my graduation requirement, shopping for 4 birthdays, not to mention regular household duties like laundry, dishes, decluttering from Christmas, keeping things organized, etc. I started to feel like I couldn't concentrate on any one thing because I was focusing on EVERYTHING and feeling panicked. So today I made a list of all the things I needed to do - wrote it all down so it wasn't all banging around inside my head. Then I made another list prioritizing those things. Next I made a list of just what I needed to focus on for this week. It made me feel much less stressed and overwhelmed.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that one way that I am trying not to get overwhelmed, frustrated, and negative is by forcing myself to relax, take a step back, and re-prioritize. All of the things I need to do are important, but not all of them needed to be tackled today. I need to give myself time to recover and grieve, and because of that, maybe some of the things on my list need to be prioritized lower than others.

  7. Sarah, thank you for your valuable contribution to this discussion. To lose three family members so close together is a lot for anyone to handle. It's perfectly normal that you would feel overwhelmed, especially trying to deal with grieving while balancing a full-time job, college classes, running a home, and the other responsibilities you have on your plate. When we feel overwhelmed and start to feel panicky, our bodies are trying to tell us we're headed for trouble. If we ignore it, we can end up depressed and physically sick. You exhibited a great deal of wisdom by realizing that you couldn't deal with everything at once, taking the time to make a list, and then prioritizing it. In other words, instead of allowing yourself to spiral downward, you applied the brakes, took positive action, and regained control of your life. By taking the time to figure out what had to be done and what could wait, and breaking those tasks into doable steps, you defused the stress that was building and created a workable plan.

    Also, you wisely put things in the proper order: first, you said you "forced yourself to relax." Cheryl Richardson, a well-known life coach, author, speaker, and radio host, refers to this as "self-care." By taking time to breathe and gain control of your thoughts, allowing your mind and body to calm down, you were respecting yourself as a person. If we don't take care of ourselves first, we won't be able to take care of anyone or anything else in a truly productive manner. No one can think clearly if their thoughts are racing or if they're physically and emotionally exhausted.

    Second, you transfered all of the various things that needed to be done, from thought to paper--from abstract to concrete form. Instead of continuing to internalize them, you got them outside of yourself where you could look at them and evaluate them. Too often, we allow the thoughts to continue racing in our minds, like a hamster on a treadmill--expending a lot of time and energy, but never taking action to change the situation.

    And third, you set priorities and decided what needed immediate attention, what could wait, and how much was reasonable to attempt to do in a given day. That gave you a more realistic picture of not only what needed to be done, but a time frame in which to accomplish it, and a means of measuring progress.

    I know your comments will help others who are struggling to juggle a heavy load, as well.

    To all my Readers: I highly recommend Cheryl Richardson's website, books, online radio show, and free weekly newsletters. Her web address is She's also on Facebook ( and on Twitter (

  8. Keeping positive is a habit we all can develop. Thanks for the reminder to accept life on life's terms and not take it all so personally!
    Karen, Folkheart Press

  9. Hello Donna,

    I appreciate your blog.

    When you go through a series of trials and losses close together, you lose your center for a while.

    I lost several family members in a short time period two years ago, so your blog really touched me.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. Karen, thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I hope you'll visit again soon.

  11. Maxine, thank you for dropping by and taking the time to comment. I'm so sorry for your loss. I lost my mother almost two years ago, and there are still times when it seems like only yesterday, and I again experience that "off center" feeling. It's like standing on the deck of a ship: sometimes, the waters are calm and you can stand alone with confidence and enjoy the journey. Other times, it gets rough, and the waves threaten to knock us off balance unless we find something to hold onto to help steady us. And then there are those times when it's like a tsunami hits, or a rogue wave rises out of nowhere, and we're knocked completely off our feet and need to rely on others to help us regain our footing. I find that writing helps me work through those times and find balance again. Thanks again for dropping by. I hope you'll visit again soon.