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.