If you’re reading much these days, you’ll recognize the push toward positivity. I’ve read that maintaining a positive attitude contributes to health and longevity, shortens recovery time, and boosts immune systems. I’ve even known a few people who seemed, like the character Molly Brown, unsinkable. For most of us, though, I have this belief we’re clustered in the middle – between Doom & Gloom and Absolute Bliss – with some moments at both ends. At the same time, I get the sense from many people that 24/7 jolliness has become the impossible baseline they strive to achieve.
Face it. Some days go more smoothly than others. Sometimes there’s a clear reason (we won a lottery jackpot or just started our dream vacation) and sometimes those glorious days just appear out of nowhere. Some days feel like trekking through mud. They’re messy, difficult, exhausting. Like the grand and glittery days, sometimes there’s a clear reason (we’re ill or grieving the loss of something valuable to us) and others seem to descend without warning.
Blame the stars or the phase of the moon, but most people experience ups and down. Most of us have those memories of glory days: times past when things seemed as close as possible to ideal. Many of us also remember some disasters. Looking back, though, it seems our interpretation of those experiences enhances or worsens the quality of our lives moving forward. I hope science will one day support the importance of the sense of serenity or peace and satisfaction at living a good life most days, of having enough, of knowing we’re enough. We all deserve that.
For me, daily meditation, learning, and writing reward me with what feels like an effortless calm and quiet enjoyment of life. Time outdoors, crafts with my grandsons, crochet, funny movies, baking, chai tea accompanied by long talks with a friend, and road trips also soothe my heart. I recently realized I discovered and enjoyed many of these during my youth.
My dad drank heavily during the week, but set aside Sundays for family. On Sundays we attended a sparsely attended sunrise service (the church added it for medical staff and others who worked weekends), and then piled into the family station wagon together, carrying food for lunch and soft drinks or lemonade to “wash the meal down.” Dad picked a general direction and we wouldn’t return until late afternoon or early evening.
During those Sunday drives, my dad would beam and pound the steering wheel when he found a road he hadn’t been down before. He would ask me – his conspirator with anything involving exploration – if I wanted to see where it led. My mom invariably frowned her disapproval and often voiced it as well.
He’d turn to me, though, the car idling in the middle of a narrow old highway. “Punk,” he’d say, while we made a decision, “do you want to see where it goes?”
Knowing my mom and siblings usually slept through half our time on the road, I always voted “Yes!” For me, it meant discovering wonders. Oh, the sights: abandoned homes, sometimes just a chimney left stubbornly reaching up toward the sky, small orchards in the middle of nowhere, streams that trickled across the road, fields of poppies showing off just for us, piles of rocks left where someone once worked a mine, rugged fruit stands, and tiny “general stores” stocking everything from bread to britches and even a toboggan or two.
Years later, after all the kids moved out and my parents quit taking the drives, my mom admitted to me she felt relieved to stay home Sundays. She told me she hated the drives because she worried about the possible disasters we’d encounter. Washed out roads, wild animals, landslides, intense storms, and even more concerns. When I thought about it a minute, I asked her how many times there had been a problem during over 30 years of weekly Sunday drives. A flat tire? Dangerous animal? Spider or snake bite? Auto accident?
She stated, “There was that one time.” Once?!
After I moved away, they faced one disaster. It was serious. The axle broke. However, the car made it to the side of the road and, in the days before cellphones proliferated, within 30 minutes another vehicle came by and offered some help. Within a few hours the family rested at home and the car had been towed to a shop. No injuries. If they had been stranded overnight they would have had food and water.
Obviously (to me), the fears she held didn’t make sense. Mom disagreed and expressed her frustration at my enjoyment of “those crazy drives to nowhere and back.” While I don’t think of myself as a super-optimist Suzie Sunshine person, I told her I always felt we could handle anything that happened. In fact, I find some satisfaction in holding on to my old Girl Scout training and striving to Be Prepared. When we traveled we had a First Aid Kit, water, a blanket, a good spare tire, some basic tools in the car, and food.
But mom brushed off my perspective because preparing for every possible outcome couldn’t stop bad things from happening. How she used to annoy me with that narrow view that latched onto what could go wrong!
And now I must admit something. I think I got my knack for finding things that seem out of place (glitches, errors) from mom. My dad could make friends anywhere and fix just about anything, but sussing out possible problems belonged to mom. A friend assured me I had “a gift for troubleshooting.” As she pointed out, many people do not appreciate that gift. I find typos in books, edit myself silly, added more notes to student papers than anyone preferred, and pick out mistakes in movies and signs without intending to notice them. It seems I’m a bit like and a bit opposite of both my happy-go-lucky dad and my worried-to-distraction mom.
That middle ground sounds a bit boring, I admit, particularly in a culture where being super-positive and/or rabidly negative appear more mainstream. Feeling at peace with life, moment by moment, broken by brief interruptions of great joy, existential angst, and some deep sorrow, seems a blessing. After some therapy, quite a bit of soul searching, and dedication to self-care, I’m grateful for this calm.
By the way, I wondered why mom went along with the crazy drives if she hated them. She admitted, “We were all together and I liked being together as a family.” She appreciated that on the road we rarely squabbled, she liked seeing dad do something he enjoyed without booze, and sometimes we went someplace “that wasn’t out in the boondocks.” How she treasured those places with shops and pavement and signs welcoming credit cards.
It seems to me, most of us judge ourselves and out lives too harshly. Perhaps we use imaginary lives from the media to inform us of an unrealistic “normal.” Perhaps we forget our own talents in comparing ourselves to ideals. If we live in a space between debilitating chronic depression and wearing others out with our perky enthusiasm, I hope we all find a way to feel thankful. I admit I have to work a bit harder than many others in striving for more balance and joy. If I ease up on self-care, I can feel myself tilting gradually away from my center. That’s why self-care means so much to me, why I write about it, why I practice.
Wondering what self-care tools to use? My suggestions, as a start:
- Relax and close your eyes for a moment. Remember a time when you were younger and completely happy (if only for a few seconds). Whether you felt joyous because of the company, the activity, the food or aroma, or something else, consider bringing that back into your life. It doesn’t always work (I loved bubble baths as a child and don’t now) but if you make a list of activities, people, places, foods, and scents you enjoy or enjoyed in the past, that’s a start.
- Some frequently used self-care activities that you can implement at little or no cost: a general journal (in an inexpensive notebook, hand-write 1 to 2 pages daily about whatever comes to mind without editing), experience meditation (visit www.headspace.com to try the FREE version to see if it works for you or www.mindfulness.org or check out free resources like https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/mindful-meditations), try gratitude practices (here’s one idea from the Greater Good Science Center: https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/what_we_do/online_courses_tools/thnx4_gratitude_journal).
May your expectations of yourself be kind. May you find the tools you need for self-care and both the time and the will to use them. May you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.
Last words: Please remember that my opinions, my experiences, and resources I mention are NOT meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[i] If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[ii] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.
Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020
[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .
[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-8255 or visit the website to text/chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/. To reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.