Cultivating Optimism

By Melanie Weiner

Our human condition is distinguished by a profound and unique central paradox. We are creatures who crave security and attach deeply. And we are creatures both gifted and burdened with the awareness that everything and everyone is impermanent. Above all, we want to hold onto what makes us feel safe and protected; yet we know that everyone we love will die at some moment. Contemplating this, it’s a wonder we’re not all much crazier than we are!

The basis of a healthy psychological foundation is “secure attachment,” in which an infant learns to trust and rely upon a caregiver. For secure attachment to occur between a parent and baby, caregiving must be sensitive, consistent, and predictable. How ironic that a theory of psychology based on attachment coexists with existentially based theories of psychology in which the path to human freedom, meaning, and health lies in a recognition of our impermanence and mortality — in other words, in our nonattachment and our acceptance of the reality that nothing is secure.

Whether or not we acknowledge it, change is occurring all the time. Our environment is changing, as are our bodies, our very cells. The more we resist this knowledge, the more fixed we are. The more we accept this knowledge, the more flexible we become.

Fatalism fixes the future. It clings to the familiar and projects it forward. It doesn’t matter if this projection is positive or negative. In some ways, it is easier for the mind to say, “I am marked for misfortune” or, “I will never be truly loved” than to allow that the future is entirely unpredictable. By fixing the future, an illusion of control and security is attained — even if the future then becomes shrouded in gloom, to the point of making life dark and perhaps even unlivable.

Optimism, on the other hand, may best be described as being conscious of the possibility — the inevitability — of change. Optimism neither projects the past or the present into the future, nor paints the future in a deliberately rosy hue (that would be denial). Rather, optimism is a willingness to meet whatever arises with trust in one’s ability to do so.

Fatalism is fear-based. One dynamic of fear is to externalize threat. Paradoxically, this creates a feeling of false security: “I am safe in here, in my own personal cocoon. The world out there is unsafe.” Optimism does not cling to perceived security. There is no “in here” and “out there.”

Both are one, and everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent. In order to cultivate optimism, we must observe our security-seeking behaviors and habits and gently disarm them. Gentleness is key, because without it we fall prey to debilitating shame.

Compassion toward oneself allows for “mistakes” (which might be considered “not mistakes,” but natural byproducts of experimentation). Without experimentation, we cannot learn, grow, imagine the impossible, or change. In a compassionate mindset, we accept and even welcome mistakes — while taking full accountability by acknowledging how those mistakes impact others. This is the opposite of a mindset in which the fear of making mistakes is overwhelming, even paralyzing, and mistakes are denied or defended through justification and rationalization.

Compassion and empathy for oneself — the building blocks for optimism — will also naturally extend to others. There can be no compassion or empathy for others without the ability to extend them first to oneself.

To summarize, optimism means gently acknowledging our craving for security and certainty while also embracing the fact that no security or certainty exists. It also means directing compassionate inquiry to uncover and disarm our security-seeking habits and attempts to evade our existential knowledge. In this way, we can stay present with the terrifying inevitability of change and loss, and embrace our full potential to meet life as it comes, in every moment.

Melanie Weiner, LMFT, is a psychotherapist in private practice and a program director and clinical supervisor at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Among her JFS activities, she advises the Department of Mental Health Spirituality Round-tables, in which clergy of all denominations work together with mental health providers to share resources and build community.

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