Making peace with pessimism

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During the holidays, I put pressure on myself to be happy and grateful for all that I have and all that I share with my loved ones. I long to step up to the plate of seasonal joy but don’t always make the mark with my natural tendency to pessimism.

Many, though not all, of us living here in Canada have so much. I have everything I need and most of what I want — a warm house, abundant food, beloved friends and family and the incredible good fortune to be Canadian.

I do feel a strong pull to live in happiness and gratitude. No, it’s more than that. I believe I have a responsibility to live in gratitude because I have so much compared to others here at home and around the world.

And yet I often feel sorrow and regret, anxiety and worry, about big and sometimes very small things. The big things: a friend struggling with cancer; our planet in deep trouble; and concern for my adult children. And the smaller things: my knees giving out and wondering what life holds for me as I round the corner into my 60s.

I’ve been learning how to make peace with this seeming conflict between the positive and the negative like hope and despair. Can I be optimistic on the whole, embrace what is good, while honouring my pessimism?

For example, sometimes I feel heavy with despair at our disregard for the environment, convinced we’re hurtling toward disaster. But then, a sliver of hope emerges when I hear of someone like Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced Shoe-Tez-Caht) Martinez, an 18-year-old Indigenous environmental activist, public speaker (watch his fabulous Ted Talks) and amazing hip-hop artist.

Maybe dealing with emotional and intellectual contradictions is just part of the human condition. Let’s face it, as a species we bring a pretty mixed bag to just about anything we do. At times we’re driven by greed and a hunger for more even at the cost of our very planet. And yet we can also experience and share love, respect, kindness and incredible generosity.

Over the years as I’ve studied and taught mindfulness, I’ve learned how to lean into things without needing to change them. For example, acknowledging sorrow when it arises, even during the season of joy, without squashing it. Likewise, I’m learning to embrace happiness as it emerges, without trying to force it or feel it to the exclusion of all else. Last thing I want to be is a plastic Barbie with a fake smile plastered on my face!

I’ve learned I can cultivate gratitude by practising it. Each night, I write down three things I’m grateful for, and every morning, I meditate. I’ve stopped comparing my life to the perfect happiness everyone seems so keen on displaying on social media. And I send old-fashioned thank you notes every once in a while to let people know how much I appreciate what they’ve done. All this helps to keep me in the present moment and I’m less likely to worry about the future or regret the past.

But, like any natural pessimist, I need to stay connected to the real and potential challenges I face in day-to-day life. Think of the air traffic controller who is realistically assessing conditions for safe flight: should this plane land now … if so, in what lane … do we need to de-ice first? I’m glad she’s there, doing her job and keeping me safe.

So I’m working toward making peace with my pessimist nature and holding optimism in my heart. Feeling both gratitude and sorrow. We get the whole “kit and caboodle,” as my grandfather used to say, on this wonderful journey of being human.

Feel free to send along your thoughts and ideas about contradictions about the season of joy.

Susan Young is a certified life coach with a private practice in guiding people through transformation and a mindfulness facilitator. To contact her