Four weeks ago I had a literary and spiritual crisis. I had just read a profoundly beautiful work of fiction that made me depressed about the future of humanity. The book is a masterpiece, and I felt there was no way I could write a story so well, nor could I stand to create a work that examined the cruelest impulses of human beings in such detail.
Upon finishing the book, I threw it on the bed and said aloud: I give up.
What did I mean? Give up on human beings. Give up trying to write fiction. What was the point? So many masterful writers describe war, poverty and suffering with such power (and many of them are friends or teachers of mine). I could not bear to write into such dark territory.
Furthermore, if the vision of human life I read in the book was true, then we're all screwed. What's the use of writing about signs of hope in the blog, even?
I called my friend Carolina De Robertis, who is a fiction writer of the highest caliber, and who is also wise in the ways of the soul. She came right over with her new baby and a photocopy of an article from The Sun Magazine:
It's an interview with researcher Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, who studies emotions and positive psychology. Dr. Fredrickson has developed a theory that positive emotions lead to novel, expansive, or exploratory behavior. One paragraph describes what I meant to do when I started this blog five years ago:
"Negative experiences can demand our attention so much that it takes self-discipline, willpower, and practice not to focus solely on them, and to look at all that's positive in our situations, as well. Negativity doesn't always feel like a choice; it feels like it just lands on you, and you have to deal with it. Positive emotions, I think, are more of a choice."
The interviewer asked "Isn't focusing on positive emotions a luxury available to only those who can afford it? What about people who are mired in conflict, or poverty, or awful social conditions?"
That has been my conundrum in this blog since the beginning. If I keep posting signs of hope while the world goes to hell, am I not just flaunting my own privilege and fortune? Perhaps I am even collaborating with evildoers if I chirp about kite-flying and school-painting while the forces of oppression commit great crimes, out of the way of the cameras.Here is Fredrickson's answer:
"Positive emotions are available to everybody." Research conducted on the lives of slum-dwellers and prostitutes around the world suggests that "positive emotions have less to do with material resources than we might think; it's really about your attitude and approach to your circumstances.... "We think that having certain illnesses or physical limitations must be terrible all the time. But...you find that (people in extreme circumstances) still feel good when they are with their friends or families.... It's in the ordinary transactions of life that positive emotions grow."
My own experiences bear this out. I have had more than the usual share of trouble in the last eight years: illness, war, many deaths in the family in rapid succession. And yet even during chemo, even now with the shadow of cancer always hanging over me, I have moments, hours, days of great joy. Fredrickson also says,
"...Researchers have found some stunning correlations between expressing more positive emotions and living longer. My role is to ask, How does that happen? How do you go from experiencing these pleasant momentary states to living longer — perhaps even ten years longer?"
While she works on the research, I am going ahead with applying the theory. Yes the world is full of trouble. The Buddha famously said that all life is full of suffering. Our job while here is to refuse to be tossed away by the miseries. Our job is to keep breathing and be awake to the glory: the beauty: the power and joy of each moment of this life.
So I will continue to post signs of hope, and instructions for dinner, in order to keep myself and perhaps the rest of you going a little while longer.