Notes from the Middle Ground

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see a new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  — Bill Vaughan

I’m torn: The optimist in me wants to take an inspirational look ahead, to set a positive tone for the new year. The pessimist in me wants to review the past twelve months, enumerating and wallowing in its difficulties. One approach seems disingenuous, the other disenchanting.

In a small way, today’s conundrum is representative of my whole life: it often feels like this life has been an exercise in seeking a comfortable perch somewhere in the middle. When I saw an astrologer to have my natal chart drawn, she said my personality was evenly balanced between the four classical elements of earth, air, water, fire. Every personality test has born that out – I tend to balance in the middle, on the fulcrum-point between polar opposites (extrovert/introvert; red/blue; task/process).

I know, this doesn’t sound like a problem. However, we are all living in a world – a culture, a moment in time – when polarities carry the day. Today’s is a zeitgeist in which, simply to be heard, voices stray as far to the ends of the continuum as they dare. As the ends of the continuum exert an outward pull, the middle ground stretches thin, making it ever-more-difficult to balance there.

Throughout my life, voices around me have declared, “That’s the way it is. You can’t change it.” These same voices have proudly staked out their territory as that of realism, casting me onto the ever-shaky (and mostly disrespected) ground of idealism. These days, I’m coming to think of idealism as the middle ground. It appears to be the only place from which a voice that hopes for peace, that trusts in love, that doesn’t cast other human beings as evil demons can emerge.

Let the realists have that territory at both ends of the spectrum, since they claim it anyway. In many ways, the middle ground is the only hopeful ground on which to stand. Someone told me recently, “It is a fallacy to believe that every voice holds equal weight.” That’s a realistic statement if I’ve every heard one. Still, is that right? Is that just? Here in the middle where there is less shouting, I can hear more voices, can allow them each their weightiness. Here in the middle we talk and we ask first, shoot later. In fact, we don’t shoot until/unless we’ve exhausted other options, so mostly shooting isn’t necessary. Living in the middle requires impulse-control, requires me to hold my fear in check, expects me to breathe through the anxiety until I am able to do more than lash out.

There’s a belief out there that the middle ground is lacking in passion, and I’ve often labored under that assumption myself. At times, it was the reason I tried to abandon the middle. But now I see that isn’t true. For me, calm and peace and reason are to be striven for with passionate abandon from right here, in the very middle. I may sway to the left or to the right, but mostly I seek a creative path straight through the center, to the heart of things. Here in the middle, I’m not supporting the status quo – that is a story that keeps getting told in order to force people to the poles. In fact, it may be the status quo is held in place by the equal but opposing force exerted at the ends of the continuum. More people in the creative middle might have the effect of causing the tension to ease; eventually the tightrope could slacken and bend into a new shape, into new possibilities. What is that old proverb – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail? When everyone is standing on one end or the other shouting at the top of their lungs, perhaps a different volume, even a whisper, issuing from the middle may offer new insights.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about passively standing in place. I am not saying that things ought to stay the same – I am claiming a reinterpretation of the dominant paradigm. I am simply unconvinced that ratcheting up the adversarial model we’ve been living in is getting us anywhere. The pessimist in me feels overwhelmed by today’s world. The optimist in me sees possibilities for making tomorrow’s world better. Change won’t happen if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, only more so. And I refuse to allow my dreams of a better world to be defined by the rhetoric of extremism, left or right.
Which brings me back to my original conundrum. Which lens  will it be – optimism or pessimism – through which I will view this ending of one year and beginning of a new? Now that I think about it, that may be the wrong question, after all. Perhaps the lens required in this middle ground I’ve staked out is the lens of hope. As Vaclav Havel, creative thinker, writer, activist so eloquently articulated:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

 

 

 

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When the Dog Bites

This looks a lot like the little yapper that bit me.

So, Thursday evening, I got bitten by a dog. It was my first real dog bite ever, and from a complete stranger dog, too.  Last night as I arrived home late from visiting a friend, I was approached by a man I’d never seen before as I parked my car – he wanted money and couldn’t understand why I refused to get out of my vehicle after he assured me, “I’m a good guy, I promise!” (I was fine, I opened the window a crack and passed him the only dollar I had. I watched until he was a full block away before turning off the ignition and going inside). Today, I inadvertently left my favorite gloves on the fender of my bike while locking the bike to a rack. When I returned to the bike: yep. Totally stolen.

But am I going to let these things harsh my buzz? No way. Because today I am focused on the things that make me happy.

Instead of the dog bite, I’m thinking about the awesome weekend I had with friends and family. Hanging out with Sara and her kids helped me truly relax. Friday’s dinner with my brother Jeff and his wife Marsha was particularly special because it served as a reunion between Jeff and our friend Mike after decades apart. I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the blessing of positive health news on all three family members about whom I’ve been concerned – a late-night panhandler can have my last dollar in light of that! The kindness of a stranger who wrote a personal note to me in a rejection letter or my coworkers bringing me information about low-cost services are good counterbalance to the theft of my gloves.

Earlier today I read a post on Allison Vesterfelt’s blog (This is Where Your Fear Comes From) in which she recounts watching an interaction between a mother and child in which it appears that the mother, in an attempt to reassure her child, actually convinces the perfectly content child to be afraid. Allison’s “AHA” that fear is a learned response got me thinking about how so many of our reactions to life’s events, big and small, are learned responses. And once we’ve learned to respond in a particular manner, we practice it until it is habitual.

If you’ve been following Jenion since I moved to Minneapolis, you’re aware that I’ve been living in two different realities at once – the reality of loving my new life and new city, engaging with new experiences and people; and also the reality of panic, fear and loneliness. Here’s the thing: most of my life I practiced what I learned as a kid and I got really good at risk aversion/avoidance, waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling insecure, and worrying about bad things that could happen. Then, I experienced life-altering change, and began developing new skills like optimism, trust, confidence in my ability to figure things out. Also a belief that joy is readily available if I choose it. But these are fledgling skills, neither as strong nor as ingrained as the others. So I struggle to keep them active, to make them the default instead of the less-helpful skills I’m valedictorian of.

The lyrics of the song “Pompeii” by Bastille perfectly illustrate my conundrum these past few months:

I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above…

A pretty bleak picture, that. But the song goes on to ask what, for me, is an all-important question, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” 

No matter what we may have been told in the past, optimism and pessimism are not mutually exclusive or immutable traits with which we are hard-wired. You may, like my sister Gwen, be born with a disposition that bubbles with laughter. Or you might have an Eeyore-like tendency to overemphasize that which is glum. But these are predispositions, not personality requirements. We can practice rewiring our thinking, keeping the best traits of both optimism and pessimism, thereby impacting our physical and emotional health for the better. “Both personalities could use a little bit of one another to really keep an individual at peak health. The optimist needs the caution of the pessimist, and the pessimist needs the drive of the optimist. For well-balanced health, the middle road is the ideal way to go.” (“How being an optimist or a pessimist affects your health”)

So, since I may have been describing myself, above, instead of Eeyore, I am taking my cue from Bastille’s “Pompeii”. Whenever the negative threatens to overwhelm me, I’m asking, “How AM I going to be an optimist about this?” The truly amazing thing is that I can usually come up with workable answers. Answers that allow me to invest my energy in skills and beliefs that take me out of the anxious reality and back into the engaging one. Because there’s no question which one I – or any of us, really – would prefer to live in, is there?