These are difficult times with the pandemic and climate change erupting in freak storms and heatwaves. Even when “all is calm”, life is still difficult. Even at the best of times some good advice is “stay positive”, especially for someone like me who has a talent for spotting potholes on the road.
But what does positivity really mean and how can it help us in life? Does it mean to completely ignore the “bad” and only focus on the “good”? And is positivity merely a form of wishful thinking?
From what I understand of the Baha’i Writings, positivity is simply to overlook the negative and focus on the positive. Abdu’l-Baha urged us to always remain positive:
To look always at the good and not at the bad. If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, to look at the ten and forget the one; and if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten.1
We all face people who we find it hard to get along with. Often we don’t even see their good qualities because we are so put off by the bad ones. The advice above tells us to give people a chance, to see through their faults and focus on their gems. This quotation also raises the question, what is a good quality and how can we as individuals judge what’s good and bad in another person?
I believe there are some things that almost everyone would agree are bad qualities. However, there are cases in which there might be disagreement about which qualities are good or bad. This is especially true in an inter-cultural context. While the western standard of looking people directly in the eye and speaking your mind is considered to be a sign of confidence and straightforwardness in many eastern cultures it may be considered rude and aggressive. This makes it difficult to judge other people’s qualities.
I guess in the end though, we are only left with our own perceptions of the world, so the best thing we can do is to focus on the qualities that we perceive as positive and overlook the qualities that we perceive as negative.
The same applies with life situations in general. We can refine our focus on a situation and choose to only see “the silver lining.” Even when we are faced with the most dire of circumstances, to be positive is to focus on what we have of value. If a hurricane destroys everything we have but our own lives, we would focus on the fact that we are alive. Again, this is easier said than done. I don’t think I would be able to react this way, but I do believe there are spiritual warriors out there that would. They are the true positive thinkers among us!
Another way in which we can be positive is to trust that things will be ok, that this storm will pass. In The Seven Valleys, Baha’u’llah describes the spiritual journey towards God through seven different stages or “valleys.” In the Valley of Knowledge, Baha’u’llah tells the allegory of a man who was separated from his beloved for many years and was finally filled with complete despair. He left his house and was then chased by a guard who seemed like “the angel of death.” He kept running, had to painfully scale a wall to escape the guard, and to his surprise found his long-lost beloved. Baha’u’llah then explains the moral of the story:
Now if the lover could have seen the end, he would from the beginning have blessed the watchman, prayed God on his behalf, and seen his tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he lamented and made his plaint in the beginning.2
So, whatever happens in life, we can trust that things will work out. But does this mean that we ignore the bad completely and just sit back complacently?
Perhaps focusing on the positive doesn’t mean that we totally ignore the bad or pretend it doesn’t exist. For example, if there is a person who is very friendly to his neighbors but is cruel to animals, do we focus solely on his good qualities and ask him to take care of a puppy while we are away on vacation? No. We would focus on this man’s friendly nature (with other humans) but would still take care when he is around animals. Nor does positivity mean ignoring problems, just believing that they will solve themselves. This is just laxity of will and in practical terms can simply be fatalism.
Also, I think for positivity to be useful, it must be realistic. Positivity doesn’t mean false hope or wishful thinking. It is to be aware of possibilities, potentialities and the power to change. Instead of focusing solely on problems, it is to focus on what we can do to better the situation. Hence, a big part of positivity is being proactive and focusing on what you do have control over.
One huge aspect of life that we have no control over is the past. Although we can remember it and can feel convinced that it did happen, we have no way of changing it. So, dwelling on past “mistakes” is not going to get us anywhere. That obviously leaves the present and future as the temporal dimensions that we do have some control over. We have the ability to plan and prepare for the future. However, we can only have direct control of our lives in the present. And even in the present, there are only a small amount of things we can control. But in order to be practical, we should focus on those things we can do, instead of the things we can’t. (For more of my thoughts on how to live more at ease with the nature of time, check out my book Now and Then.)
I have to admit that I myself am becoming more positive as a person. That said, I certainly have a ways to go. A few weeks ago I was getting dressed to go out for the day. With a blue sky out the window and a weather forecast predicting rain, I didn’t quite know what to wear. While putting my clothes on, I opted out of bringing a raincoat and told myself, “it probably won’t rain.” I then walked downstairs to put my shoes on and opted for my hiking sandals in case it rained. Clearly the top of my body was optimistic while the bottom half was not. But I’m hopeful that I will have a positive mindset, from head to toe, someday!