In first grade my parents were called to school to discuss the problem of my intelligence. That was back when I was a quiet, obedient, aspiring artist-musician-ballerina-veterinarian, so when my principal explained that sometimes kids like me develop behavior problems and become challenging to raise and teach, my parents laughed it off. Of all their children, I was the one they worried about least. Seven years, three therapists, and two hospitals later, my parents made the painful and seemingly necessary decision to drive eight hours to what they deemed “the least harmful 24-hour facility around,” turning my care and custody over to strangers.
Each member of my family has a unique, sad story to tell about that time, but I was too far removed to understand that then. I spent the next year adjusting to my new life and struggling to articulate what I believed. I had been raised in a politically moderate, nominally Protestant household and was now immersed in a conservative, evangelical pseudo-home full of strangers who claimed to love me. I didn’t believe they all meant it, but I had always loved the Bible and believed that the common threads of faith and hope would be enough to bond me to my new caretakers, despite any political or theological differences between us. They never really figured me out, but for nineteen months they kept me safe, and for that I am grateful.
To look at me then, you’d never guess I had a happy thought in my head – my flat affect and vacant glare were the constant accessories of an equally prickly wardrobe, and nothing about my behavior communicated a desire for change. But I had experienced some revelations during my obedient years, years I spent as a quiet observer of human and animal life, and a solitary student of scripture. These allowed me to maintain a deep optimism that I guarded carefully, optimism that helped me face hard truths about myself, loved ones, and the world, without succumbing to negative thinking.
As a teen, my optimism told me that I was worthwhile no matter what, and everyone else was, too. It told me that the worst things that can happen (pain and death), are not things to strive for, but are nonetheless inevitable, inextricable ingredients of life, and as long as I don’t get caught up in the fear of them, they’ll never be too hard to handle. It told me that peace and joy are also inevitable and inextricable from life, that every bad thing I endure brings me closer to a host of wonderful experiences that I can choose to embrace or turn from.
I don’t know exactly how or when this occurred to me, but I believe optimism is more than a survival strategy. I believe it makes the good stuff happen. I believed it before life got tricky and I don’t need to know how or why it works to keep doing the easy work of looking up.
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