An optimist looks at a piece of moldy bread and sees penicillin.
Leonard was tired of my endless complaining. More than a year after my accident I still invested more energy in seeking sympathy than working to get better. He was sick of my lousy attitude.
Leonard was the latest in a series of physical therapists who tried to help me adjust to life with paralysis. We had an unspoken agreement: they worked hard, I complained and made excuses for not working at all. Leonard tolerated this unproductive waste of his time for a few weeks, but as he got to know me his patience diminished.
Readers of Relentless Grace will recognize Leonard’s role in a particularly humorous and pivotal episode. However, his gruff wisdom impacted the unlikely outcome in many ways. One bit of insight altered my entire perspective on my injury.
One day as I complained about the physical tasks I couldn’t accomplish with my damaged body, he stopped and sat down in front of me. As we locked eyes he said, “Look, you need to make a decision. Let’s say that before your accident you could do ten thousand things, and now you can only do eight thousand. That’s too bad, but now you have to choose. You can spend the rest of your life griping about the two thousand things you lost, or you can focus on the eight thousand that remain.”
As I slowly adapted to my new version of normal life, Leonard’s 8000/2000 principle became my working definition of realistic optimism. It’s a key element to developing resilience.
Effective resilience doesn’t involve naïve blindness to challenges. Accidents occur. Evil exists. Difficult circumstaces are part of life, and ignoring problems doesn’t make them disappear.
When I was learning to drive as a kid, I developed a bad habit of staring at oncoming traffic. I discovered (with my dad’s screaming as a guide) that I tended to subtly swerve toward the focus of my attention. The best method of avoiding danger involved redirecting my vision to the unobstructed path in my own lane.
I think that’s true for any obstacle in our path—we need to be aware of its presence, but we can’t avoid an obstruction by staring at it. We stay away from trouble by directing most of our attention toward the open portion of the road. Seeking the clear path, the 8000 things in Leonard’s metaphor, offers a more efficient way forward than fixating on the problems of the 2000.
Realistic optimism involves acknowledging challenge while focusing on opportunity. Understanding and grieving the loss of the 2000 is necessary and important, but we move forward only when we turn our attention to the promise and possibility of the 8000.
What’s an obstacle you’ve stared at so much that you’re steering toward it? How can you refocus on the clear path of opportunity?
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