Family Moab

Family Moab
In Arches National Park

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tragic Optimism

The BBC posted a link that I followed earlier in the week explaining "tragic optimism," a phrase first coined by Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. It means "there is space to experience both the good and the bad, and that we can grow from each." Embracing tragic optimism, we can acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world and in our own lives but move forward regardless with a firm grip on hope.

The writer positioned tragic optimism in opposition to what she termed "toxic positivity," an attitude that suppresses negative emotions or - worse - labels them as weaknesses. After two years of significant societal change and personal hardships, suppressing feelings of anger or sorrow seems like a short road to emotional turmoil.

Even as I recognize blessings of good health and resilient children, food and shelter and comfort of friends and family, I've struggled this week to support William moving toward an ACL surgery and finals, to read the headlines in the morning, to help buoy Daniel over the results of some poor choices. I'm exhausted and certainly not feeling particularly lucky, so I'm also a tiny bit gloomy over getting a crown at the dentist today (see previous post).

On this sunny spring day, when we need rain but will embrace the sunlight anyway, I plan to wrap my arms around some tragic optimism, finding meaning in  life's setbacks and sorrows and maintaining a firm grip on that slippery eel called hope.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Snakes and Crowns

 I went to the dentist for the first time in over six months and sat in the chair with some trepidation. Of course the technician wanted x-rays, and I took a long hard think before allowing her to go ahead, even explaining the moment of silence as "trying to think of a reason why not, but I couldn't."

After that propitious beginning, I stared ahead at the world map in front of me, the now-familiar cities of Ukraine directly before my face. I made another ill-considered stab at conversing by mentioning how much I now know about that country. The hygienist raised an eyebrow over her mask and said she didn't watch the news, then lowered the chair back so I could stare up at the TV mounted to the ceiling. 

The dentist's TV was playing Natural Geographic-style videos of animals in far lands. While being poked, prodded and scraped for tartar removal, the screen above me showed a desert vista, where a knot of snakes pursued an ungainly lizard across the sand. Lizards aren't normally sympathetic-looking creatures, but I cheered for that lizard to evade the horrid group of snakes and had to turn my head away when the poor guy lost his battle and got squeezed to death. (The hygienist quickly turned my head back to where she wanted it.)

Adding insult to injury, the dentist came in at the end to inform me that I have a crack in a molar, surrounding the old filling and pushing through to the outside. He asked me if I was feeling lucky, then said I could make it a long while without needing a fix or my tooth could crack tomorrow, in which case a crown might not save it. I wasn't feeling lucky, so put off making a decision about the crown.

I did encounter my good friend at the dentist, and later celebrated her fiftieth birthday with other friends at a celebratory dinner. It was lovely to be out, even as a new wave of COVID creeps into Colorado, even as my own daughter sent me a picture of her positive test result. Today I head to Boulder to take her some groceries and to take our son to the orthopedic doctor who will hopefully tell us how to repair the torn ACL. Still not feeling lucky - guess I will postpone the crown decision for yet another day.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Beautiful Mistakes

 "Life is more like a spiral than we realize" said a wise friend, when I complained about making the same mistakes over and over again. Big mistakes, not forgetting to take out trash from our upstairs bathroom but running myself ragged until my body falls apart. I wanted to ask if life always spiraled down, but backed away from the grimness of that question and decided to assume upward movement. Over time, perspective is gained even if our application of lessons learned is imperfect.

In this state of mind I welcome an email from another wise friend, whose reflection on mistakes borrowed the following from author Ellen Grace O'Brian:

"Think of an oak tree. If a tree had no obstacles or mistakes in its growth path, it would grow completely straight and tall. Everywhere we look, trees would be straight as an arrow, with every branch uniform. But instead, when we look at the oaks on the hillside, their beauty comes from their curved branches, their response to every obstacle they encountered. Every place they turned was a 'mistake' from their original growth path, but every turn ultimately became their beauty."

The comparison to an oak tree serves me better than almost anything else. I called myself a "big dumb animal" last week in a disservice to much smarter animals everywhere, but I prefer the tree analogy. It's fascinating how each individual tree grows according to specific stimuli that affect it, but still manages to be part of a forest community where each organism helps to nurture another, or others. It's a model that human communities might aspire to follow.

My good friend ended her email with this lovely poem that I share below from Antonio Machado.

Beautiful Mistakes

...and the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures...