Optimism: Acceptance of the Past; Mindfulness of the Present
The optimism I learned from Buddha, grows in my heart with Jesus.
First, a little background.
My father was a professed atheist. A smart man, but an idiot when it came to raising his kids. He was habitually abusive (physical and verbal), a borderline alcoholic, and entirely negligent (criminally by today’s standards). My mother wasn’t terribly abusive, but she had no better clue about raising her kids than her husband. For people who know the utter crap I had to cut through to be where I am today – that I am so incurably optimistic is the real miracle.
Sure, I get frustrated. I get angry and I may even suffer some anxiety when the deadlines pile up. Yet, my outlook on life remains positive, forward-focused, and determined. I could say that this is all part of the Lord’s work – and maybe some of it is. Here’s where my mother’s brother comes in.
I was raised – in part – by a Buddhist. My uncle – Nobuo Nishimoto – “Uncle Norman” as he was known in my home, replaced my father as my chief philosophical guide. Uncle Norman guided me through my early childhood and helped me understand the world as it began to unfold in my mind. For instance, on the notion of personal responsibility, he told me that we only have control of the present. He also said that the only things that we own are our actions, words, and our intentions. The rest of existence is a tangle of possibility, literally waiting for us to disentangle and put new possibilities (opportunity) into motion. Therefore, says my Uncle, it is good to look forward to the future with happy anticipation.
It is entirely a Japanese cultural perspective to embrace the power of optimism. There’s good reason for it. From my Uncle’s lips to you: “Optimism breeds dignity and honor.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but he said it so often that the slogan pops up in my mind unbidden. These days, now that I have my own kids to raise, it comes to me with clear understanding. Without optimism as the guiding light, we would throw over the hood of despair on our eyes and lock ourselves in a perpetual brood. Despair’s only function is to lead us into to utter disillusionment. In its more nefarious role, disillusionment and negativity sprout from the fertile ground of cynicism and anger. Here we boil the soul and grow only in the dark places of our animal being. Disillusion compels the infected to say ignorant things, do barbaric things, and think like dirt.
Harsh, but that’s how Uncle was wired.
Open Mind, Peaceful Heart
The kind of optimism I’m thinking of doesn’t include having money, a nice car, a beautiful house, or even a job. What I’m thinking of goes along the lines of peace, love, hope, equality, and justice. I’m also not thinking of what other people can do for me, but what I can do for myself. I was taught that true optimism is what we gain despite our efforts and experience. Thus, another quote from my dear Uncle: “Hold an open mind, keep a peaceful heart.” In my case, optimism arises from my desire to accept my past and be mindful of the present. To be perfectly honest, I’ve always found that this particular Buddhistic perspective a comfort to me even as I confess the salvation granted to me by God. I should note that religious Buddhists say that to be truly free, one must not be a slave to a promise of salvation – even from God. But I find this notion counterintuitive. Do I not gain freedom of spirit through my confession of sin and acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross? But I digress.
Another lesson from my Uncle: cynicism and negativity cause people to become sick. “Yes, physically ill,” said my Uncle. I’ve since learned that there are no truthful answers, only degrees of truth. My Uncle never declared that people who become ill – say from cancer or other maladies – are always cynical and negative. What he meant was that cynical and negative people are more likely to become ill and stay ill; moreover, if illness comes, cynicism and negativity can make it worse. I cannot find any reason to disagree on that point.
Consider also how people who breed negativity often do not get hired for good jobs. Persistent negativity brings other people down – the last thing you need on your team, right? Occasional cynicism (in the form of sarcasm) may not be all that bad, but people who are negative all of the time are tiresome. Thus, “people who exude darkness are left alone to dwell in darkness.” When you are optimistic, you’ll have an open mind to take a job when one comes along. Armed in optimism, you can see your options more clearly because you have a peaceful heart. When you exude light, people feel the effect of your positiveness and WANT you around.
On the issue of clarity, consider this advantage: When my heart is peaceful and my mind is open, positivity is self-generating. Even a small fragment of optimism communicates along the sinews of my awareness. Clarity shrinks the animal mind. It holds back the wanton abandon of the beast. With an open mind – I see opportunity that others miss. With a peaceful heart – I can embrace peace and love in whatever form it arrives. That’s how Buddhism prepared me for the Golden Rule, long before I ever heard the words: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. –Matthew 7:12. Amen, brother.
Dignity and Honor
Back to my Uncle. Remember how he linked Optimism with dignity and honor? Since he was Japanese, he often used the cultural archetype of the samurai as the absolute expression of all his philosophy. How handy for us Westerners that there’s an analog that works perfectly in this instance. And believe it or not, it exhibits the same hard-boiled ultimate, real-time samurai-like behavior (with ample dignity and honor). British sailors and foot soldiers during the Victorian/Elizabethan times knew that in warfare, there was little to be gained by ducking and diving for cover. You were just as likely to be hit by a musket ball or cannon fire whilst cowering behind a tree or the binnacle. Might as well stand stock straight at your station with dignity and die with your honor intact. Lesson? An ounce of optimism goes a long way as you confront your fear. Facing a maelstrom of musket and cannon fire? Praying that you don’t shrivel up and do something distasteful in your boots? Good news. Optimism is on your side. The act of ‘being brave’ (standing and facing your fears unflinchingly) means that you acknowledge that better times are just around the corner (once the fusillade stops).
Optimism means facing your challenges while being mindful about your goals. Survival sounds like a good goal. But I refuse to get caught up in the “success” cycle – it’s is much too broad. The point is that nothing is gained by worrying about how bad things may get, so I might as well take up the armor of positive thinking and prepare my soul for a better future. To be absolutely clear – my chief inspiration is from the New Testament. There are literally dozens of phrases and lessons that extol the virtues of optimism, but the best of these comes from John:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. — John 3:16
I’ll leave you with the best insight I can offer about the source of my optimism (that which is first, is last – right?): A Buddhist taught me how to be positive, even in the most difficult times. Jesus taught me why.
Note: I wrote the poem in the pull-quote above after I was told some pretty bad news (business related). Looking back – I think it looks like I was on drugs, but – no. Just me, talking to myself about how I was going to pull it all together. By the way, “control-c” and “control-v” are keyboard shortcuts for “copy” and “paste” functions.