The Power of Negative Thinking

March 19, 2010

Post for Monday, March 15, 2010

I often dream in words. I hear them or read them and then awaken and try to capture them quickly, before they’re forgotten. Last night, here’s what I heard:

There is the past, that time before. The imagined perfection of the neverwas. The reality of hurt and sorrow. Ephemeral delights. And there is now, the ever-futuring present that creates a hoped-for future—no guarantees.

Once I get these things I’ve heard or read onto paper, I try to puzzle out their meaning. They’re often a bit odd and sometimes just plain silly. (Note for those wondering how I can remember and record something this long. Many years of capturing quotations from movies, television, and the passing crowd have trained me. As long as I am not interrupted or distracted, I can briefly—long enough to get them written down—recall as many as forty words. More than that and I’m lost.)

I’ve been visiting with my mother and my cousin Charlie, sharing family memories, and I realize as I think about what I heard in my dream and reflect on our recent long conversations that all of our stories are happy ones. There are many unhappy memories we could have focused on. Resentments that could still be made to fester years later. Unfairness. Offenses. Unkind words that still echo if we listen for their hurtfulness. When the conversation veers in those directions, we try to steer away. We’re part of a family and no matter how families might appear to outsiders, I suspect that most of them share both happiness and all the varieties of its opposite.

Whether you’re in school or in a family or working or volunteering or whatever it is you’re doing there are likely to be positives and negatives to any involvement. After I wrote the dream-remembered words, I went on to write that although I try to mine the past for nuggets of understanding, I do not want to live there, hunkered down with resentment and regret, polishing the painful millstones of memory. Those negatives are always there. Always available for obsessive visiting and revisiting. Always ready to hurt me anew should I choose to let them. I try not to choose.

Instead, I prefer to polish diamonds of remembered delight that remind me of who I am and who I want to be. Those memories are harder to find. The power of negative thinking seems easier to access than its positive counterpart. I find this to be particularly true in relation to any of my creative work, whether it’s as a student or as a teacher or as a poet and artist. I find it much easier to remember the times when others told me what I was not and what I could not be than I do to remember moments of encouragement and validation. If I get ninety-nine positive evaluations, I am prone to remember the one disapproving one unless I deliberately determine that I will not dwell on the negative.

Perhaps you are better at the game of life than I am. Perhaps you find it easier to access the power of positive thinking. I hope so.

What techniques do you use to help you stay positive in the face of discouragement?

I’m a happy person. I like to be happy and I’m determined to stay that way no matter what happens.
• Doris Day


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