The nice people at Harvard Medical School sent a message that arrived in my in-box early this morning, and just in the nick of time. The gist of the attached article was that those of us who maintain a positive attitude have a lower risk of dying of all causes than do gloomy and negative folks.
Good to know but I’m pretty sure that fear of dying may not be the best path to positivity, and, in my experience, positivity is its own reward, not that I’m knocking longevity. I am very much aware of the diversity of personalities; a wide variety of predilections and attitudes bounce around me every day. It happens that I am inclined to be cheerful, occasionally obnoxiously cheery; I could help it, I suppose, dial it back, especially early in the morning, but, as I noted earlier, I like being positive. According to Harvard, that’s a good thing, and I’m pleased that it may be, but walking in sunshine did not come without effort, and I recognize that it isn’t easy to move from a realistic view of the greater world, the complexity of life, and human mortality to cheerful appreciation of the day given to us. I do feel a twinge of hopelessness when I stop to catalog the impediments to good cheer, and hope does not always arrive on demand.
In what may appear a digression, I recall the lengthy rant delivered by Allen Iverson, at the time the best player on basketball’s Philadelphia ’76ers, after having been fined for arriving late to a team practice :
“We sitting in here — I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talking about practice, man.”
Iverson was a complicated and often misunderstood player, and I don’t intend to pile on long after Iverson retired from the sport, but even as I understand friction with his coach and the futility of playing for an unsuccessful franchise, I think Iverson is mistaken in separating “the game” from practice. I know that we keep better track of performance in games, keep record of performance in games, pay players for their performance in games; the game itself does count.
Of course it does.
Let’s take a quick step sideways, however, to situations we who do not play sports professionally actually experience. We notice that a person we consider a friend works very hard to impress the people he works with but doesn’t listen very carefully to what we say, doesn’t notice when we are troubled, doesn’t extend himself when we could really use a kind word.
Which is real, the thoughtless friend or the eager employee?
The temptation is to say both, keeping the two worlds separate, but we are describing a single person whose life is made up of actions taken or withheld on a daily basis. The bad news may be that in life, there’s no difference between practice and the game, the good news may be that because there’s no difference between practice and the game what we practice is, for the most part, what we and what we get.
My readers will not be surprised to learn that I live in a town that offers classes on the practice of mindfulness, a class I should probably take. My understanding is that the mindfulness taught here involves meditative consciousness of what is happening within and without in the moment. Grounding oneself in the present makes sense to me as it is all we actually have, and I admire those who take on that practice.
But, without beating the basketball analogy to death, a good practice involves the repetition of training in a variety of skills. Mindfulness matters as we practice, but so do gratitude, generosity, kindness, resilience, and purpose. It’s probably worth noting at this point that although I’m describing an active practice, those skills are applied in reaction to virtually everything we meet; we don’t become grateful or resilient in a vacuum.
Here’s where practicing gratitude and finding purpose gets hard. Nobody is keeping score; practice and the game are one. Aside from the promise of eternal life from the Harvard Medical School, what do we get out of practicing positivity?
And the answer is positivity.
I am reminded that the only experience I have of life is inside my head, and that my observations and conclusions may be singular, so what I’m suggesting may not be transferable. I simply feel better feeling better. I like feeling hopeful and I don’t like feeling crumby. In my case, as a modestly self-absorbed ego-driven late-model adult, I am prone to resentment and grandiose expectation of entitlement. It happens that when I practice those attitudes, I feel crumby. I don’t like wallowing in festering resentments, and grandiosity has not served me well.
So, does Mr. Sunny Bunny just swallow twice and let the unicorns dance? Not so much. When I remember to remember, I put on my emotional sweats and practice all those positive traits I’ve described earlier. I may not be authentically grateful or kind at the start of practice, but in time I change. Acting as if I am glad to be living the life I live leads me to be glad I’m living the life I live.
Over time, and with a lot of practise, I have found the one sure way to start practice is to catch myself being myself. I see an author applauded for work that has found publication, I look at the nine hundred thousand unpublished words I have written, and the resentment meter starts to climb. The spiral inevitably takes me to an extensive accounting of the wrongs done me year after year. This does not feel good, and I do not like the person I become when I practice petulance.
With time, I find I can see that petulant, ungrateful guy stuck in the mire, and I remember that although my history is what it was, it is not what I am. What I am is what I do, and rather than feel crumby, I practice recognizing how much I can be grateful for. Over the course of a rocky lifetime, people have treated me with kindness, forgiven me when I had no reason to expect forgiveness, offered me friendship and support.
OK, somewhat restored, I find that there are opportunities for me to offer all those gifts everywhere I look. That’s my purpose and having a purpose provides the gumption I need to practice acting as my best self.
We’re talking about practice, man, and it’s always game time.