At 41 and a half years, I am still an optimist. After a bout with a major depressive episode, I am still an optimist. Sex change? Optimist. I’ve grieved for people lost, had some horrendous relationships, been mugged, chased out of an apartment by a closeted roommate, had to fling myself away from a falling ceiling in some flophouse I called an apartment and still, optimist.
Perhaps it’s time to admit that I’m hard-wired for a positive lens on life. Or I’ve got some darn stubborn tendencies.
Most of my most important lessons I’ve learned the hard way; popularity is never as important as doing the right thing. Half of Brooklyn’s queers won’t speak to me because I refused to let someone start a brawl in a Philadelphia bar during a transgender conference, for example. They called it “silencing,” the most disingenuous argument I’d come across in LGBT circles at the time.
I never made it to the A-list crowd in high school because I was also friends with geeks and outcasts. (I’m pretty sure I was a geek myself, but I don’t think I saw it that way at the time.)
Before anyone grouses that I consider myself some kind of golden child, let me reassure the world: I’m a serial mistake-maker. I snickered about an effeminate high school teacher, used the word “gay” as a derogatory term, and threw a massive fit when my first girlfriend announced they wanted to transition to male. My saving grace, if I can call it that, is that I’ve got an enormous conscience that has smacked me upside the head when I pull rank, wreak unfairness on the people around me, become short-tempered, or let my biases flow.
So I’ve tried to be a better person, on something of a constant improvement cycle. This comes with some existential pain, of course, but the advantages are many, and optimism as nearby companion is one of them.
A dear friend puts it this way: give yourself the room to be cynical, and you’ll find some optimism underneath. She offers the AFGO as one method. AFGO is Another Fucking Growth Opportunity. I can roll my eyes at my circumstances, but still see the big picture.
When I moved out to Walla Walla, I was dumbstruck that none of my previous work experience counted. None of Susanne’s colleagues cared what I’d done for a living. Project management is just double-speak to most people even in the most garrulous of circles. The bottom had dropped out of the global economy. I was at once too experienced, wrong experienced, and inexperienced for any job opening I could identify, and I applied to 130 of them.
Four years later, all of my project management training is in full gear again as I’m heading up a small nonprofit in town. The pessimist could call it coincidence, but because I’m not one of those, I see it as building on an earlier foundational level. So that is point number one:
1. Be willing to look back on earlier experiences and trace their relationship to the now. It doesn’t even matter what the earlier moment was–a mistake, a piece of bravery, a friendship, a poem that resonated, whatever. Your life is a story with pieces that fit together as you go, so each new moment ties in somewhere, either to a moment that hasn’t occurred yet, or something already done. There is joy in identifying these connections and growing from them.
2. In the big picture, mistakes happen. I try not to get bogged down about my failings anymore. After all, I’ve spent years being mired in my own failure, so as far as I’m concerned, I’m done with that. Instead I widen my aperture and allow myself to be imperfect but working toward improving. I apologize, come up with a new response that is more fair, honest, or appropriate, and try to move forward that way.
3. Be present. I can stop a lot of those mistakes from happening if I’m living in each moment. I aim at being a good listener instead of waiting for the other person in the conversation to breathe so I can get my point in. This requires more patience, and I’m grateful I have more patience in my 40s than before. When I feel myself getting antsy, I re-gather myself to get back in the present moment.
4. Stop tallying the points. Sure, not every person in the world is my friend. Based on what he’s said, I don’t think I’ll get much support for my life from the likes of Rick Santorum, and given that I live in a conservative-leaning town, I can bet that many of my fellow residents would not be especially amused to know that there’s a chubby transsexual in their midst. But I’m not going to keep track of these perceived slings and arrows, because all they do is destabilize my own productivity. I’m not suggesting here that I don’t have a critique of the right’s prejudices, but I also don’t need to take these messages to heart. And while I’m not personalizing anyone’s attack on me or my community, I can better respond. I’m a fan of public forums, after all.
5. Let the future work for you. My pessimistic moments happen when I dwell on what hasn’t gone right in the past. That’s the problem–it’s past, over, finito. There’s nothing I can do to change it. But I’m still breathing; I have today and tomorrow. Looking toward the future bolsters the optimistic approach that improvement can and will happen. I can make better choices, stronger connections, get to see the rewards from earlier painful lessons. And then I find myself charged up, more able to turn sow ears into Prada. That query letter I sent out with the typo in the agent’s name? Let’s do better name checking next time. The two-and-a-half years I spent in that terrible relationship where I felt like crap all the time? Memoir!
Any lived experience asks for interpretation. It’s one of the human being’s strengths, the ability to find patterns, meaning, and value. Interpretation, however reflects where we’re at in our lives and our attitudes. I want my takeaways to shore up my optimistic outlook on life, not to box me in. And it’s my dearest hope that the folks around me find themselves limitless, especially when they need it.