My father is a tenacious optimist. The man has an incredible ability to see the silver lining in nearly every situation. If we were trapped in a mine shaft with no food or flashlights my dad would be grateful for the fact that it cannot rain or snow underground. And then, of course, he would sit down to figure a way out of said mine.
Now, no one who knows both me and my dad would argue the fact that I am my father’s daughter. We are both strong-willed individuals who thrive on a good challenge (the more difficult the better). We work well under pressure, learn quickly, are incapable of good housekeeping and have a penchant for losing track of time. And while there are certainly days when I am less than pleased to share so many traits with my dear old dad, for the most part I am happy to have inherited so much from a man that I deeply respect and admire.
Unfortunately, I did not inherit my dad’s easy optimism. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a pessimist and years of living with my father have given me an extreme distaste for people who complain about their lives instead of fixing them, but I am not by nature a cool-headed hopeful. I have a temper that it’s best to avoid if at all possible (the fuse may be long but when you get to the end there’s dynamite to contend with) and when life is really getting me down I sometimes wallow in self-pity and frustration.
But, if I’ve learned anything from my dad it’s this: optimism gets you a lot further than wallowing. And so, as soon as I realize that I am headed down the path of self-pity, I make a conscious effort to choose joy. Certainly there are times in life when unhappy emotions must rule the day (funerals come to mind), but for the most part, choosing joy has served me much better than allowing myself to get bogged down in misery. I choose to look on the bright side, to weigh my options, to act. I choose to be happy and, most of the time, it works.
While there have been many times in my life where I have made the effort to choose joy, this little exercise has never been put to the test more often than in the last two weeks…
As part of my employment as an au pair I was asked to accompany my employers on a family vacation to Fieberbrunn, Austria. Fieberbrunn is a beautiful little town nestled in the Austrian Alps. It is complete with hiking trails, cows with bells around their necks and the unintelligible Austrian-German dialect that makes it even more impossible for me to effectively communicate than when I am in Germany. We (Host Mom, Host Dad, the three kids and myself) stayed in a small cabin about 5km outside of town.
To be honest, there were many moments where choosing joy was quite easy. I loved the views of the Alps and the rolling green hills made me feel like I had stepped right into The Sound of Music (which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies). On the day we took a cable car ride to the top of a mountain and went alpine sliding choosing joy wasn’t even a choice, it was a natural reaction to a fun-filled afternoon. I even enjoyed learning about Austria’s lax safety standards when I was allowed to take the 2-year-old on a roller coaster (albeit a small one) at a little theme park we stopped at. And while I loved learning to play Canasta, it was true joy when I finally won a game!
However, choosing joy was a bit more difficult when I was awakened by flying objects at 6:00am. Since the cabin was so small I shared a room with the two oldest children (an 11-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy) and, in addition to snoring and sleep-talking, they also wake up at the unreasonable hour of six o’clock in the morning. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I value sleep the way most value money. I need eight hours in order to function. Need. And so, when an empty sippy cup was hurled across the room as a wake-up call I cannot say that joy topped my list of emotions.
I was also less than joyful during the 12-hour car ride to and from Austria. Sandwiched in the backseat between the two-year-old and the baby I alternately played the roles of bottle feeder, pacifier finder, referee, toy producer, book reader, storyteller, diaper changer and musician. I also took a beating with a toy truck and got thrown up on.
I certainly didn’t choose joy when I walked to the top of a mountain and threw a mini temper tantrum after my fourth night of no sleep, and optimism was nowhere in sight when I locked myself in the bathroom in order to get five minutes of alone time (for a certified introvert 12 days of together time was killer).
Overall, my time in Austria, while beautiful and interesting was also a true challenge. I think my spirit of optimism failed me about as often as it helped and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t make one very expensive phone call home to my dad (who, of course, told me to look on the bright side).
Maybe this makes me a failure as an optimist. Maybe it simply means I am human. Or maybe, choosing joy and failing is a lesson in humility and patience just as much as choosing joy and succeeding is a lesson in being content. Either way, I think my dad would agree that this was one hell of a test.