I have always found myself inexorably drawn to and fascinated by those books and movies that feature female leads encountering a major setback in life, only to triumph due to their wit and vigor. In these stories, the very event that seemed the end of the road was in fact the impetus that propelled these women to find their dream, be it a house, job or man. I love the concept that failure holds with it such possibility, that we are often too comfortable to see that we are truly miserable, and this failure is the first step to happiness.
Conceptually, I love it and spiritually I even believe it, but realistically, I doubt it. While watching an impeccably written and/or acted saga of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, I feel my spirit soar and sink along with the heroine’s, as though her path was mine. I laugh with her, cry with her, have faith in her; yet the question remains, how do I react when I am faced with my own setbacks?
The answer to that my friends, is “not well”. Recently I was faced with my own large setback when a week ago, I was terminated from the job I held without warning. While I would love to be able to honestly tell you I immediately saw the possibility for growth in my situation, truthfully I am much more likely to see the possibility for bankruptcy. As much as I would like to present for you an image of a woman unshaken by her circumstances, honesty compels me to confess I may have issued my own series of doomsday prophecies. I would love for you to envision me calmly sipping green tea after an hour long yoga session, but I must disillusion you with the picture of me washing my Steak and Shake down with a bottle of red wine.
I can think of plenty of reasons the framework of these stories won’t hold true for me; I’m not rich or particularly beautiful, my education level consists of roughly half of a bachelor’s degree and I suffer varying levels of anxiety in new situations. Add to this I am the mother of a one-year-old whose life goal is apparently to tear my house to pieces, with another baby on the way and a complicated though mostly happy marriage to a man with his own demons, and I hardly seem a candidate for success.
An important phase the brave heroine undergoes is her own reinvention. Whether she gets a makeover that transforms her from an ugly duckling to a swan or discovers her previously untapped skill set can morph into a lucrative career or that the ordinary man right under her nose is in fact Prince Charming, it is this event that is the turning point in her story. At this point, her story and her life change from a tragedy to a triumph, from a failure to a success.
The issue I have with this is mostly locale; very often she is able to get away to a beautiful and calm setting to recover her lost self. As much as I try to envision this for myself, it’s really hard to get in touch with your guiding compass when you have morning sickness and your little one wiping snot on your neck. I certainly do not expect to see, “unemployed pregnant mother living in a condo bordering the ghetto discovers happiness and fulfillment in the midst of swelling ankles and cleaning up spilled cat food”, in the synopsis of the latest hit movie for women.
I recently read that our brains are programmed with a negativity bias. This bias causes negative events to stand out far more profoundly in our minds than positive experiences and is a residual effect from days gone by. In the past, this would serve the purpose of keeping us alive; i.e. a caveman may forget where his favorite berries are but he would not forget the shadows where a saber-toothed creature lurked, whereas in our modern age, it’s main function is apparently to cause pessimism. This made me feel a little better to read this; I am a lifelong cynical realist but it’s not because I’m depressing, I’m just apparently too lazy to fight my natural impulses.
The article suggested the difference between optimists and pessimists is less inborn cheerfulness and more discipline. Our brains can actually be reprogrammed to focus more on the positive than the negative. Seeing as I feel fairly confident I am unlikely to be eaten by a large animal anytime soon, I think I may give this a try. The concept is simple; think of a moment that made you happy and fixate on that, forcing yourself if you have to and over time, this will become a habit your brain will divert to more naturally.
What if the only difference between the women in those movies and books I so loved and me was simply a matter of attitude and perspective? What if the thing that is holding me back from happiness and fulfillment is not circumstances and wherewithal, but proper neural programming? At any rate, it’s worth a try; after all, what do I have to lose?