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8 Change Your Circumstances by Changing Your Attitude
The Law of Self-sabotage
Each of us has a particular way of looking at the world, of interpreting events and the actions of people around us. This is our attitude, and it determines much of what happens to us in life. If our attitude is essentially fearful, we see the negative in every circumstance. We stop ourselves from taking chances. We blame others for mistakes and fail to learn from them. If we feel hostile or suspicious, we make others feel such emotions in our presence. We sabotage our career and relationships by unconsciously creating the circumstances we fear the most. The human attitude, however, is malleable. By making our attitude more positive, open, and tolerant of other people, we can spark a different dynamic—we can learn from adversity, create opportunities out of nothing, and draw people to us. We must explore the limits of our willpower and how far it can take us.
The Ultimate Freedom
As a child, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)—the future celebrated writer—faced each morning with a feeling of dread: would he be beaten that day by his father or somehow spared? Without warning, and sometimes without any apparent cause, his father, Pavel Yegorovich, would strike him hard several times with a cane or a whip or the back of his hand. What made it doubly confusing was that his father did not beat him out of any apparent malice or anger. He told Anton he was doing it out of love. It was God’s will that children be beaten, to instill humility. That was how he had been raised, and look at what a fine man he had turned into. At the end of the beating, young Anton had to kiss his father’s hand and ask to be forgiven. At least he was not alone in this ordeal—his four brothers and one sister all received the same treatment.
The beating was not the only thing he came to dread. In the afternoon he would hear his father’s approaching footsteps outside their ramshackle wooden house, and he would tremble with fear. More often than not he was coming to the house at that hour to ask the child Anton to replace him in the grocery shop that he owned, in the backwater town of Taganrog, Russia, where the family lived. For most of the year, the shop was unbearably cold. While minding the counter, Anton would try to do his homework, but his fingers would quickly become numb and the ink in the pot for his pen would freeze up. In that mess of a store, which smelled of rancid meat, he would have to listen to the dirty jokes of the Ukrainian peasants who worked there, and witness the lewd behavior of the assortment of town drunks who wandered in for their shots of vodka. In the midst of all this, he had to make sure that every kopeck was accounted for, or he would get an added thrashing from his father. He would often be left there for hours while his father was getting drunk somewhere else.
His mother would try to intervene. She was a gentle soul who was no match for her husband. The boy was too young to work, she would say. He needed time for his studies. Sitting in the freezing shop was ruining his health. The father would thunder back that Anton was lazy by nature, and only through hard work could he become a respectable citizen.
There was no respite from the father’s presence. On Sunday, the one day the shop was closed, he would wake the children up at four or five in the morning to rehearse their singing for the church choir, of which he was the director. Once home from the service, they would have to repeat it, ritual by ritual, on their own, then return for the noon mass. By the time it was over, they were all too exhausted to play.
In the moments he had to himself, Anton would wander around town. Taganrog was a grim place to grow up. The fronts of almost all of the houses were decaying and crumbling, as if they were already ancient ruins. The roads were not paved, and when the snow melted there was mud everywhere, with giant potholes that could swallow a child up to the neck. There were no streetlights. Prisoners would be tasked with finding the stray dogs on the streets and beating them to death. The only quiet and safe place was the surrounding graveyards, and Anton would visit them often.
On these walks, he would wonder about himself and the world. Was he really so worthless that he deserved the almost daily beatings from his father? Perhaps. And yet his father was a walking contradiction—he was lazy, a drunk, and quite dishonest with customers, despite his religious zeal. And the citizens of Taganrog were equally ridiculous and hypocritical. He would observe them at the cemetery, trying to act pious during the funeral service but then excitedly whispering to one another about the delicious cakes they would eat later at the home of the widow, as if that was why they had shown up.
His only recourse in the face of the pain and boredom he constantly felt was to laugh at it all. He became the family clown, imitating the characters of Taganrog and inventing stories about their private lives. Sometimes his humor turned aggressive. He played cruel practical jokes on other children in the neighborhood. Sent to the market by his mother, he often tormented the live duck or chicken that he carried home in a sack. He was becoming impish and quite lazy.
Then in 1875, everything changed for the Chekhov family. Anton’s two older brothers, Alexander and Nikolai, had had enough of their father. They decided to move together to Moscow, Alexander to pursue a university degree and Nikolai to become an artist. This snubbing of his authority infuriated the father, but he could not stop them. At around the same time, Pavel Yegorovich had to finally confront his complete mismanagement of the grocery store—he had piled up debts over the years and now the bills came due. Facing bankruptcy and almost certainly time in the debtor’s prison, he quietly slipped out of town one night, without telling his wife, and escaped to Moscow, intending to live with his sons.
The mother was forced to sell the family possessions to pay the debts. A boarder who lived with them offered to help the mother with their case against the creditors, but much to her surprise, he used his court connections to swindle the Chekhovs out of their house. Without a penny to her name, the mother was forced to leave for Moscow with the other children. Only Anton would stay to finish his studies and get his diploma. He was charged with selling all of the remaining family belongings and sending the money to Moscow as soon as possible. The former boarder, now owner of the house, gave Anton a corner of one room to live in, and so at the age of sixteen, with no money of his own and no family to look after him, Anton was suddenly left to fend for himself in Taganrog.
Anton had never really been alone before. His family had been his whole life, for better or worse. Now it was as if the bottom had dropped out. He had no one to turn to for help in any way. He blamed his father for this miserable fate, for being trapped in Taganrog. One day he felt angry and bitter, the next day depressed. But soon it became clear that he had no time for such sentiments. He had no money or resources, and yet somehow he had to survive. So he hired himself out as a tutor to as many families as possible. When they went on vacation he would often go hungry for days. His one jacket was threadbare; he had no galoshes for the heavy rains. He felt ashamed when he entered people’s houses, shivering and his feet all wet. But at least he was now able to support himself.
He had decided to become a doctor. He had a scientific frame of mind, and doctors made a good living. To get into medical school he would have to study much harder. Frequenting the town library, the only place he could work in peace and quiet, he began to also browse the literature and philosophy sections, and soon he felt his mind soaring far beyond Taganrog. With books, he no longer felt so trapped. At night, he returned to his corner of a room to write stories and sleep. He had no privacy, but he could keep his corner neat and tidy, free of the usual disorder of the Chekhov household.
He had finally begun to settle down, and new thoughts and emotions came to him. Work was no longer something he dreaded; he loved absorbing his mind in his studies, and tutoring had made him feel proud and dignified—he could take care of himself. Letters came from his family—Alexander ranting and complaining about their father making everyone miserable again; Mikhail, the youngest son, feeling worthless and depressed. Anton wrote back to Alexander: stop obsessing over our father and start taking care of yourself. He wrote to Mikhail: “Why do you refer to yourself as my ‘worthless, insignificant little brother’? Do you know where you should be aware of your worthlessness? Before God, perhaps . . . but not before people. Among people you should be aware of your worth.” Even Anton was surprised by the new tone he was taking in these letters.
Then one day, several months after being abandoned, he wandered through the streets of Taganrog and suddenly felt welling up from within a tremendous and overwhelming sense of empathy and love for his parents. Where did this come from? He had never felt this before. In the days leading up to this moment he had been thinking long and hard about his father. Was he really to blame for all their problems? Pavel’s father, Yegor Mikhailovich, had been born a serf, serfdom being a form of indentured slavery. The Chekhovs had been serfs for several generations. Yegor had finally been able to buy the family’s freedom, and he set his three sons up in different fields, Pavel designated as the family merchant. But Pavel could not cope. He had an artistic temperament, could have been a talented painter or musician. He felt bitter at his fate—a grocery store and six children. His father had beaten him, and so he beat his children. Although no longer a serf, Pavel still bowed and kissed the hand of every local official and landowner. He remained a serf at heart.
Anton could see that he and his siblings were falling into the same pattern—bitter, secretly feeling worthless, and wanting to take their anger out on others. Now that he was alone and taking care of himself, Anton yearned to be free in the truest sense of the word. He wanted to be free of the past, free of his father. And here, as he walked the streets of Taganrog, the answer came to him from these new and sudden emotions. Understanding his father, he could accept and even love him. He was not some imposing tyrant but a rather helpless old man. With a bit of distance, he could feel compassion and forgive the beatings. He would not become enmeshed in all of the negative feelings his father inspired. And he could finally value as well his kind mother, and not blame her for being so weak. With his mind emptied of rancor and obsessive thoughts of his lost childhood, it was as if a great weight had been suddenly lifted off him.
He made a vow to himself: no more bowing and apologizing to people; no more complaining and blaming; no more disorderly living and wasting time. The answer to everything was work and love, work and love. He had to spread this message to his family and save them. He had to share it with mankind through his stories and plays.
Finally in 1879 Anton moved to Moscow to be with his family and to attend medical school, and what he saw there made him despondent. The Chekhovs and a few boarders were all crammed in a single room in the basement of a tenement, in the middle of the red-light district. The room had little ventilation and almost no light. Worst of all was the morale of the group. His mother was beaten down by the constant anxieties about money and the subterranean existence. His father drank even more and held some odd jobs that were quite a step down from owning a business. He continued to beat his children.
Anton’s younger siblings were no longer in school (the family could not afford it) and felt completely useless. Mikhail in particular was even more depressed than ever. Alexander had gotten work as a writer for magazines, but he felt he deserved much better and started to drink heavily. He blamed his problems on his father for following him to Moscow and haunting his every move. Nikolai, the artist, slept till late, worked sporadically, and spent most of his time at the local tavern. The entire family was spiraling downward at an alarming rate, and the neighborhood they lived in only made it worse.
The father and Alexander had recently moved out. Anton decided he needed to do the opposite—move into the cramped room and become the catalyst for change. He would not preach or criticize but rather set the proper example. What mattered was keeping the family together and elevating their spirits. To his overwhelmed mother and sister he announced that he would take charge of the housework. Seeing Anton cleaning and ironing, his brothers now agreed to share in these duties. He scrimped and saved from his own medical school scholarship and got more money from his father and Alexander. With this money he put Mikhail, Ivan, and Maria back into school. He managed to find his father a better job. Using his father’s money and his own savings, he was able to move the entire family to a much larger apartment with a view.
He worked to improve all aspects of their lives. He got his brothers and sister to read books he had chosen, and well into the night they would discuss and argue the latest findings in science and philosophical questions. Slowly they all bonded on a much deeper level, and they began to refer to him as Papa Antosha, the leader of the family. The complaining and self-pitying attitude he had first encountered had mostly disappeared. His two younger brothers now talked excitedly about their future careers.
Anton’s greatest project was to reform Alexander, whom he considered the most gifted yet troubled member of the family. Once Alexander came home completely drunk, began to insult the mother and sister, and threatened to smash Anton’s face in. The family had become resigned to these tirades, but Anton would not tolerate this. He told Alexander the next day that if he ever yelled at another family member, he would lock him out and disavow him as a brother. He was to treat his mother and sister with respect and not blame the father for his turning to drink and womanizing. He must have some dignity—dress well and take care of himself. That was the new family code.
Alexander apologized and his behavior improved, but it was a continual battle that demanded all of Anton’s patience and love, for the self-destructive streak in the Chekhovs was deeply ingrained. It had led Nikolai to an early death from alcoholism, and without constant attention Alexander could easily follow the same path. Slowly Anton weaned him from drinking and helped him with his journalistic career, and eventually Alexander settled into a quiet and satisfying life.
Sometime in 1884, Anton had begun to spit blood, and it was apparent to him that he had the preliminary signs of tuberculosis. He refused to submit to the examination of a fellow doctor. He preferred not to know and to go on writing and practicing medicine without worrying about the future. But as he became increasingly famous for his plays and short stories, he began to experience a new kind of discomfort—the envy and petty criticisms of his fellow writers. They formed various political cliques and endlessly attacked one another, including Anton himself, who had refused to ally himself with any revolutionary cause. All of this made Anton feel increasingly disenchanted with the literary world. The elevated mood he had so carefully crafted in Taganrog was dissipating. He became depressed and considered giving up writing entirely.
Then, toward the end of 1889, he thought of a way to free himself from his growing depression. Since his days in Taganrog, the poorest and most abject members of society had fascinated him. He liked to write about thieves and con artists, and get inside their minds. The lowliest members of Russian society were its prisoners, who lived in ghastly conditions. And the most notorious prison in Russia was on Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan. It housed five penal colonies with hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families. It was like a shadow state—nobody in Russia had any idea what really went on on the island. This could be the answer to his present misery. He would make the arduous trek across Siberia to the island. He would interview the most hardened criminals. He would write a detailed book on the conditions there. Far from the pretentious literary world, he would connect to something very real and reignite the generous mood he had crafted in Taganrog.
His friends and family tried to dissuade him. His health had gotten worse; the travel could kill him. But the more they tried to dissuade him, the more he felt certain it was the only way to save himself.
After a three-month journey he finally arrived at the island in July of 1890, and he immediately immersed himself in this new world. His task was to interview every possible prisoner, including the most vicious murderers. He investigated every aspect of their lives. He witnessed the most gruesome torture sessions of prisoners and followed convicts as they worked in the local mines, chained to wheelbarrows. Prisoners who completed their sentences would often have to stay on the island in labor camps, and so Sakhalin was full of wives waiting to join them in these camps. These women and their daughters would resort to prostitution to stay alive. Everything was designed to degrade people’s spirits and drain them of every ounce of dignity. It reminded him of his family dynamic, on a much larger scale.
This was certainly the lowest rung of hell he could have visited, and it affected him deeply. He now longed to return to Moscow and write about what he had seen. His sense of proportion had been restored. He had finally freed himself of the petty thoughts and concerns that had weighed him down. Now he could get outside of himself and feel generous again. The book he wrote, Sakhalin Island, caught the attention of the public and led to substantial reforms of conditions on the island.
By 1897 his health had deteriorated, and he began to cough blood rather regularly. He could no longer disguise his tuberculosis from the world at large. The doctor who treated him advised that he retire from all work and leave Moscow for good. He needed rest. Perhaps by living in a sanatorium he could extend his life a few years. Anton would have none of this. He would live as if nothing had changed.
A cult had begun to form around Chekhov, comprising younger artists and adoring fans of his plays, all of which had made him one of Russia’s most famous writers. They came to visit him in large numbers, and although he was clearly ailing, he radiated a calmness that astonished almost everyone. Where did it come from? Was he born this way? He seemed to absorb himself completely in their stories and problems. No one ever heard him talk about his illness.
In the winter of 1904, as his condition worsened, he suddenly had the desire to take an open-sleigh ride into the country. Hearing the bells of the sleigh and breathing the cold air had always been one of his greatest pleasures, and he needed to feel this one more time. It put him in such high spirits that he did not care anymore about the consequences, which were dire. He died a few months later.
• • •
Interpretation: The moment his mother left him to be alone in Taganrog, young Anton Chekhov felt trapped, as if he had been thrown into prison. He would be forced to work as much as he could outside his studies. He was now stuck in this hopelessly dull backwater with no support system, living in the corner of a small room. Bitter thoughts about his fate and about the childhood he had never had gnawed at him in his few free moments. But as the weeks went by, he noticed something very strange—he actually liked the work he did as a tutor, even though the pay was meager and he was continually running around town. His father had kept telling him he was lazy, and he had believed it, but now he was not so sure. Each day represented a challenge to find more work and put food on the table. He was succeeding in this. He was not some miserable worm who needed a beating. Besides, the work was a way to get outside himself and immerse his mind in the problems of his students.
The books he read took him far away from Taganrog and filled him with interesting thoughts that lingered in his mind for entire days. Taganrog itself was not so bad. Each shop, each house contained the oddest characters, supplying him endless material for stories. And that corner of the room—that was his kingdom. Far from feeling trapped, he now felt liberated. What had actually changed? Certainly not his circumstances, or Taganrog, or the corner of the room. What had changed was his attitude, which opened him up to new experiences and possibilities. Once he felt this, he wanted to take it further. The greatest remaining impediment to this sense of freedom was his father. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t seem to get rid of deep feelings of bitterness. It was as if he could still feel the beatings and hear the endless pointed criticisms.
As a last resort, he tried to analyze his father as if he were a character in a story. This led him to think about his father’s father and all the generations of Chekhovs. As he considered his father’s erratic nature and his wild imagination, he could understand how he must have felt trapped by his circumstances, and why he turned to drinking and tyrannizing the family. He was helpless, more a victim than an oppressor. This understanding of his father laid the groundwork for the sudden rush of unconditional love he felt one day for his parents. As he glowed with this new emotion, he finally felt completely liberated from resentments and anger. The negative emotions from the past had finally fallen away from him. His mind could now be completely open. The sensation was so exhilarating that he had to share it with his siblings and free them as well.
What had brought Chekhov to this point was the crisis he had faced when left alone at such a young age. He experienced another such crisis some thirteen years later, when he became depressed about the pettiness of his fellow writers. His solution was to reproduce what had happened in Taganrog, but in reverse—he would be the one to abandon others and force himself to be alone and vulnerable. In this way he could reexperience the freedom and empathy he had felt in Taganrog. The early death sentence from tuberculosis was the last crisis. He would let go of his fear of death, and the bitter feelings that came with having his life cut short, by continuing to live at full tilt. This final and ultimate freedom gave him a radiance that almost everyone who met him in this period could feel.
Understand: The story of Anton Chekhov is really a paradigm for what we all face in life. We carry with us traumas and hurts from early childhood. In our social life, as we get older, we accumulate disappointments and slights. We too are often haunted by a sense of worthlessness, of not really deserving the good things in life. We all have moments of great doubt about ourselves. These emotions can lead to obsessive thoughts that dominate our minds. They make us curtail what we experience as a way to manage our anxiety and disappointments. They make us turn to alcohol or any kind of habit to numb the pain. Without realizing it, we assume a negative and fearful attitude toward life. This becomes our self-imposed prison. But this is not how it has to be. The freedom that Chekhov experienced came from a choice, a different way of looking at the world, a change in attitude. We can all follow such a path.
This freedom essentially comes from adopting a generous spirit—toward others and toward ourselves. By accepting people, by understanding and if possible even loving them for their human nature, we can liberate our minds from obsessive and petty emotions. We can stop reacting to everything people do and say. We can have some distance and stop ourselves from taking everything personally. Mental space is freed up for higher pursuits. When we feel generous toward others, they feel drawn to us and want to match our spirit. When we feel generous toward ourselves, we no longer feel the need to bow and scrape and play the game of false humility while secretly resenting our lack of success. Through our work and through getting what we need on our own, without depending on others, we can stand tall and realize our potential as humans. We can stop reproducing the negative emotions around us. Once we feel the exhilarating power from this new attitude, we will want to take it as far as possible.
Years later, in a letter to a friend, Chekhov tried to summarize his experience in Taganrog, referring to himself in the third person: “Write about how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop and how one fine morning he awakes to find that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave but that of a real human being.”
The greatest discovery of my generation is the fact that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.
Keys to Human Nature
We humans like to imagine that we have an objective knowledge of the world. We take it for granted that what we perceive on a daily basis is reality—this reality being more or less the same for everybody. But this is an illusion. No two people see or experience the world in the same way. What we perceive is our personal version of reality, one that is of our own creation. To realize this is a critical step in our understanding of human nature.
Imagine the following scenario: A young American must spend a year studying in Paris. He is somewhat timid and cautious, prone to feelings of depression and low self-esteem, but he’s genuinely excited by this opportunity. Once there, he finds it hard to speak the language, and the mistakes he makes and the slightly derisory attitude of the Parisians make it even harder for him to learn. He finds the people not friendly at all. The weather is damp and gloomy. The food is too rich. Even Notre Dame Cathedral seems disappointing, the area around it so crowded with tourists. Although he has pleasurable moments, he generally feels alienated and unhappy. He concludes that Paris is overrated and a rather unpleasant place.
Now imagine the same scenario but with a young woman who is more extroverted and has an adventurous spirit. She’s not bothered by making mistakes in French, nor by the occasional snide remark from a Parisian. She finds learning the language a pleasant challenge. Others find her spirit engaging. She makes friends more easily, and with more contacts her knowledge of French improves. She finds the weather romantic and quite suitable to the place. To her, the city represents endless adventures and she finds it enchanting.
In this case, two people see and judge the same city in opposite ways. As a matter of objective reality, the weather of Paris has no positive or negative qualities. Clouds simply pass by. The friendliness or unfriendliness of the Parisians is a subjective judgment—it depends on whom you meet and how they compare with the people where you come from. Notre Dame Cathedral is merely an agglomeration of carved pieces of stone. The world simply exists as it is—things or events are not good or bad, right or wrong, ugly or beautiful. It is we with our particular perspectives who add color to or subtract it from things and people. We focus on either the beautiful Gothic architecture or the annoying tourists. We, with our mind-set, can make people respond to us in a friendly or unfriendly manner, depending on our anxiety or openness. We shape much of the reality that we perceive, dictated by our moods and emotions.
Understand: Each of us sees the world through a particular lens that colors and shapes our perceptions. Let us call this lens our attitude. The great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined this in the following way: “Attitude is a readiness of the psyche to act or react in a certain way. . . . To have an attitude means to be ready for something definite, even though this something is unconscious; for having an attitude is synonymous with an a priori orientation to a definite thing.”
What this means is the following: In the course of a day, our minds respond to thousands of stimuli in the environment. Depending on the wiring of our brain and our psychological makeup, certain stimuli—clouds in the sky, crowds of people—lead to stronger firings and responses. The stronger the response, the more we pay attention. Some of us are more sensitive to stimuli that others would mostly ignore. If we are unconsciously prone to feelings of sadness, for whatever reason, we are more likely to pick up signs that promote this feeling. If we have a suspicious nature, we are more sensitive to facial expressions that display any kind of possible negativity and to exaggerate what we perceive. This is the “readiness of the psyche to . . . react in a certain way.” We are never conscious of this process. We merely experience the aftereffects of these sensitivities and firings of the brain; they add up to an overall mood or emotional background that we might call depression, hostility, insecurity, enthusiasm, or adventurousness. We experience many different moods, but in an overall sense we can say that we have a particular way of seeing and interpreting the world, dominated by one emotion or a blend of several, such as hostility and resentment. This is our attitude. People with a largely depressive attitude can feel moments of joy, but they are more disposed toward experiencing sadness; they anticipate the feeling in their day-to-day encounters.
Jung illustrates this idea in the following way: Imagine that on a hike people come upon a brook that must be crossed to continue the journey. One person, without much thought, will simply leap across, touching a stone or two, not worried at all about possibly falling. He loves the sheer physical pleasure of the jump and doesn’t care if he fails. Another person is excited as well, but it has less to do with the physical joy than with the mental challenge the brook represents. She will quickly calculate the most effective means of crossing and will gain satisfaction from figuring this out. Another person, of a cautious nature, will take more time to think it through. He takes no pleasure in the crossing; he is irritated by the obstruction, but he wants to continue the hike and he will do his best to safely cross. A fourth will simply turn back. She will see no need for crossing and will rationalize her fears by saying the hike has been long enough.
No one simply sees or hears the rushing of water over rocks. Our minds do not perceive just what is there. Each person sees and responds to the same brook differently, according to their particular attitude—adventurous, fearful, et cetera.
The attitude that we carry with us throughout life has several roots: First, we come into this world with certain genetic inclinations—toward hostility, greed, empathy, or kindness. We can notice these differences, for instance, in the case of the Chekhov children, who all had to respond to the same physical punishments of the father. At a very early age Anton revealed a more ironic attitude, prone to laughing at the world and seeing things with some detachment. This made it easier for him to reassess his father once he was on his own. The other children lacked this ability to distance themselves and were more easily enmeshed in the father’s brutality. This would seem to indicate something different in the way Anton’s brain was wired. Some children are greedier than others—they display from early on a greater need for attention. They tend to always see what is missing, what they are not getting from others.
Second, our earliest experiences and attachment schemas (see chapter 4) play a large role in shaping the attitude. We internalize the voices of the mother and father figure. If they were very authoritarian and judgmental, we will tend to be harsher on ourselves than others and have a more critical bent toward everything we see. Equally important are the experiences we have outside the family, as we get older. When we love or admire someone, we tend to internalize a part of their presence, and they shape how we see the world in a positive way. This could be teachers, mentors, or peers. Negative and traumatic experiences can have a constricting effect—they close our minds off to anything that might possibly make us reexperience the original pain. Our attitude is constantly being shaped by what happens to us, but vestiges of our earliest attitude always live on. No matter how far he progressed, Chekhov remained susceptible to feelings of depression and self-loathing.
What we must understand about the attitude is not only how it colors our perceptions but also how it actively determines what happens to us in life—our health, our relations with people, and our success. Our attitude has a self-fulfilling dynamic.
Look again at the scenario of the young man in Paris. Feeling somewhat tense and insecure, he reacts defensively to mistakes that he makes in learning the language. This makes it harder for him to learn, which in turn makes meeting people more difficult, which makes him feel more isolated. The more his energy lowers from depression, the more this cycle perpetuates itself. His insecurities can also push people away. The way we think about people tends to have a like effect upon them. If we feel hostile and critical, we tend to inspire critical emotions in other people. If we feel defensive, we make others feel defensive. The attitude of the young man tends to lock him into this negative dynamic.
The attitude of the young woman, on the other hand, triggers a positive dynamic. She is able to learn the language and meet people, all of which elevates her mood and energy levels, which makes her more attractive and interesting to others, on and on.
Although attitudes come in many varieties and blends, we can generally categorize them as negative and narrow or positive and expansive. Those with a negative attitude tend to operate from a basic position of fear toward life. They unconsciously want to limit what they see and experience to give them more control. Those with a positive attitude have a much less fearful approach. They are open to new experiences, ideas, and emotions. If the attitude is like our lens on the world, the negative attitude narrows the aperture of this lens, and the positive variety expands it as far as possible. We might move between these two poles, but generally we tend to see the world with a more closed or open lens.
Your task as a student of human nature is twofold: First, you must become aware of your own attitude and how it slants your perceptions. It is hard to observe this in your day-to-day life because it is so close to you, but there are ways to catch glimpses of it in action. You can see it in how you judge people once they are out of your presence. Are you quick to focus on their negative qualities and bad opinions, or are you more generous and forgiving when it comes to their flaws? You will see definite signs of your attitude in how you face adversity or resistance. Are you quick to forget or gloss over any mistakes on your part? Do you instinctively blame others for any bad things that happen to you? Do you dread any kind of change? Do you tend to keep to routines and to avoid anything unexpected or unusual? Do you get your back up when someone challenges your ideas and assumptions?
You will also catch signs of it in how people respond to you, particularly in a nonverbal way. Do you catch them being nervous or defensive in your presence? Do you tend to attract people who play the mother or father role in your life?
Once you have a good feel for the makeup of your own attitude, its negative or positive bent, you have much greater power to alter it, to move it more in the positive direction.
Second, you must not only be aware of the role of your attitude but also believe in its supreme power to alter your circumstances. You are not a pawn in a game controlled by others; you are an active player who can move the pieces at will and even rewrite the rules. View your health as largely dependent on your attitude. Feeling excited and open to adventure, you can tap into energy reserves you did not know that you had. The mind and the body are one, and your thoughts affect your physical responses. People can recover much more quickly from illness through sheer desire and willpower. You are not born with fixed intelligence and inherent limits. See your brain as a miraculous organ designed for continual learning and improvement, well into old age. The rich neural connections in your brain, your creative powers, are something you develop to the degree that you open yourself up to new experiences and ideas. View problems and failures as means to learn and toughen yourself up. You can get through anything with persistence. View the way people treat you as largely flowing from your own attitude, something you can control.
Do not be afraid to exaggerate the role of willpower. It is an exaggeration with a purpose. It leads to a positive self-fulfilling dynamic, and that is all you care about. See this shaping of your attitude as your most important creation in life, and never leave it to chance.
The Constricted (Negative) Attitude
Life is inherently chaotic and unpredictable. The human animal, however, does not react well to uncertainty. People who feel particularly weak and vulnerable tend to adopt an attitude toward life that narrows what they experience so that they can reduce the possibility of unexpected events. This negative, narrowing attitude often has its origins in early childhood. Some children have little comfort or support in facing a frightening world. They develop various psychological strategies to constrict what they have to see and experience. They build up elaborate defenses to keep out other viewpoints. They become increasingly self-absorbed. In most situations they come to expect bad things to happen, and their goals in life revolve around anticipating and neutralizing bad experiences to better control them. As they get older, this attitude becomes more entrenched and narrower, making any kind of psychological growth nearly impossible.
These attitudes have a self-sabotaging dynamic. Such people make others feel the same negative emotion that dominates their attitude, which helps confirm them in their beliefs about people. They do not see the role that their own actions play, how they often are the instigators of the negative response. They only see people persecuting them, or bad luck overwhelming them. By pushing people away, they make it doubly hard to have any success in life, and in their isolation their attitude gets worse. They are caught in a vicious cycle.
The following are the five most common forms of the constricted attitude. Negative emotions have a binding power—a person who is angry is more prone to also feel suspicion, deep insecurities, resentment, et cetera. And so we often find combinations of these various negative attitudes, each one feeding and accentuating the other. Your goal is to recognize the various signs of such attitudes that exist in you in latent and weakened forms, and to root them out; to see how they operate in a stronger version in other people, better understanding their perspective on life; and to learn how to handle people with such attitudes.
The Hostile Attitude. Some children exhibit a hostile attitude at a very early age. They interpret weaning and the natural separation from parents as hostile actions. Other children must deal with a parent who likes to punish and inflict hurt. In both cases, the child looks out on a world that seems fraught with hostility, and their answer is to seek to control it by becoming the source of the hostility themselves. At least then it is no longer so random and sudden. As they get older, they become adept at stimulating anger and frustration in others, which justifies their original attitude—“See, people are against me, I am disliked, and for no apparent reason.” In a relationship, a husband with a hostile attitude will accuse his wife of not really loving him. If she protests and becomes defensive, he will see this as a sign that she has to try hard to disguise the truth. If she is intimidated into silence, he sees that as a sign that he was right all along. In her confusion, she can easily begin to feel some hostility on her part, confirming his opinion. People with this attitude have many other subtle tricks up their sleeve for provoking the hostility they secretly want to feel directed at them—withdrawing their cooperation on a project at just the wrong moment, constantly being late, doing a poor job, deliberately making an unfavorable first impression. But they never see themselves as playing any kind of role in instigating the reaction.
Their hostility permeates everything they do—the way they argue and provoke (they are always right); the nasty undertone of their jokes; the greediness with which they demand attention; the pleasure they get out of criticizing others and seeing them fail. You can recognize them by how they are easily moved to anger in these situations. Their life, as they describe it, is full of battles, betrayals, persecutions, but seemingly not originating from them. In essence, they are projecting their own hostile feelings onto other people and are primed to read them in almost any apparently innocent action. Their goal in life is to feel persecuted and to desire some form of revenge. Such types generally have career problems, as their anger and hostility frequently flare up. This gives them something else to complain about and a basis on which to blame the world for being against them.
If you notice signs of this attitude in yourself, such self-awareness is a major step toward being able to get rid of it. You can also try a simple experiment: Approach people you are meeting for the first time, or only know peripherally, with various positive thoughts—“I like them,” “They seem smart,” et cetera. None of this is verbalized, but you do your best to feel such emotions. If they respond with something hostile or defensive, then perhaps the world is truly against you. More than likely you will not see anything that could be remotely construed as negative. In fact, you will see the opposite. Clearly, then, the source of any hostile response is you.
In dealing with the extremes of this type, struggle as best you can to not respond with the antagonism they expect. Maintain your neutrality. This will confound them and temporarily put a stop to the game they are playing. They feed off your hostility, so do not give them fuel.
The Anxious Attitude. These types anticipate all kinds of obstacles and difficulties in any situation they face. With people, they often expect some sort of criticism or even betrayal. All of this stimulates unusual amounts of anxiety before the fact. What they really fear is losing control of the situation. Their solution is to limit what can possibly happen, to narrow the world they deal with. This means limiting where they go and what they’ll attempt. In a relationship, they will subtly dominate the domestic rituals and habits; they will seem brittle and demand extra careful attention. This will dissuade people from criticizing them. Everything must be on their terms. At work they will be ferocious perfectionists and micromanagers, eventually sabotaging themselves by trying to keep on top of too many things. Once outside their comfort zone—the home or the relationship they dominate—they become unusually fretful.
Sometimes they can disguise their need for control as a form of love and concern. When Franklin Roosevelt came down with polio in 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, his mother, Sara, did all she could to restrict his life and keep him to one room in the house. He would have to give up his political career and surrender to her care. Franklin’s wife, Eleanor, knew him better. What he wanted and needed was to slowly get back to something resembling his old life. It became a battle between the mother and the daughter-in-law that Eleanor eventually won. The mother was able to disguise her anxious attitude and need to dominate her son through her apparent love, transforming him into a helpless invalid.
Another disguise, similar to such love, is to seek to please and cajole people in order to disarm any possible unpredictable and unfriendly action. (See chapter 4, Toxic Types, The Pleaser.)
If you notice such tendencies in yourself, the best antidote is to pour your energies into work. Focusing your attention outward into a project of some sort will have a calming effect. As long as you rein in your perfectionistic tendencies, you can channel your need to control into something productive. With people, try to slowly open yourself to their habits and pace of doing things, instead of the opposite. This can show you that you have nothing to fear by loosening control. Deliberately place yourself in the circumstances you most dread, discovering that your fears are grossly exaggerated. You are slowly introducing a bit of chaos into your overly ordered life.
In dealing with those with this attitude, try to not feel infected with their anxiety, and instead try to provide the soothing influence they so lacked in their earliest years. If you radiate calmness, your manner will have greater effect than your words.
The Avoidant Attitude. People with this attitude see the world through the lens of their insecurities, generally related to doubts about their competence and intelligence. Perhaps as children they were made to feel guilty and uncomfortable with any efforts to excel and stand out from siblings; or they were made to feel bad about any kind of mistake or possible misbehavior. What they came to dread most was the judgment of their parents. As these people get older, their main goal in life is to avoid any kind of responsibility or challenge in which their self-esteem might be at stake and for which they can be judged. If they do not try too hard in life, they cannot fail or be criticized.
To enact this strategy they will constantly seek escape routes, consciously or unconsciously. They will find the perfect reason for leaving a job early and changing careers, or breaking off a relationship. In the middle of some high-stakes project they will suddenly develop an illness that will cause them to leave. They are prone to all kinds of psychosomatic maladies. Or they become alcoholics, addicts of some sort, always falling off the wagon at the right time but blaming this on the “disease” they have, and their bad upbringing that caused their addiction. If it weren’t for alcohol, they could’ve been a great writer or entrepreneur, so they say. Other strategies will include wasting time and starting too late on something, always with some built-in excuse for why that happened. They then cannot be blamed for the mediocre results.
These types find it hard to commit to anything, for a good reason. If they remained at a job or in a relationship, their flaws might become too apparent to others. Better to slip away at the right moment and maintain the illusion—to themselves and to others—of their possible greatness, if only . . . Although they are generally motivated by the great fear of failing and the judgments that ensue, they are also secretly afraid of success—for with success come responsibilities and the need to live up to them. Success might also trigger their early fears about standing out and excelling.
You can easily recognize such people by their checkered careers and their short-term personal relationships. They may try to disguise the source of their problems by seeming saintly—they look down on success and people who have to prove themselves. Often they will present themselves as noble idealists, propagating ideas that will never come to pass but that will add to the saintly aura they wish to project. Having to enact ideals might expose them to criticism or failure, so they choose those that are too lofty and unrealistic for the times they live in. Do not be fooled by the holier-than-thou front they present. Look at their actions, the lack of accomplishments, the great projects they never start on, always with a good excuse.
If you notice traces of this attitude in yourself, a good strategy is to take on a project of even the smallest scale, taking it all the way to completion and embracing the prospect of failure. If you fail, you will have already cushioned the blow because you anticipated it, and inevitably it will not hurt as much as you had imagined. Your self-esteem will rise because you finally tried something and finished it. Once you diminish this fear, progress will be easy. You will want to try again. And if you succeed, all the better. Either way, you win.
When you find others with this attitude, be very wary of forming partnerships with them. They are masters at slipping away at the wrong moment, at getting you to do all of the hard work and take the blame if it fails. At all costs avoid the temptation to help or rescue them from their negativity. They are too good at the avoidance game.
The Depressive Attitude. As children, these types did not feel loved or respected by their parents. For helpless children, it is too much to imagine that their parents could be wrong or flawed in their parenting. Even if unloved, they still are dependent on them. And so their defense is to often internalize the negative judgment and imagine that they are indeed unworthy of being loved, that there is something actually wrong with them. In this way they can maintain the illusion that their parents are strong and competent. All of this occurs quite unconsciously, but the feeling of being worthless will haunt such people their entire lives. Deep down they will feel ashamed of who they are and not really know why they feel this way.
As adults they will anticipate abandonment, loss, and sadness in their experiences and see signs of potentially depressing things in the world around them. They are secretly drawn to what is gloomy in the world, to the seamy side of life. If they can manufacture some of the depression they feel in this way, it at least is under their control. They are consoled by the thought that the world is a dreary place. A strategy they will employ throughout their lives is to temporarily withdraw from life and from people. This will feed their depression and also make it something they can manage to some extent, as opposed to traumatic experiences imposed upon them.
An excellent example of this type was the talented German composer and conductor Hans von Bülow (1830–1894). In 1855 von Bülow met and fell in love with Cosima Liszt (1837–1930), the charismatic daughter of the composer Franz Liszt. Cosima was drawn to von Bülow’s air of sadness. He lived with his domineering and hostile mother, and Cosima had great sympathy for him. She wanted to rescue von Bülow and transform him into a great composer. They were soon married. As time went on, Cosima could see that he felt quite inferior in relation to her intelligence and strong will. Soon he began to question her love for him. He continually withdrew from her during his bouts of depression. When she became pregnant, he suddenly developed some mysterious ailment that prevented him from being with her. Without warning he could become quite cold.
Feeling unloved and neglected, she began an affair with the famous composer Richard Wagner, who was a friend and colleague of von Bülow’s. Cosima had the feeling that von Bülow had unconsciously encouraged their affair. When she eventually left von Bülow to live with Wagner, von Bülow bombarded her with letters, blaming himself for what had happened; he was unworthy of her love. He would then go on about the bad turn in his career, his various illnesses, his suicidal tendencies. Although he criticized himself, she could not help but feel guilty and depressed for somehow being responsible. Recounting all of his woes seemed like his subtle way of wounding her. She compared each letter to “a sword twisted in my heart.” And they kept coming, year after year, until he remarried and repeated the same pattern with his new wife.
These types often have a secret need to wound others, encouraging behavior such as betrayal or criticism that will feed their depression. They will also sabotage themselves if they experience any kind of success, feeling deep down that they don’t deserve it. They will develop blocks in their work, or take criticism to mean they should not continue with their career. Depressive types can often attract people to them, because of their sensitive nature; they stimulate the desire to want to help them. But like von Bülow, they will start to criticize and wound the ones who wish to help, then withdraw again. This push and pull causes confusion, but once under their spell it is hard to disengage from them without feeling guilty. They have a gift for making other people feel depressed in their presence. This gives them more fuel to feed off.
Most of us have depressive tendencies and moments. The best way to handle them is to be aware of their necessity—they are our body’s and mind’s way of compelling us to slow down, to lower our energies and withdraw. Depressive cycles can serve positive purposes. The solution is to realize their usefulness and temporary quality. The depression you feel today will not be with you in a week, and you can ride it out. If possible, find ways to elevate your energy level, which will physically help lift you out of the mood. The best way to handle recurrent depression is to channel your energies into work, especially the arts. You are used to withdrawing and being alone; use such time to tap into your unconscious. Externalize your unusual sensitivity and your dark feelings into the work itself.
Never try to lift up depressive people by preaching to them about the wonderfulness of life. Instead, it is best to go along with their gloomy opinion of the world while subtly drawing them into positive experiences that can elevate their moods and energy without any direct appeal.
The Resentful Attitude. As children, these types never felt they got enough parental love and affection—they were always greedy for more attention. They carry this sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment with them throughout their lives. They are never quite getting the recognition they deserve. They are experts at scanning people’s faces for signs of possible disrespect or disdain. They see everything in relation to themselves; if someone has more than they do, it is a sign of injustice, a personal affront. When they feel this lack of respect and recognition, they do not explode in anger. They are generally cautious and like to control their emotions. Instead, the hurt incubates inside them, the sense of injustice growing stronger as they reflect on this. They do not easily forget. At some point they will take their revenge in some shrewdly plotted act of sabotage or passive aggression.
Because they have a continual feeling of being wronged, they tend to project this on to the world, seeing oppressors everywhere. In this way, they often become the leader of those who feel disaffected and oppressed. If such types get power, they can become quite vicious and vengeful, finally able to vent their resentments on various victims. In general, they carry themselves with an air of arrogance; they are above others even if no one recognizes this. They carry their head a little too high; they frequently have a slight smirk or look of disdain. As they get older, they are prone to pick petty battles, unable to completely contain their resentments that have accumulated over time. Their bitter attitude pushes a lot of people away, and so they often end up congregating with others who have this attitude, as their form of community.
The Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37) is perhaps the most classic example of this type. As a child, his tutor noticed something wrong with the boy. “He is a pitcher molded with blood and bile,” the tutor once wrote to a friend. The writer Suetonius, who knew Tiberius, described him as follows: “He carried himself with his head held proudly high. . . . He was almost always silent, never saying a word except now and again. . . . And even then he did so with extreme reluctance, at the same time always making a disdainful gesture with his fingers.” Emperor Augustus, his stepfather, had to continually apologize to the Senate for “his displeasing manners, full of haughtiness.” Tiberius hated his mother—she never loved him enough. He never felt appreciated by Augustus, or his soldiers, or the Roman people. When he became emperor, he slowly and methodically took revenge on those who he felt had slighted him, and such revenge would be cold and cruel.
As he got older, he became increasingly unpopular. His enemies were legion. Feeling the hatred of his subjects, he retired to the island of Capri, where he spent the last eleven years of his reign, almost completely avoiding Rome. He was known to repeat to others in his last years, “After me, let fire destroy the earth!” At his death Rome exploded with celebration, the crowds voicing their feelings with the famous phrase “Into the Tiber [River] with Tiberius!”
If you notice resentful tendencies within yourself, the best antidote is to learn to let go of hurts and disappointments in life. It is better to explode into anger in the moment, even it if it’s irrational, than to stew on slights that you have probably hallucinated or exaggerated. People are generally indifferent to your fate, not as antagonistic as you imagine. Very few of their actions are really directed at you. Stop seeing everything in personal terms. Respect is something that must be earned through your achievements, not something given to you simply for being human. You must break out of the resentful cycle by becoming more generous toward people and human nature.
In dealing with such types, you must exercise supreme caution. Although they might smile and seem pleasant, they are actually scrutinizing you for any possible insult. You can recognize them by their history of past battles and sudden breaks with people, as well as how easily they judge others. You might try to slowly gain their trust and lower their suspicions; but be aware that the longer you are around them, the more fuel you will give them for something to resent, and their response can be quite vicious. Better to avoid this type if possible.
The Expansive (Positive) Attitude
Some fifty years ago, many medical experts began to think of health in a new and revolutionary way. Instead of focusing on specific problems, such as digestion or skin ailments or the condition of the heart, they decided it was much better to look at the human body as a whole. If people improved their diet and their exercise habits, this would have a beneficial effect on all of the organs, because the body is an interconnected whole.
This seems obvious to us now, but such an organic way of thinking has great application to our psychological health as well. Now more than ever people focus on their specific problems—their depression, their lack of motivation, their social inadequacies, their boredom. But what governs all of these seemingly separate problems is our attitude, how we view the world on a daily basis. It is how we see and interpret events. Improve the overall attitude and everything else will elevate as well—creative powers, the ability to handle stress, confidence levels, relationships with people. It was an idea first promulgated in the 1890s by the great American psychologist William James, but it remains a revolution waiting to happen.
A negative, constricting attitude is designed to narrow down the richness of life at the cost of our creative powers, our sense of fulfillment, our social pleasures, and our vital energies. Without wasting another day under such conditions, your goal is to break out, to expand what you see and what you experience. You want to open the aperture of the lens as wide as you can. Here is your road map.
How to view the world: See yourself as an explorer. With the gift of consciousness, you stand before a vast and unknown universe that we humans have just begun to investigate. Most people prefer to cling to certain ideas and principles, many of them adopted early on in life. They are secretly afraid of what is unfamiliar and uncertain. They replace curiosity with conviction. By the time they are thirty, they act as if they know everything they need to know.
As an explorer you leave all that certainty behind you. You are in continual search of new ideas and new ways of thinking. You see no limits to where your mind can roam, and you are not concerned with suddenly appearing inconsistent or developing ideas that directly contradict what you believed a few months before. Ideas are things to play with. If you hold on to them for too long, they become something dead. You are returning to your childlike spirit and curiosity, from before you had an ego and being right was more important than connecting to the world. You explore all forms of knowledge, from all cultures and time periods. You want to be challenged.
By opening the mind in this way, you will unleash unrealized creative powers, and you will give yourself great mental pleasure. As part of this, be open to exploring the insights that come from your own unconscious, as revealed in your dreams, in moments of tiredness, and in the repressed desires that leak out in certain moments. You have nothing to be afraid of or to repress there. The unconscious is merely one more realm for you to freely explore.
How to view adversity: Our life inevitably involves obstacles, frustrations, pain, and separations. How we come to handle such moments in our early years plays a large role in the development of our overall attitude toward life. For many people, such difficult moments inspire them to restrict what they see and experience. They go through life trying to avoid any kind of adversity, even if this means never really challenging themselves or getting much success in their careers. Instead of learning from negative experiences, they want to repress them. Your goal is to move in the opposite direction, to embrace all obstacles as learning experiences, as means to getting stronger. In this way you embrace life itself.
By 1928 the actress Joan Crawford had a reasonably successful career in Hollywood, but she was feeling increasingly frustrated by the limited roles she was receiving. She saw other less talented actresses vault ahead of her. Perhaps the problem was that she was not assertive enough. She decided she needed to voice her opinion to one of the most powerful production chiefs on the MGM lot, Irving Thalberg. Little did she realize that Thalberg viewed this as impudence and that he was vindictive by nature. He therefore cast her in a Western, knowing that was the last thing she wanted and that such a fate was a dead end for many an actress.
Joan had learned her lesson and decided to embrace her fate. She made herself love the genre. She became an expert rider. She read up on the Old West and became fascinated by its folklore. If that’s what it took to get ahead, she decided to become the leading actress of Westerns. At the very least this would expand her acting skills. This became her lifelong attitude toward work and the supreme challenges an actress faced in Hollywood, where careers were generally very short. Every setback was a chance to grow and develop.
In 1946 twenty-year-old Malcolm Little (later known as Malcolm X) began serving an eight-to-ten-year prison sentence for burglary. Prison generally has the effect of hardening the criminal and narrowing his already narrow view of the world. Instead, Malcolm decided to reassess his life. He began to spend time in the prison library and fell in love with books and learning. As he saw it now, prison afforded him the best possible means of changing himself and his attitude toward life. With so much time on his hands, he could study and earn himself a degree. He could develop the discipline he had always been missing. He could train himself to become an expert speaker. He embraced the experience without any bitterness and emerged stronger than ever. Once he left prison, he saw any difficulty, large or small, as a means to test and toughen himself.
Although adversity and pain are generally beyond your control, you have the power to determine your response and the fate that comes from that.
How to view yourself: As we get older, we tend to place limits on how far we can go in life. Over the years we internalize the criticisms and doubts of others. By accepting what we think to be the limits of our intelligence and creative powers, we create a self-fulfilling dynamic. They become our limits. You do not need to be so humble and self-effacing in this world. Such humility is not a virtue but is rather a value that people promote to help keep you down. Whatever you are doing now, you are in fact capable of much more, and by thinking that, you will create a very different dynamic.
In ancient times, many great leaders, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, felt that they were descended from gods and part divine. Such self-belief would translate into high levels of confidence that others would feed off and recognize. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. You do not need to indulge in such grandiose thoughts, but feeling that you are destined for something great or important will give you a degree of resilience when people oppose or resist you. You will not internalize the doubts that come from such moments. You will have an enterprising spirit. You will continually try new things, even taking risks, confident in your ability to bounce back from failures and feeling destined to succeed.
When Chekhov had the epiphany about the ultimate freedom he could create for himself, he had what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow called a “peak experience.” These are moments in which you are lifted out of the daily grind and you sense that there is something larger and more sublime in life that you have been missing. In the case of Chekhov it was sparked by a crisis, by loneliness, and it led to the sensation of complete acceptance of people and the world around him. These moments can come from exerting yourself past what you thought were your limits; they can come from overcoming great obstacles, climbing a mountain, taking a trip to a very different culture, or the deep bonding that comes from any form of love. You want to deliberately go in search of such moments, stimulate them if you can. They have the effect, as they did with Chekhov, of altering your attitude for good. They expand what you think about your possibilities and about life itself, and the memory is something you will always return to for supreme inspiration.
In general, this way of looking at yourself runs counter to the cool, ironic attitude that many people like to assume in the postmodern world—never too ambitious, never too positive about things or life, always affecting a nonchalant and very false humility. Such types see the positive, expansive attitude as Pollyannaish and simpleminded. But really their cool attitude is a clever mask for their great fears—of embarrassing themselves, of failing, of showing too much emotion. As with all such trends in culture, the cool attitude will eventually fade away, a remnant of the early twenty-first century. Moving in the opposite direction, you are much more progressive.
How to view your energy and health: Although we are all mortal and subject to illnesses beyond our control, we must recognize the role that willpower plays in our health. We have all felt this to some degree or another. When we fall in love or feel excited by our work, suddenly we have more energy and recover quickly from any illnesses. When we are depressed or unusually stressed, we become prey to all kinds of ailments. Our attitude plays an enormous role in our health, one that science has begun to explore and will examine in more depth in the coming decades. In general, you can safely push yourself beyond what you think are your physical limits by feeling excited and challenged by a project or endeavor. People get old and prematurely age by accepting physical limits to what they can do, making it a self-fulfilling cycle. Those who age well continue to engage in physical activity, only moderately adjusted. You have wellsprings of energy and health you have yet to tap into.
How to view other people: First you must try to get rid of the natural tendency to take what people do and say as something personally directed at you, particularly if what they say or do is unpleasant. Even when they criticize you or act against your interests, more often than not it stems from some deep earlier pain they are reliving; you become the convenient target of frustrations and resentments that have been accumulating over the years. They are projecting their own negative feelings. If you can view people this way, you will find it easier to not react and get upset or become embroiled in some petty battle. If the person is truly malicious, by not becoming emotional yourself you will be in a better place to plot the proper countermove. You will save yourself from accumulating hurts and bitter feelings.
See people as facts of nature. They come in all varieties, like flowers or rocks. There are fools and saints and sociopaths and egomaniacs and noble warriors; there are the sensitive and the insensitive. They all play a role in our social ecology. This does not mean we cannot struggle to change the harmful behavior of the people who are close to us or in our sphere of influence; but we cannot reengineer human nature, and even if we somehow succeeded, the result could be a lot worse than what we have. You must accept diversity and the fact that people are what they are. That they are different from you should not be felt as a challenge to your ego or self-esteem but as something to welcome and embrace.
From this more neutral stance, you can then try to understand the people you deal with on a deeper level, as Chekhov did with his father. The more you do this, the more tolerant you will tend to become toward people and toward human nature in general. Your open, generous spirit will make your social interactions much smoother, and people will be drawn to you.
Finally, think of the modern concept of attitude in terms of the ancient concept of the soul. The concept of the soul is found in almost all indigenous cultures and in premodern civilizations. It originally referred to external spiritual forces permeating the universe and contained in the individual human in the form of the soul. The soul is not the mind or the body but rather the overall spirit we embody, our way of experiencing the world. It is what makes a person an individual, and the concept of the soul was related to the earliest ideas of personality. Under this concept, a person’s soul could have depths. Some people possessed a greater degree of this spiritual force, had more of a soul. Others had a personality lacking in this force and were somewhat soulless.
This has great relevance to our idea of the attitude. In our modern conception of the soul, we replace this external spiritual force with life itself, or what can be described as the life force. Life is inherently complex and unpredictable, its powers far beyond anything we can ever completely comprehend or control. This life force is reflected in nature and human society by the remarkable diversity we find in both realms.
On the one side we find people whose goal in life is to inhibit and control this life force. This leads them to self-destructive strategies. They have to limit their thoughts and remain true to ideas that have lost their relevance. They have to limit what they experience. Everything is about them and their petty needs and personal problems. They often become obsessed with a particular goal that dominates all of their thoughts—such as making money or getting attention. All of this renders them dead inside as they close themselves off to the richness of life and the variety of human experience. In this way they veer toward the soulless, an internal lack of depth and flexibility.
Your goal must be to always move in the opposite direction. You rediscover the curiosity you once had as a child. Everything and everyone is a source of fascination to you. You keep learning, continually expanding what you know and what you experience. With people you feel generous and tolerant, even with your enemies and with those trapped in the soulless condition. You do not enslave yourself to bitterness or rancor. Instead of blaming others or circumstances, you see the role that your own attitude and actions played in any failure. You adapt to circumstances instead of complaining about them. You accept and embrace uncertainty and the unexpected as valuable qualities of life. In this way, your soul expands to the contours of life itself and fills itself with this life force.
Learn to measure the people you deal with by the depth of their soul, and if possible associate as much as you can with those of the expansive variety.
This is why the same external events or circumstances affect no two people alike; even with perfectly similar surroundings every one lives in a world of his own. . . . The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it, and so it proves different to different men; to one it is barren, dull, and superficial; to another rich, interesting, and full of meaning. On hearing of the interesting events which have happened in the course of a man’s experience, many people will wish that similar things had happened in their lives too, completely forgetting that they should be envious rather of the mental aptitude which lent those events the significance they possess when he describes them.
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