In honour of “International Languages Week” this morning the weatherman said, “Today’s cold blast of air is a result of El Nino, which for those of you who don’t speak Spanish means ‘The Nino’.” (Forgive me.)
Ernie Banks died this week. You may not recognize the name, but for baseball aficionados, Banks belongs on the Mount Rushmore of all time greats. The best power hitting shortstop of the 20th century, the 11-time all-star is remembered and celebrated, not so much his many athletic accomplishments – as impressive as they are — as he is for his infectious, unconquerable optimism.
One opening day, after the Cubs had just come back from beautiful spring training weather in Arizona, they were facing the Cardinal’s intimidating ace Bob Gibson on cold, gray Chicago day. When it started snowing in the 6th inning, a teammate remembers Ernie’s saying, “Isn’t this a great day. We’ll keep nice and cool, so we don’t get overheated.”
Some fortunate folks are apparently born with an optimistic inclination; sunshine is in their DNA. But for most of us, disposition is a more of a deliberate matter. We have to make a conscious decision about our mindset, and my point this morning is that attitude, mindset, approach — call it what you will — is actually something we can control. We are not a “victim of the fates”.
If you’ve studied “Hamlet,” you may remember the young prince’s telling his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Act 2, Scene 2) For all his dithering, Hamlet was no dope. He was on to something there. Remember, too, that Rosa Parks didn’t sit down because she got tired. She thought about it. Her decision to change was intentional. You can take that same approach with your own attitude.
Scientists believe that one of the ways you can adjust your thinking is by consciously trying to cultivate a sense of gratitude, and they have identified an “attitude of gratitude” as one of the keys to cultivating an optimistic spirit, one of the most powerful antidotes to depression. If you can get into the habit of noting things for which you are grateful, even simple things, you can actually adjust your disposition’s “factory setting.” For example, if you are presently thinking, “Golly, I love listening to the principal talk at assemblies. I sure hope he goes long this morning!” you’ve probably got a positive, if somewhat dubious mindset!
In the course of your life, you may bump into a handful of people, who like Ernie Banks, remain optimistic despite unfortunate circumstances. (The Cubs were almost always abysmal throughout Banks’ career, yet “Mr. Cub” predicted a pennant each and every spring.) Chris Taylor, an Old Boy from the class of ’71 and former UCC colleague, is the most upbeat man I know, despite the fact that he’s had to deal with some daunting health challenges. He has taken what he has learned and is now helping others who are facing their own health crises. He is “making a difference” in a profoundly positive way. If you are lucky, you may have a friend like Chris, someone who has climbed off the emotional roller coaster of life, and despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” made the conscious decision to be positive.
This decision is not always easy; it’s requires more than just jumping on the “Up with People” bandwagon. An extreme example comes to us from Auschwitz, where next week survivors of the death camp will gather on the 70th anniversary of their liberation. These men and women have been gathering every decade since 1955, and now that they are all in their 90’s (some are over 100), they have decided that this will be their final reunion.
Victor Frankl, after Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most famous of the Auschwitz survivors, wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a gripping book in which he details his experiences in the death camp. Frankl comes to the conclusion that, even under the worst possible experiences imaginable, there is still what he called ultimate freedom. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The wisdom of a Holocaust survivor might be a lot to take in on a Monday morning in late January, but you have a choice right now. You can look out the windows of Laidlaw Hall this morning and see nothing but a cold, gray, inhospitable sky. Or you might choose to see something entirely different. When friends from my hometown of Philadelphia ask about how I cope with the Canadian winter, I like to tell them that, at the risk of imitating a cheesy sitcom, “It’s Always Sunny in Toronto” – regardless of the weather.