As we dive deeper into the dark days of Autumn we need even more reason for hope. By now, November 30, we have become resigned to the changes thrust upon us by the planet’s attitude to the sun, and bureaucrats promoting Standard Time, (until next March when we spring forward again to reap the benefits of Daylight Saving Time). Our gratitude for the delightful Indian Summer aberration of early November is fading. We’re bearing down, stoically preparing for the long, almost interminable, Canadian winter bearing down on us. We even look forward to snow to brighten our days. Almost. That late November aberration, 20 cm of snow, coming only two weeks after the earlier November aberration, was a bit disheartening. We in Ottawa know we are in for three months of hard winter, to be followed by another six weeks of hard sledding, but do we really have to have winter arrive six weeks early, before Autumn is even officially over? No wonder November is such a dispiriting month.
I’m sure you will all agree I’ve beaten this dead horse long enough. Wasn’t the whole of the last week’s post, and its supplement, The End of Days, dreary enough? I’m sure many of you are saying, we get it, November is dreary. Enough already.
Well, yes, those posts were about dread, but they were also about hopefulness: the rituals around the pending winter solstice.
And, I hope you agreed, I also tried to approach soul-numbing November with a light hand, with a little humour. The best remedy for hopelessness is irony, to see the ridiculous in the sublime. To laugh at the absurdity of life. To not take life so seriously that we abandon all hope. One way or another we are all going to board the boat to cross the River Styx, but until then we need to look at the bright side of life.
And yet sweet irony is not sufficient to carry the day. We also need to acknowledge the wisdom of the ancients in giving the faithful and the ignorant something to hang on to: Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day feast, even the constancy of Tannenbaum. Yes Winter is coming, but so is Spring.
It isn’t just the ancients who offer the people hopefulness. Present day prophets promise a brighter future by stringing coloured lights all over their houses.
But it isn’t just your neighbours who bring glad tidings of great joy. Martin Seligman, the father of modern-day Positive Psychology, puts a lot of store in the power of hopefulness as a means to Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism. Seligman was a clinical psychologist who became concerned with the apparent increasing epidemic of depression in America and spent the first thirty years of his academic life trying to unravel the mystery of why some people, not biologically diseased, become debilitated by negative events in their lives. He uncovered the phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’ and from there investigated the question of why some people seem pre-disposed to a pessimistic attitude, while others seemed naturally optimistic. This was especially interesting to him because it turns out that pessimistic people are three times as likely as optimist people to suffer from depression (and its cousin, anxiety) at some stage in their lives and have a whole host of quality of life issues – higher incidence of debilitating illnesses and auto-immune diseases, shorter lifespan and higher incidence of suicide than those with an optimistic outlook. Optimistic people live longer, have a higher quality of life and generally are ‘happier’. Since the tendency to optimism and pessimism appear to be genetic, and with all the downsides of being pessimistic, it begs the question, why does natural selection select for a pessimistic attitude? It turns out that pessimists are more attentive to the potential dangers in the world and hence assured themselves, generally, a greater chance than optimists of surviving at least into the successful breeding and nurturing years. In other words, while optimists may have a higher quality of life, and longer life, than pessimists, this is only true for optimists who survived their wild and crazy younger years.
But Seligman’s greatest insight was that pessimists can be trained to be less pessimistic through the use of cognitive behavior therapy. (I suppose it’s also true that optimists can be trained to be less optimistic but, really, what’s the point? They’re likely to eat that mushroom anyway.) To Seligman, Learned Optimism leads to more self-confidence and more productive and happier existence, and less depression and fewer suicides.
What has all this to do with Hopefulness? Well, hopefulness is a related though separate psychological condition from either pessimism or optimism. It is almost axiomatically true that optimistic people are also hopeful but it turns out, many pessimists are not permanently and pervasively pessimistic, nor debilitated. They are also hopeful. They are not hopeless, nor helpless. They have learned, even without cbt, that the future may hold changes that will alter present circumstances, especially if they make the effort. And the future may turn out to be more pleasant than the present.
I’ve never really thought of myself as being pessimistic, or optimistic for that matter; a bit skeptical perhaps but otherwise a reasonably positive person. Hmmm. The key word there was ‘reasonable’. I guess if I had to label myself I would have called myself a realist. But Seligman would likely describe this as a rational pessimist. And my test scores bear that out. I’m a Pessimist! Dammit. But, according to Seligman’s test, I’m also Hopeful! If the given situation is disproportionately difficult, or impossible, why continue to waste energy on a lost cause? Surely 2 1/2 years is enough! Hopeful self-talk helps: ‘this too shall pass’ (though at 3:00 a.m. it sure can feel dire). But then, try something else. ‘Change the Channel’. Look for a sign, the light in the tunnel.
I remember vividly – relive it annually – the first year I moved in and became roommates with the recently departed JFW Weatherill. It was 1999, I think, and I was being shunted from the suite down the hall at 350 Sparks Street. I had been subletting an office from Paul Gillissie, President of The Personnel Force, a very lively suite with vivid pink walls and pulchritudinous agents in this temporary help agency. It was loud and buoyant and very distracting, and not just for me, for my clients too. But Paul wanted to expand his business and that meant displacing me to make room for more pulchritudinous agents. Who could blame him. I was discouraged about having to find new digs. Though neither Eeyore nor Mr. Micawber in my mental outlook, I was hopeful: with effort ‘something would turn up’.
I knew the recently vacated suite two doors down the hall was being occupied by a new tenant, apparently a sole occupant of an 1100 square feet office. Surely he didn’t need all that space. I walked down the hall, introduced myself to Mr. Weatherill, and asked him if he had intentions of having partners/staff and if not would he be interested in having a roommate to share expenses, namely me. He said he would think about it and a day later he said yes and a week later I moved my stuff down the hall from The Personnel Force and hung my shingle, AFS Consulting, below Ted’s, Arbitration Services Limited. It was the first of November.
Mr. Weatherill was a quiet man. Very quiet. You’d hardly know he was in the office – when he was in the office. And in that first month of November when I moved in with him he wasn’t even there. He was busy with arbitration hearings in Montreal and Toronto and Sault Saint Marie. I was left to fend for myself; peering out the north windows of my office overlooking the then Veterans Affairs Building and Memorial Arch across Lyon Street was almost my only entertainment. As the dark days of November grew darker and darker, earlier and earlier each day I became more and more depressed. I missed those pink walls and pulchritudinous agents. But then, December 1, miraculously, things brightened. It was 5:00 pm, I was again peering out the window at the dark afternoon, watching commuters’ headlights heading home for the day, and feeling sorry for myself. When what to my wondering eyes should appear, well not eight tiny reindeer but a splash of Christmas lights up and down Wellington Street, and all across the grounds of the Supreme Court of Canada and the Museum of Civilization across the Ottawa River. It was surprising, spectacular, and very uplifting.
I became hopeful again. And for the next 18 years, until Ted and I removed ourselves from 350 Sparks in 2018, I could face dreary November knowing December heralded brighter days ahead. Now that I work from a home office in Kanata I count myself fortunate that my neighbour across the street has become a worthy surrogate for the National Capital Commission in lifting our spirits.
In my next post I want to explore hopefulness beyond mere symbols: Purposefulness over hopefulness.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario
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Any thinking person should ask the question, hey, it’s 2020, what savings are we getting from this DST thing? One hundred years ago when the population of Canada, or most of the developed world, was still substantially agrarian, the adjusting of the clock to better match the available sunlight was a reasonable thing, but today, with most people living in urban centers, and with reliable electric light, it’s disputable whether there’s a net benefit from having sunlight at 6:00 am rather than 6:00 pm. Should we be still be regulating the whole of society for the benefit of a few farmers now less than 10% of the population? (Does this sound familiar? Think Covid quarantine.) and even many of those with their industrial strength farm equipment can sow and reap 24 hours a day. Why do we need ‘Daylight Saving Time’? Or perhaps put another way, maybe we prefer Daylight Saving Time and we should just recalibrate Standard Time permanently: spring forward and leave it at that.