Friday, June 29, 2012

At Least...

Dad and Me
My dad and I are about as opposite as two people can be.
  1. Dad is the consumate pessimist (he would say, 'realist'). 

    I'm the consumate optimist (he would say, 'delusional').

  2. Dad is a math whiz. Give him a ten-digit number, and he "sees" the prime factors. When the Russians invaded Finland during World War II, he supported the family by tutoring college calculus; he was twelve at the time. While studying electrical engineering at MIT, he took all the advanced math courses for fun. Finishing a three-hour final in ninety minutes, he'd go back and outline the work in color. The instructors would post his test as the answer key.

    I failed freshman algebra three times and just barely made it through high school.

  3. Dad can't carry a tune in a bucket. As a child, the choir director at his church constantly asked him not to sing so loudly. 

    I was picking out tunes on the piano at three.

  4. Dad spends most of his time either in the past or the future.

    I spend most my time in the present.

  5. Dad never does anything he can't already do.

    Almost everything I do is something that I couldn't.

At the same time, dad and I have some remarkable (and in some cases nearly identical) similarities.
  1. We're both highly competitive. However, we view competition differently. Dad tends to vilify the competition and he really hates to lose. Some of my best friends have been my greatest competitors and I love encountering someone who can beat me in competition because that's when I learn the most.

  2. We're both super intense. However, Dad tends towards a dark, brooding and quite intensity. I tend towards a bright, brassy and loud intensity.

  3. We're both hopelessly romantic. However, dad, despite his pessimistic and serious manner is significantly more prone to whimsy. He routinely orders flowers, chocolates and other sundry gifts to be sent to any pretty woman who pays attention to him. It might be the receptionist at the dentist's office or a volunteer at his assisted living facility or a librarian who helped him find a book he'd been searching for.

  4. We both understand the positive benefits of positive outlook and optimism. However, dad seems only to want them for others.

Dad and Iris
It's our mutual understanding of this last point that often leads us down a path of conversation that both of us often find challenging.

Dad will tell you that it's important to see the positive aspects of any situation. He'll often encourage others to do so. How he does so is dramatically different than how I do so. (He would tell you that I'm splitting hairs.)

Pretty much every summer, we (dad, his kids, their kids, and my mom's family) all head to Myrtle Beach for a week together. Dad looks forward to this and it's critical to him that everyone show up. He'll guilt, he'll bribe, he'll cajole, whatever it takes to get everyone there. This year we'll be heading to what we've come to call "Grandpa's Tenth Annual Last-time-ever-going-to-the-beach-before-he-dies Week."

At Least
Dad, Iris and I sit on the balcony drinking coffee and watching the sun rise. If one of his kids didn't show up, even though everyone else is there, dad laments the absent child. If he doesn't feel well, he talks abou that. If the early morning temperature is already in the nineties, he worries aloud about how overly hot the day will be.

Iris or I ask him to try and find the positive in whatever it is he's lamenting. His positives are always preceded by "at least". If he's not feeling well, he says, "Well, at least I'm not dead." If he's missing my brother and his family, he says, "At least you guys are here."

Guess what? "At least" doesn't work. The phrase "at least" is like a tow-rope dad uses to drag along his pessimistic thought even as he feigns stepping into optimism.

Now that summer's here, I've been thinking about my dad and our annual trek. I realize that "at least" is symptomatic of a more fundamental difference in our two views of the world. The difference is that of "overlooking" the negative versus "transforming" the negative into something positive.

There's plenty of research across a range of disciplines that supports the notion that a positive outlook leads to better outcomes. Take any situation, find the good in it, and you'll get a better result than if you don't. You'll be more at ease, more aware and more capable.

Some people find that this doesn't work. I it's due to how they go about finding the positive. People who transform the negative into something good (e.g., make the rained-upon picnic a chance to frolic in wet clothes) have a completely different experience than people who try to overlook the negative (e.g., "well, at least we're still together").

I see the difference all the time as Iris describe her experiences and the experiences of others working with children with autism. Iris is always transforming anything into a good thing; not everyone does that.

How prevalent is your at-least factor?

Happy Friday,

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