On learning to see the glass as half full

My mom died recently.

(Apparently, “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “Thank you” are the culturally appropriate responses.)

She died of cancer. Through most of her decline she had hopes of getting better, and these hopes sustained her. As she was declining, she didn’t have the focus needed to read, and therefore spent a lot of time watching Judge Mathis on TV.

But a few weeks before she died, she did get a bit better, and was well enough to read about von Humboldt’s adventures in South America. She was rhapsodic about the thoughtfulness and artistry that went into producing this book. This book was able to transport an elderly woman in bed with cancer in Pennsylvania to von Humboldt’s side on the banks of the Orinoco.

I arrived at my mom’s house about a week before she died, to be with her and help my sister who had been her principal care-giver.

When I arrived, I hugged her and she said “I greatly appreciate your being here,” adding, “I feel so lucky”.

It is remarkable that, lying there with terminal cancer less than a week before her death, my mom could feel lucky because there was family around whom she loved and who loved her. She was able to focus on the positive, despite the overwhelmingly negative aspect of the overall situation.

A year or two ago, a friend died. He was in his early seventies, in contrast to my mom’s eighty-eight.

When things got grim, he got bitter, angry and depressed. A very understandable response. Life was painful, unfair and unjust. Everything was boring. Nothing was good enough.

My bitter, depressed and despondent friend made the end of his life a misery for himself and everyone around him.

My mom’s ability to focus on the positive made the end of her life as good as it could be, and her positive outlook made it a pleasure for my sister and me to care for her through her last days.

A certain amount of how we respond to events emotionally is hard-wired into our genetic make-up or ingrained into us during our childhoods.

But we do have agency. We can to some extent train ourselves to be more positive in our emotional responses to situations. We can train ourselves to continually ask: What is good here? What is going right? What is there to appreciate in this?

[I am reminded of going to the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco with the Russian Painter Andrei Lyssenko. At each painting he would stop and point out something the painter did well — it might be a single paint-stroke outlining the edge of a jacket or a small patch color in the background. Going to an art museum is a different experience if you are asking yourself what you can find to appreciate in each painting.]

We are hunter-gatherers, with brains that evolved as problem-solving machines — so we have a natural tendency to focus on our problems. This is fine if the problem is soluble, but obsessing about problems for which there is no solution helps nobody.

And focusing on problems has us focusing on the negative — and not on appreciating what is going well in our lives. How many unnecessary divorces have happened because people didn’t remind each other (and themselves) about what they appreciate in the other person?

If presented with glass half-full, we can train ourselves to see the glass half full. When we see it as half empty, we can stop ourselves, and remind ourselves that it is also half full.

We need to see the negative to help solve the problems that we can solve, but we need also to remain aware of the positive so that we can appreciate what is going right with the world, and with our human relationships, and with our lives.

The main person who will suffer from our bitterness and negativity is ourselves. A world in which everyone is focused on what is going wrong is an unpleasant world in which to live.

Both to improve our lives and to improve the lives of people around us, we need to work on focusing on what is going right with our lives and with the world. We need to learn to see the glass as half full.