Something I never saw myself doing, but did, was getting really into positive thinking books. The first one being Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Not explicitly a "positive thinking" book but it had that feel to it despite its narrative rather than instructive form. Still the prose seems didactic in that you can learn from the protagonist's discoveries on life and happiness. My friend gave me this book for Christmas a few years ago and it was perfect. I was having a bad time, and I really engaged with this book and it actually really helped me see things differently and gave me some hope: one of the reasons why I think arts and literature are so important, and so hate all the cuts that are happening - especially to libraries and arts degrees. Since reading this book it's been turned into a big Hollywood film starring Julia Roberts, which I haven't seen. I'm sure I will at some point out of curiosity, but I've been resistant because of the novel's sense of interiority. The book is about personal discovery and transition, often in the spiritual sense. I couldn't quite see how a film, could capture this. It's always the trouble with books being turned into films when you've loved the book, there's inevitably going to be a sense of bias - having already made up you're mind. If you have seen the film, I really would recommend the book anyway.
Since then I've gone onto read more explicitly "positive-thinking" books, such as Susan Jeffers' Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (cringey name but this book really changed the way I viewed and engaged with life). Such books seem to have a bad name, perhaps people thinking it egotistic to be so concerned with the self, or perhaps there is a level of cynicism involved with positivity. In the real world, bad things happen - and people may presume this sort of thinking seeks to unhealthily ignore this, preferring to live in the clouds. This isn't the case at all. Bad things will always happen, and this is out of our control. What we can control is how we react to situations. A common factor in these books is an expression of the freedom involved in having the power to exercise choice in how you live and perceive your life: whether you see situations, which may initially be viewed as "negative," as an opportunity or as entirely problematic and unconquerable challenge. Feel the Fear engages with the idea that everyone feels fear, and yet people that are successful in life don't let it stop them but actually push through it, and thus continually stretch themselves and gain new experiences. As a child I never used to understand the phrase "Do something that scares you everyday." I thought that wasn't possible, we couldn't always be going on big rollercoasters or in some kind of big performance. However, it's the little things you do that push yourself. Opening up with people, being honest, choosing to take a particular class, wearing something you wouldn't normally wear, etc. These can obviously build up to bigger things like moving to a new place, starting a new job, etc. This way life becomes challenging and exciting rather than mundane. New experiences are constantly being sought, as one fear is overcome, the next step requires conquering a new fear, and so it goes on. This isn't just about professional success but about personal experiences that lead to a sense of achievement and exhilaration, not quite believing that you could do it - and then doing it.
In terms of performance, at sixth form I would take risks. By that I mean I would push myself in performance - whether it be in an emotionally challenging naturalistic piece or some sketch comedy interacting with the audience. When I got to university I suddenly felt a level of inadequacy. Of course this was irrrational, I'd felt confident at home and had positive responses through this. However I always used to be cripplingly shy on meeting people, and if you don't trust or feel comfortable with people in a drama class then it's very hard to push through this in performance - it was for me anyway. This resulted in me engaging with performances in a way which didn't excite me, and so obviously wouldn't excite an audience.
I intermitted from university for a year because of health problems, but also I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to be there, I didn't at the time anyway. I didn't do anything exciting like go travelling in this time, but simply went full time in the job I was in. It paid the bills and I had fun going out and not having to worry about deadlines or any academic pressure. I quickly knew I was definitely going to go back to uni, missing both the environment and the creativity involved. After full time working, I wouldn't want to be in that job for the rest of my life, and - hopefully, a good degree would avoid that. Whenever entering a new situation, whether it be academic or work-related, I always say to myself that this time I'll get over my shyness and skip to being how I act once I am comfortable with the people around me. Up until recently this had always massively failed, instead having a shy & quiet period, slowly getting to know people until I felt confident being myself. Going into a new year group at university was scary, but I just knew I was going back for my degree and wouldn't worry about anything else. Consequently I relaxed more, and actually chatted to people and have since made some really good friends, and I'm so happy I intermitted as I'm with such an amazing group. Also, I regained the sense of motivation and drive for my subjects which I'd been lacking the previous year when I preferred drinking and sleeping and begrudged any sort of reading. I remembered why I'd wanted to do the course in the first place, easily forgotten in the midst of a typical student lifestyle.
Anyway, because of all this, and through reading so much about positivity - on not letting fear take over, but instead pushing yourself and taking risks, I started to put certain aspects into action. In our performance project last term, I came up with the idea of an imitation of Judy Garland singing 'The Man that Got Away' which would be doomed to failure: to vocally imitate the "untouchable" and over-play the acting to the point of farce. This idea, including singing and exposing vulnerability, not something I'd done before and definitely not something I felt initially confident about. In my head, I had the imagined idea but couldn't quite synthesise it with a potential reality. Anyway we had fun rehearsing this and I put all my energy into it. It got to performance day and I couldn't quite believe I'd suggested this idea and for me to be doing it, it was like a joke that had gone too far. We did the performance and I was terrified, but had so much fun doing it. I felt happy with the performance for the first time since being at university. We also got a first for it. So. Happy. That old phrase, you regret what you don't do, more than what you do, or however it goes, is so apt. It pays off to take risks - it's exciting and you grow from it. T.S. Eliot once said: 'Only those who will rish going too far can possibly find out how far one can go' - ie get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to do new things, or in a new way. I like that.
Elizabeth Gilbert really does capture a lot of these thoughts so beautifully in Eat, Pray, Love. So here's a few of my favourite moments, those times when you feel excited just by reading the words on the page:
'My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognisable to myself. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt – this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.' (p121)
For me, this has come to fruition recently where I've been without a television or good internet access in my flat, except for on my phone, and I barely go out clubbing anymore. I read a lot more and I go to a lot more theatre. I also make time to see my friends more and to seek out events that I'd enjoy, different kinds of performance for example. You know what you like, but so often you neglect these things for the easier option or out of tiredness - but it really is important to hold onto these things.
'There is so much about my fate that I cannot control, but other things do fall under my jurisdiction. There are certain lottery tickets I can buy, thereby increasing my odds of finding contentment. I can decide how I spend my time, whom I interact with, whom I share my body and life and money and energy with. I can select what I eat and read and study. I can choose how I’m going to regard unfortunate circumstances in my life – whether I see them as curses or opportunities (and on the occasions when I can’t rise to the most optimistic viewpoint, because I’m feeling too damn sorry for myself, I can choose to keep trying to change my outlook). I can choose my words and the tone of voice in which I speak to others. And most of all, I can choose my thoughts.' (p186)
So again, knowing what gives you happiness and clinging onto that. Also the idea of continually striving to change the way you see things. This also links into a previous post with Stephen Fry talking about self-pity. We all indulge in a bit of wallowing now and then, but it really is counter-intuitive, and actually you do have a choice in the matter.
'…not repression or denial – elaborate games to pretend that negative thoughts and feelings are not occurring. […] admitting to the existence of negative thoughts, understanding where they came from and why they arrived, and then – with great forgiveness and fortitude – dismissing them.' (p187)
This is what I meant by positive thinking not ignoring the negative or dark side of things but understanding it, and then choosing how to react and move on, in a way which is positive and constructive, rather than destructive. Often easier said than done, and CBT is becoming increasingly popular for this reason, but it's something you can definitely work on.
Now, this is something which I have framed in my room. My wonderful flatmate got it for me and I love it. For a long time it became just another thing in my room that I barely saw, but re-reading it recently has made me remember just why I love it. I might not have a faith in religion, but this is the sort of thing that gives me passion and revives a sense of excitement about life.
Experience. Dream. Risk. Close your eyes and jump. Enjoy the freefall. Choose exhilaration over comfort. Choose magic over predictability. Choose potential over safety. Wake up to the magic of everyday life. Make friends with your intuition. Trust your gut. Discover the beauty of uncertainty. Know yourself fully before you make promises to another. Make millions of mistakes so that you will know how to choose what you really need. Know when to hold on and when to let go. Love hard and often and without reservation. Seek knowledge. Open yourself to possibility. Keep your heart open, your head high and your spirit free. Embrace your darkness along with your light. Be wrong every once in a while and don't be afraid to admit it. Awaken to the brilliance in ordinary moments. Tell the truth about yourself no matter what the cost. Own your reality without apology. See goodness in the world.
Be bold. Be fierce. Be grateful. Be wild, crazy and gloriously free.
Go now, and Live.