For most of my life, I saw the world through a dark cloud. I saw the bad in everything and busied myself thinking of worst-case scenarios so I’d be prepared when they came true. They rarely did, but with my perpetually gloomy outlook, if I had won the lottery, I’d have complained about the taxes.
Twelve years ago, with some chemical assistance, my perpetual frown turned itself upside down for good. I’m not a complete optimist now, but I maintain a positive attitude, look for the good in every outcome and practice gratitude on a daily basis. This might make a stronger person more tolerant of gloom and doom but not me. Through numerous opportunities I have learned that I can no longer tolerate the thinking that sustained me years ago.
And then there’s my husband. Matt sees the world through gray-colored glasses. He’s a worrier. Here’s one example: He’s a star at work. Everyone he works with loves him and vocally and frequently appreciates the work he does on a regular basis. Yet the slightest hiccup at the office renders him petrified at the prospect of sudden unemployment. I think it’s ridiculous but every time something like that happens, he sends me a spreadsheet detailing our fiscal plans should he lose his job in the next ten minutes.
A couple of months ago, we rushed Rose, our two-year-old, to the hospital. It was Sunday and she was vomiting a lot and her doctor didn’t return our calls, so to be safe, we took her to the emergency room. We spent most of the night at the hospital and by the time we left, she was almost perfect. Yesterday Matt showed me a picture of her sitting on the hospital bed and I joked that he took pictures everywhere. He said, “I thought she wasn’t going to make it.” Honestly. She was throwing up. Kids do that. The thought never crossed my mind that she had anything but a virus – possibly food poisoning. In my eyes, we took her in just to be safe. In his, we faced losing our little girl.
Because I know how much it hurts to have a negative outlook, I pretend to tolerate the worry. I love him. We’re married. I have to. But what he doesn’t know is that when he starts spouting off like Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore on a bad day, I switch my attention to the TV or a fascinating specimen of a hangnail on my pinky and wait for him to finish. When he’s through I try to make him see something positive. That’s my evil plan. Because I’m a woman and women strive to change their partners, I’ve taken on The Matt Project. I’ve got to believe there’s a vein of optimism in him somewhere, and if I tap it, nuggets of positive thinking will spill out. How can a middle class guy who reads the yacht classifieds not maintain a hint of optimism?
Matt tells me that he’s “wired” to worry. I hear “That’s just the way I am,” a lot. But you know what? I overcame the bad stuff and chemical assistance only gets you so far. Pharmaceuticals only give you the opportunity to see things differently. They can change the color of your glasses, but you still have to interpret what you see.
Worry focuses on outcomes. Positive thinking focuses on possibilities. The other day, while driving underneath a stack of highways in downtown Seattle, I thought, What would I do if I were here during an earthquake? I mentioned it to my husband, and the first thing he said was, “You can’t live like that,” thinking I’d avoid driving there from now on. He misunderstood. I was literally thinking about what I would DO in that situation. Would I slow down or stop and get out of the car? Would I gun the engine and get out as fast as I could? I was preparing for a positive outcome in my head. He thought I expected to get squashed. But that discussion cultivates some hope in me. If he believes that you can’t live your life avoiding the bad things, then maybe he can learn to live his life looking for the good ones.
Much as I try to ignore it, his tendency to worry has influenced me. I am now afraid of things I never feared before. Fire, for example. But it’s a positive thing, really. Because of him I unplug the coffee pot every day. Because of him I won’t leave the dryer on when I go out. Because of him, we have a fire extinguisher in our kitchen. That last one might be my contribution. I have been known to set the toaster oven on fire. And you know what? When the toaster oven was burning, he was calm and I completely panicked. He put on some oven mitts, carried the oven outside and directed me to hold the doors for him. Had he not told me to hold the doors, I’d have frozen to that spot in the kitchen and waited for the building to burn down. To this day, I am not allowed to have a toaster oven. When I want toast, I stick my bread onthe oven rack.
I think his worrying and my lack of worry create a balance that enhances our ability to survive. He says he prepares for the worst and is pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t happen. I don’t give the worst the time of day, so when it does happen, I’m completely unprepared. I need someone to work out the disaster scenarios and to keep a level head in a crisis. He needs someone to reassure him when his worry gets out of control.
Both approaches to life have some advantages. His prepares us for challenges. Mine helps us overcome those challenges. Without his preparation and resulting calm, our apartment would have burned down. Without my ability to adapt to life without a toaster oven, we’d never have enjoyed toast again. I still want to help him see the positives, but I can appreciate the value that his worry brings to our relationship. Maybe he’ll be able to see the shiny side of the coin more often. Maybe I’ll learn to react appropriately in a crisis. Whatever misfortune befalls us, we know that we can count on him to survive it and we can count on me to move beyond it.