When the Squeaky Wheel Runs Over Your Foot

Posted on August 23, 2011


If you want to be truly happy, focus on the positive.

I hear this all the time, and it makes me want to go right up to the person saying it and light their hair on fire. First of all, what does truly happy even mean? Can I be falsely happy? And if so, how do I tell the difference? I imagine being strapped to an emotional lie detector, with some grim-looking guy with a short haircut and thin tie asking me a bunch of annoying questions, like “Have you ever really had a Merry Christmas?” and “Were you secretly pleased when the valedictorian of your graduating class fell off the stage and broke his sternum?”

Rather than dwelling on what’s missing, I’m supposed to think about what’s there. Instead of paying attention to the unpleasant parts of my life, I should be grateful for the good things.

I’ve tried this a couple of times. It doesn’t work.

Just this morning, I burned the index finger on my left hand. I told myself to ignore the pain and think about how great my other nine fingers felt. But I couldn’t do it. The nerve endings I had just scorched and the blister now rapidly forming under the skin refused to yield to my positive thoughts.

“Listen,” they screamed. “That throbbing sting you feel is going to continue for quite some time unless you stick us under some cold water right now.”

“No, no, no!” another voice insisted. “Never put a burn under cold water. That can cause massive cell destruction, infection could set in, and you might lose the entire arm.”

Seeking to quell the debate, I grabbed a book on home remedies. I seemed to recall someone advising the use of honey on a minor burn, but as I flipped through the book’s pages, I got a paper cut on my right thumb. A thin line of blood appeared as a slice of pain began to compete with the blister for my attention. Cold water was all I could think about, and for the next few minutes my other eight fingers didn’t exist, except to turn on the faucet and try to close the cut.

There are stronger examples. If I wake up with a toothache, I have trouble remembering that my other twenty-nine teeth feel fine. The one giving me pain is the only one I think about. This seems normal to me. We’re human beings. We’re not good at being satisfied. We always want things to be better, so we zero in on the thing that’s the least satisfying. We put on a brand new, clean white shirt, and someone spills a drop of barbecue sauce on it. Although most of the shirt is still clean and white, we can’t stop thinking about the drip.

But even when everything is great, we get tired of that pretty fast and go looking for something greater. That’s why we travel to far-away places. We’re sick of our house and our street and our neighbors who all speak the same boring language and put their recycling out on the curb on the fourth Friday of every month like a bunch of mind-controlled zombies. So we leave, in search of a more enjoyable location to spend a couple of weeks. And all goes well for a while. The people have charming accents and interesting customs, and we get to take naps in the afternoon. But by the eighth or ninth day, we start to get tired of trying to read a menu in German or sitting by the swimming pool and pretending we don’t mind being splashed in the eyes by someone else’s children. When we finally run out of clean underwear on day twelve, we’re wishing we were home, and when we find ourselves stuck at the airport for seven hours because of mechanical problems, we’re pretty sure we’ll never fly again. Back home, we’re thrilled to see our house and our street and even our neighbors who understand us when we say to them, “Hey! We’re back from our trip. Is that your car parked in our driveway?”

The point is, it just isn’t natural to be positive all the time. It’s the sure sign of a brain at rest. The trick, I believe, is to appreciate what is, while also wondering what could be.

This post came from several conversations I’ve had with fellow bloggers. They’ve expressed the lingering dissatisfaction of the writer, a trait non-writers see as lack of confidence. But that isn’t what it is at all. It’s an awareness that we can rarely, if ever, take a concept from our mind and put it into words in such a way that readers will absorb those words, translate them back into ideas, and the original concept will form in their minds. As new writers, we think that’s what’s happening. But with enough time and attention, we realize that it almost never does. After a while, we learn to recognize where we’ve fallen short, even without feedback from readers. We also learn how to inch closer to our goal, understanding that we won’t reach it, but that there are things we can do to close the gap. And we can do that only by identifying what’s wrong or missing. If we fall in love with what we’ve written, we miss the chance to improve.

Which leaves us in an odd position. We have to maintain the sheer audacity to believe anyone has the time or interest to sit down and read our words, and balance that confidence with the thought that what we’ve written can always be better. This involves acknowledging both the positive and the negative, and attempting to fix what isn’t working without messing up what is. In the process, we take those minuscule steps from where we are to where we want to be.

Maybe that’s the secret of life, if there is one. Or maybe I’ve failed miserably and you have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t know.

What I do know is that in order to build strength, we have to first admit weakness, and that seems like optimism to me. I also know that if you tell me to look on the bright side, I’m going to light your hair on fire. But try to remember that even with your head in flames, you can still be truly happy.

All you have to do is focus on how great all ten of your fingers feel.