When I was an adolescent I nursed a serious aura of melancholy. I fancied myself a poet and wrote deep and pensive pieces about pain, sorrow, and loss. I listened to sad songs on repeat and always preferred dramatic movies to comedies. As I grew into adulthood my penchant for all things gloomy subsided a great deal, thankfully, though I do still tend to be rather serious and reserved in my manner. But I’ve learned to loosen up. I’ve learned I can be thoughtful and pensive and deep without being morose. I used to think being serious meant being sad, but really I’m not sure where that connection came from, or why I encouraged it for so long. What I’ve found over time, though, is that I don’t want to be sad. I mean, I can be sad sometimes, and that’s healthy and appropriate, but I don’t want to be characterized by sadness. I’ve found that, generally speaking, sadness begets sadness, and the more we dwell on the dark and lonely areas of our lives, the more we feel surrounded by darkness and loneliness.
I decided a while ago that that’s no way to live.
I think as a parent, it’s easy to focus what’s not working well. It’s easy to hone in on the one thing about my kids that drives me crazy, or the one habit that I wish I could change. The emotional implications of focusing on such negative aspects of parenting are easy enough to imagine—if I’m expecting to be annoyed, frustrated, or let down, chances are pretty good that my expectations are going to be met. Ever noticed the same being true in your house? If I go into a family dinner just waiting to hear a child chewing with their mouth open, I guarantee you I’ll be cringing in no time. Those smacks and slurps will be all I hear the whole meal because the truth is we find what we look for. If I’m ready and waiting to be annoyed or disturbed, chances are good I’ll end up there sooner than later.
But thankfully the rule holds in the opposite direction too. We find what we look for on the positive end as well. When I pay close attention to the character traits I want to see growing in my kids, the more I see them show up. I am more likely to remember the times when they go above and beyond expectations. I can lament that I have to remind my kids to clean up their dishes after a meal, or I can feel proud that I can’t remember the last time I had to remind them to take out the bathroom garbage or straighten their beds before school. I can despair over the frequent bickering and snide comments flung back and forth, or I can delight in that moment when my son offers to share what he has with his sister, or when I hear my girls happily declare they can’t imagine not sharing a room with each other, and wouldn’t want to.
I’m not talking about denying that there are annoying and imperfect things that happen in my home. My kids do bicker and I do get impatient sometimes and I want to see grace and love flow more freely. And I do unfortunately hear other people chewing with their mouths open far too often. But the reality is there will always be annoying stuff. There just will. But there will always be good stuff too. We don’t live in an either/or world, we live in a both/and one, where noisy eaters say “I love you” between smacks and arguments are bookended with giggles and hugs and playtime adventures. I have no interest in burying my head in the sand and pretending that all is well when it isn’t. But when was it that we began to see negativity as more “realistic” and positivity as mere “pie in the sky?” Life is not all roses and rainbows and puppy dogs, to be sure, but can we acknowledge that roses and rainbows and puppies still abound?
We tend to find what we’re looking for. When my husband and I were newly married we had a conversation about cement trucks. I said I never saw them on the road anymore. He told me they were everywhere, I just wasn’t looking. I had closed my mind to the possibility of cement trucks. So I started looking for them, thinking, of course, that he was wrong and if cement trucks were there I would have seen them. How can you miss a cement truck, after all?
Well, turns out you can miss them quite easily. At least I had. Once I started keeping an eye out for them, they were everywhere. On the highways and surface streets, parked on side streets and driving next to me on the freeway. I was astonished, but also excited. Because I learned that if I only open my eyes to something, chances are it’s already there for me to see.
Look for the good. Take note when you child smiles at you, says thank you, or offers to help without being asked. Notice when he or she completes a task they’ve been putting off or finishes something with an extra does of effort or excellence. I don’t mean pour out the praise for every good deed, I just mean notice it. Mentally mark that moment in time. And pay attention to how seeing these things affects your attitude or level of hope when a struggle does surface. In a world full of good mixed with bad it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all that’s wrong. But making a conscious effort to see what’s right can be the difference between persistent melancholy and persistent joy. Which will you choose?