There are two ways to read this quote.
Lincoln might be telling us to “accentuate the positive.” That managing our emotions and deciding to be happy will make us feel happy. In which case, this quote is kind of ironic, given that poor Abe struggled with depression. Seems like there’s a little self-loathing mixed into the words.
When I was a little girl, I sometimes tried to imagine what it would feel like to lose somebody I loved.
I could imagine only the sketchiest approximation, though. I knew I would be very sad, but had no weight or measure of that sadness and couldn’t imagine its nuances. All I knew is that it was likely to be a grief so enormous, I might not survive it.
A lot of years have passed since then, and I’ve lost a brother, several close friends, and my parents. And in a way, I’ve been granted one of the secrets of the universe: the knowledge that as terrifying as grief is, we almost always survive it.
We fear grief as much as we feel it, which only makes our burden heavier. But grief cannot kill us (without our cooperation) so we don’t have to add to our pain with fear.
What we might fear when we feel grief:
“Don’t get trouble in your mind” is the cheery refrain of a bluegrass chestnut, performed in the video below by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
I’d never heard the song until a friend posted this video on Facebook the other day, and it just hit me in a sweet spot. Since then, it’s been an earworm.
But unlike most earworms, this one could prove useful.
I love when friends invent pithy quotes.
Yesterday, my friend Karen asked if I knew of any quotes along the lines of the above, which has been running through her head recently.
“To me it means when times are good and you’re in your rhythm and conquering the world (or just fairly happy) it’s easy to be philosophical about how to get thru the bad times,” she wrote.
“Telling yourself you can’t control everything is easy when life’s perkin’ along. But when it all gets complicated and shit’s goin’ wrong it’s hard to really ‘count your blessings’ or believe that ‘better times (probably) lie ahead.’”
Oh yeah. It’s true. When stuff’s hittin’ the fan, keeping a level head is really hard, no matter how much you “know” when everything is just swell.
So what then? Are you destined to just spiral down until… what? You bottom out? Your life’s in shambles around you? You take to your bed forever?
When I’m in a place so bad that I forget all the important things I know about living well, I sometimes call my former therapist for a little tune-up. Otherwise, I just spin my wheels until I’m deep in a rut. A good head shrinking helps me regain traction so I can move forward, out of the mire.
But, facile as this sounds, I’ve also found that a good pithy quote can help me hang on when life is sucky. I sometimes cling to aphorisms like a lifeline, repeat them like a mantra.
I guess the trick is grabbing onto pithy quotes that really speak to me. “Count your blessings” doesn’t work for me. I know that’s sacrilege, but thinking about the good things in my life has never solved anything for me. I can be aware of good things and still be all wadded up about the not-so-good. Good and bad are not mutually exclusive and I’m not easily distracted from life’s dark side. That’s just me.
But some pithy mantras do help me ride out hard times. For example:
This too shall pass.…
Similarly, a therapist once said to me, “Misery is a great motivator.”
And JK Rowling said, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Yep. There’s little more effective for lifting you out of misery than misery itself.
When things are so friggin’ awful that you can’t imagine them getting any more awful, doing things that were unimaginable suddenly seem imaginable.
Change is so difficult, you gotta really, really, really want it. Or have it forced on you. And when life sucks so bad that getting out of bed requires monumental effort, change is being forced on you. That kind of despair is powerful stuff—powerful enough to make you drag yourself up and stumble forward.*
Besides, sometimes thinking about things staying the same is scarier than thinking about them changing.
I invented this one for myself, although I’m sure Buddhists would try to take credit.
This might not be a happy quote all the time. What if you don’t want things to change, what if everything is perfect just as it is right now at this moment?
Too bad. Then again, there is no perfect so that’s just a happy illusion anyway.
But then there are those times when life is dreary or dull or uncomfortable or unhappy or even downright, outright awful. That’s when I trot out this quote and repeat it over and over, like a mantra.