January 05, 2013

I Love Ya, Tomorrow

Last month, I went to see Annie on Broadway. Annie is the story of a plucky orphan living in New York City during the Great Depression. She escapes from the orphanage on a quest to find her birth parents and ends up adopting a dog, meeting then-president Roosevelt, and getting adopted by a billionaire.

One of the things that makes orphan Annie so beloved is her unshakable and infectious optimism; despite being destitute and having been abandoned by her parents, she always keeps her chin up. Several times during the show, Annie belts out her signature song, Tomorrow: "When I'm stuck with a day/that's gray/and lonely/I just stick out my chin/and grin/and say/tomorrow, tomorrow/I love ya, tomorrow/you're only a day away!"

Watching the 12-year-old actress playing Annie sing her heart out at centre stage, I was overwhelmed by emotion and optimism. I decided to adopt Annie's anthem as my personal theme song, convinced that the simple wisdom of Tomorrow could help me cope with everyday hassles and major life stresses. I sang the song in my head for days, confident in its optimistic message.

The following week, a friend who had been going through a tough time called me up for tips on using mindfulness to manage strong unpleasant feelings. She told me that her current strategy was to try not to think about it, to pretend the feelings weren't there, and to tell herself that tomorrow would be a better day--but that is wasn't working.

I put on my mindfulness teacher cap and suggested a new strategy: rather than ignoring or avoiding the unpleasant emotions, I proposed that my friend try to identify and acknowledge them, and even try to cultivate curiosity about her uncomfortable feelings. I reminded her that mindfulness means accepting and working with whatever's happening in the present moment--even when we don't like it.

After we hung up, though, I felt conflicted. What about Annie? What about "I love ya, tomorrow?"  Mindfulness explicitly advocates being in the present moment, and optimism is generally future-oriented. So on bad days, can you live mindfully in the present and still comfort yourself with the prospect of better days to come?

I had to think about it, but the answer is yes. While mindfulness means residing primarily in the present moment, it doesn't mean never thinking about or looking forward to brighter days. The key is to be optimistic about the future without avoiding the present.

Example: Say you wake up feeling anxious. You head to the office as usual and dive into your work, doing your best to ignore the continued roiling in your belly and tightness in your chest. If you avoid addressing the feelings and sensations and just tell yourself that tomorrow will be better, you're being optimistic, and you may be right--you probably will feel better tomorrow--but you're also avoiding experiencing your feelings. In contrast, say that rather than plowing through the day ignoring your symptoms, you decide to use half your lunch hour to sit quietly, identify what's going on, and practice experiencing your emotions. You can still be optimistic and remind yourself that tomorrow will probably be better, but you're not avoiding your emotional experience (a strategy that doesn't usually work it the long term).

Second example: Say you and your partner are going through a rough patch. And say you reassure yourself with vague optimism about the future of the relationship, rather than exploring your feelings and identifying the problems. With this blind optimism strategy, you can avoid uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings, but the relationship problem might remain. Say that instead you optimistically hypothesize that you and your partner love each other enough to make it through a rough patch, and decide to try to identify the problem, investigate your feelings about it, and discuss it with your partner. Such optimism combined with your mindful acceptance of the problem will probably lead to an open conversation, increasing the likeliness that your hypothesis will come true.

I was relieved to determine that Now this is happening and I love ya, tomorrow are not incompatible and that I can keep Tomorrow as my bad-day theme song without renouncing mindfulness. So if you're having a tough day, go ahead and remind yourself that you probably won't feel this way tomorrow. The only catch is to not use optimism about tomorrow to avoid experiencing today--unpleasantness, discomfort, and all.

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