Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Swaptimism: The Best Recipe for Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Uprooting and re-rooting made easy, or at least easier (Optimism Part 2)
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to Sloptimism: Three Dumb Ways To Be Optimistic by Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D.

When life gives you lemons make lemonade, but what’s the recipe?  Just add a spoonful of optimistic sugar?

Not just. For a better recipe, a little background is in order.

Mostly, we don’t subscribe to our beliefs as deliberately as we think we do. When we subscribe to a magazine we make a deliberate choice. Subscribing to a belief is more often an impulse buy, an unconscious commitment to ideas and values that affirm us in our practical commitments to what we do, where we live and whom we love.

Our beliefs grow like roots stabilizing and nurturing our sense of being successful in our everyday lives, and the longer we’ve been planted in one place, the more our beliefs will tend to accumulate to reinforce our residence there, beliefs that affirm who, what, how and where we are, beliefs that rationalize why we’re doing what we’re doing and not doing all those other things we could do. We think that it’s I’ll do it when I believe in it, but more often than not it’s I’ll believe in it when I’m doing it.

Call it planted patriotism, patriotism not just rooted to country, but to the company we keep, the career we’ve landed, and the decisions we’ve made, beliefs that justify us in saying, “Yes, I intended this.  I belong here. This is the right place to be.”

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We’re much more inclined to subscribe to beliefs that credit our position in life than ones that discredit.  Just as we don’t tend to keep friends who make us feel inadequate, we shun beliefs that are disaffirming and destabilizing.  To a large extent our beliefs are our “yes men,” gremlins that take up residence inside our heads whispering “Yeah, you’re right, you’re good, you’re smart, you’re doing the right thing!”

Of course some of our beliefs are disaffirming and destabilizing, nagging us with restlessness, yearning and a senses of our inadequacy, compelling us to change our situation and our selves. Sometimes we actively decide to uproot from our commitments, leaving a job, a spouse, a career. And anyway, sometimes our situations force us to uproot.

Uprooting isn’t easy. There’s the logistical hassle but more, it entails changing what we value.  If for years you’ve kept yourself rooted at your job by counting its blessings and discounting its curses, you’ve got to reorganize all of that, counting your former job’s curses and discounting its blessings, so you can let go of it and move on. 

If you’ve kept yourself contented in your marriage for decades through beliefs that affirm why marriage is better and divorce is worse, in divorce you have to re-root yourself swapping out your former beliefs for new beliefs that affirm why divorce is better and marriage is worse. Your former yes-men gremlins scream “no!” and have to be swapped for new yes men. 

Losing what we valued to re-root into what we devalued is enough to make any of us pessimistic.  It can taste as sour as lemons. 

So how does one make lemonade when re-rooting? How does one swap out the old beliefs and values for new ones?

In my last article I argued against sploptimism or blind faith optimism, the sugary-proud but unthinking and incautious embrace of sweeping platitudes we can’t possibly live by and so live by selectively and therefore hypocritically--beliefs like that all beliefs are just egotistical, that you should have beliefs but shouldn’t be attached to them,  or that all change is an improvement. Sloptimism is a bad recipe for lemonade.

Swaptimism is a better recipe.  In it you flesh out optimistic stories about how you gradually swapped out your former beliefs and values for new ones and how it turned out to be well worth it. You tell these stories as if looking back on how you grew and what you gained from your re-rooted circumstances.

In the stories you don’t concentrate on dreams of lucky breaks: 

“I lost my job, but then landed another that made me rich and famous overnight and really showed those losers who fired me.”

“I divorced and then the partner of my dreams came along and we lived happily ever after.”

Instead, the stories are all about you. You reflect on how you grew from the transition and what you gradually came to discover about yourself, about change and about the world. 

And you don’t tell these stories as though you were changed overnight:

“I got cancer and suddenly forever more appreciated every moment and loved all people.”

More realistically, you describe how the slow hard personal work of re-rooting turned out to have been worth it for the growth it provided.

Though we don’t change on a dime when our world changes, we can orient the change by how we tell our swaptimistic stories. Swaptimism is a way to seed the process of re-rooting.  You aim your new roots toward the beliefs you want to re-root and the valuable nurturance they’ll provide:

“It took me a year before I was ready to date again, not an easy year but during it I cultivated my own sources of self-soothing, hobbies I became very content to do alone, which made me less dependent on a partner and therefore more judicious about who I would partner with.”

With swaptimism you tell more than one story.  There isn’t just one possible future, so there is no single recipe for getting from the sourness of the present to some future sweetness. The Tao says “The master makes use of all circumstances” but more accurately we’d say the master tries to make use of them.  Even the Taoist master is just guessing how to make the best of her circumstances and should keep a somewhat open mind rather than subscribing exclusively to one official future. Telling multiple stories keeps you limber, creative, open to opportunities as they arise.

In the crisis of re-rooting, people tend to panic and shrink their tolerance for more expansive thought about how the world works and how to work within it. When the going gets tough, the tough stop growing. 

Swaptimism counters this tendency by getting us thinking about our wider values and how we might honor them by new means now that your old means are no longer available. Right after your divorce you might make up a story as though reflecting back on it a year later:

“I wanted to make my marriage work and it didn’t work as well as I hoped. But more, I wanted to grow. I wanted to get ever-better at the give and take of sacrificing for others while staying on track with my own ambitions, hopes and dreams. Reflecting on my marriage over the year since my divorce, I saw ways I gave too much and gave too little. Thinking about those places honed my ability to know the difference between where to serenely accept accommodating another person’s demands, and where to courageously assert my own. Now, to me that’s wisdom, and wisdom is what I’m most after out of this little life of mine.”

Did you ever notice how when you complement someone on an improvement, you risk insulting their former self?  For example, telling a woman she looks like she lost weight implies that she was fat before.

Well, the same contrast effect applies when you imagine complementing yourself on your own future growth. To imagine having become a better person means admitting that now you’re not all you can be, not a welcome thought in the midst of an uprooting, since they tend to make us defensively self-protective.

See, our deepest roots aren’t the ones that hold us to our present situations but to our present selves, especially in the indignity of being exiled to new soil.  The last thing we think we can afford to let go of is our sense that we were right all along. It’s humiliating to admit we weren’t.   Our homesickness for a lost job, a lost partner or lost situation, is more often than we notice homesickness for feeling cozy confident withing ourselves. That homesickness is the sour that lingers longest.

But if you redefine yourself as a work in progress, if you sketch out how that work might go, if you can swap out your former dignity for the prospect of earning still more dignity by learning, it may be just the sip you need to wet the soil and grow new roots grounded in optimism about the process of slowly but surely moving forward.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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