Six Steps to Optimism: Day 3

“Optimism is essential to achievement, and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress.”—Nicholas Murray Butler

What do you do once you’ve begun to change your mind?

Well, that depends. It varies from person to person. Just as there are many different ways to see a mountain, there are just as many paths to the top. They all start, though, at the same place and in the same way: at the bottom and with one step.

If you start at a place, as an optimist does, where you believe that, no matter how difficult something appears to be, you have the capacity to take on the challenge, then you will take that first step as a natural outgrowth of your perception.

The optimist doesn’t ignore obstacles or have delusions about what’s possible. The optimist just says, “I don’t know how I’ll solve this problem right now, but I’ll find out as I begin moving forward”.

And sometimes, “forward” might appear to be anything but. It’s very difficult to understand, for instance, how clearing away other people’s dirty dishes at a mediocre restaurant until all hours of the night will help if what you really want to do is write a best-selling novel. When you’re two months behind on your bills and your car dies, it’s really hard to know what these circumstances have to do with your passion for baseball. And when you’re sitting in the hospital waiting for the most recent round of MRI’s, x-rays and tests to come back so you’ll know what’s slowly robbing your mother of her ability to walk, it’s completely normal to have no comprehension of how this could possibly have any connection to your lifelong dream of performing on Broadway.

As I noted yesterday, optimism isn’t just a magic-wand feeling. It’s often hard-won over long periods of self-examination and self-discovery.

Optimism isn’t an impenetrable shield that protects us from life. But with it, we can move ourselves further along our path toward realizing the dream that is innate to every human being.

If I have optimism, even if I face adversity, I can find the courage either to reach deep within myself and persever, or, when I find my own reserves running low, reach out to other people for the encouragement I need.

For me personally, this lesson has been very concretely illustrated over the past ten months. As a pianist who is blind, I often listened to recordings or live recitals and thought of all players who were better than me as being beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve. I gave all kinds of reasons why I would never reach that level.

In short, I was a pessimist. My reasons were really excuses, and I remained stuck where I was because my perspective and perception weren’t changing.

If your mom says you do something well, that means a lot. After all, she’s your mom. But on the flip side, she’s your mom, and moms do that kind of thing, or at least many of them do.

If your husband says you do something well, that’s wonderful, too. You can derive a lot of satisfaction from pleasing first your mom and then your husband because you love them both and want to give them something to be happy about. But he’s your husband.

If you’re really committed to your dream, you won’t settle for a teacher who is just a yes man. You’ll want the one who can push the hardest and inspire you to go the highest. Whether that teacher is a “brand-name”, well-known person affiliated with a big conservatory and with lots of high-profile students or is just some seemingly average person living off the beaten track doesn’t matter.

When you go out in search of a teacher to further you along the path toward artistic greatness, that’s a choice you actively make. And if you really want your dream to progress, you won’t rest until you find that teacher, even if this searching isn’t in the forefront of your mind.

I know it wasn’t in mine when I climbed onto a bus at a music conference in Minnesota. It wasn’t on my mind when I first flew to Denver, then took the long drive into Kansas. It wasn’t even in my mind as a friendship blossomed through phone calls and e-mails.

Well, it’s in my mind now, and every day, when I sit down at the piano to practice, whether I’m doing basic technical exercises or working on repertoire, it’s impossible to escape. And, when a teacher you’ve spent a lifetime searching for tells you you can go so much farther than you believe and won’t let you wiggle out of that fact, insisting you take on the pieces you once thought would be impossible for you to play, well, that does something to one’s fundamental outlook, and everything else flows from that shift.

I’ve talked a lot about encouragement from the direction of inspiring people to reach beyond their own perceived capacity. But courage is also the displacement of fear and loneliness. Of course, we are alone within our own hearts and minds, and we are alone in our quest to attain our dreams. No one can share our journey completely with us.

Yet we are given companions who walk beside us, some only for the briefest of moments, others for decades. These companions are the people who, by words or actions, demonstrate to us in ways large and small that they salute our dreams and our calling to make them reality. These are the people who are there to encourage us and restore our strength when we are beset by doubt, fear, and all the other emotions that we carry with us always. By their belief in us and their expressions of faith in the rightness of what we are doing, we have our stamina renewed and our faith strengthened.

I used to think that Chopin’s Sonata in B-Flat Minor Op. 35 was something I’d never play. For that matter, at this time last year, the idea that I’d play Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Minor wasn’t even registering with me. Even Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 57 (Appassionata) was just something I put on my CD player when I wanted to hear true drama.

Last November, my friend Anne started insisting I could play the Prokofiev. I ignored her until January, then decided I’d at least try.

I finished learning notes midway through February. I played it for informal music gatherings in April and May (or maybe it was march and April—can’t recall right now). I added it to a public recital program in August, and it’s still growing and maturing. But I own it. I live it.

I could not have achieved any of this without optimism. I may have had optimism in other areas of my life, but it took the encouragement of another person to rekindle it in my piano playing. With that as the foundation, I have the courage to take on new and bigger challenges and to do the daily, unglamorous work that’s necessary if I want success. And finally, because of all those elements arranged in that particular order, I am experiencing progress, and that progress is obvious to anyone who hears me now.

If you lose the courage within yourself, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Look outside yourself and find someone who can spark it again. For me, one of the greatest joys of traveling is the possibility that I may meet someone whose interaction with me will change my life. Two years ago, it happened on a bus in Minnesota.

If this is true for me, imagine how many opportunities await all of us as we go about our daily lives. This is optimism at work. We are all “source material”. We are integral parts of the universe, givers and receivers of wisdom. Even if the wisdom isn’t in your particular area of interest or directly related to your passion, it’s wisdom nonetheless and is a priceless gift.

Today’s challenge: With every person you encounter in the next twenty-four hours, consider both what you can learn from them and what you may be teaching them.

Explore posts in the same categories: Blindness, Dreams, Family and Friends, healing arts, metaphysics, music, piano, spirituality, Sports, writing

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