Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Attitude is everything

"The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind."

--William James (1842-1910)


My son and I were comparing notes about air travel yesterday, since we had both recently returned from different trips overseas. He had gone with his high school music group on a ten-day tour to perform in Europe, and it had been his first flight apart from his family, his first visit outside the U.S. and Canada, and his first time on a plane since 9/11. His return trip home had been especially grueling since, to save money, the planners had booked a route that involved three legs and two stopovers and plane changes (in London and in Chicago). It took him 24 hours of travel to get home from Vienna. He was talking about how tiresome and arbitrary the security and customs procedures had been and how claustrophobic, long, and tedious the plane rides were (especially so since some of the other folks on the tour had gotten sick from drinking the water in Prague).

I, Pollyanna Mother, acknowledged that he was absolutely right. It had been a tough return home. But then I also pointed out that having driven all around the U.S. together, we now could appreciate the miracle that is air flight, despite the concomitant hassles. We have driven from one side of the U.S. to the other (it takes days), as well as studied how the pioneers made the same trek over rutted trails (that took weeks), and now, keeping those priors in mind, every time I get on an airplane I am purposefully cognizant of how incredibly lucky I am and how easy I have it compared to those in the past.

I can't fly over the Atlantic Ocean, eating my complimentary peanuts and gazing down from the clouds, and not think of my plucky ancestors making the one crossing of their lives. I can't not think of how they never got the chance to retrace their long, dangerous, expensive journey and see their homes, friends, and families again. I even think of icebergs and the S.S. Titanic.

That we modern Americans can wake up one morning in one far-distant part of the globe and, thanks to an uncomfortable and stressful air flight, go to bed in our own home that night, is a "fantastic voyage" almost beyond the realm of imagination for our ancestors.

The odd part is, these ruminations provide a useful buffer. This idea of my incredible good fortune is one of the miracle drugs I keep at hand while flying.

I made my children laugh when I told them about the small child on my own return flight home from the U.K. Two rows behind me: she was only about a foot tall, but had a set of lungs and wasn't afraid to use them. She sounded like an enraged gorilla with a five-octave range, and kept it up for most of the eight-hour flight. Before I'd had children of my own, this sustained invasion of my psychic space and eardrums would have infuriated me--it would have probably ruined my day. But having traveled myself at least once with a fractious, upset, tiny, and inconsolable child, I could only pity the mother having to deal with that for eight hours--and consider myself so incredibly fortunate that it wasn't me, as I turned to lose myself in my novel. What luxury--what incredible good fortune--I only had to listen to it, not struggle with it on my lap, and not have it ONE row behind me, kicking my seatback. No, I was free to snooze, muse, or tuck into my hot meal in relative but true peace, without having to mother in the trenches. Been there, done that, and it's a nightmare. So now, lucky me--with my past perspective delivering that instant miracle drug of happiness.

On Saturday my husband returned from the U.K.; after I'd come home, he had stayed there another week longer on business. He caught a cab from the airport to our home, and the taxi driver had been a particularly nice guy. An immigrant from Somalia, he spoke broken English, but had kept up a very interesting conversation. He couldn't get over how great America was, with all of its opportunities available for anybody willing to work, and how so many of his fellow Somalian immigrants, along with other immigrants he knew, had worked hard, saved their money, and become very successful. He said a local business concern had just hired around 100 Somalian women from his community and everybody was happy: the women, for getting jobs and making good money, and the business for finding employees willing to work so diligently. "They think the African-Americans don't want to work that hard," he said.

This was not the first time I'd heard this sentiment expressed about African-Americans (they being less-preferred employees than illegal alien Hispanics who are seen as having a much better "work ethic," for example), but it was the first time I'd heard it coming from a black Somalian. It drove home to me yet again the idea that modern-day America is not a particularly or unusually racist nation (despite the random racist acts or people here, as they are everywhere). Businesses and Americans as a whole no longer discriminate against blacks because of their skin color--no more, I'd daresay, than black Americans and businesses discriminate against whites. Now when Americans discriminate they are usually discriminating among people based on attitudes, and insofar as the attitudes are not based on false stereotypes but on truth, they are right to do so.

Meanwhile, if it is true that African-Americans as a group are perceived as being less willing or hard workers than others, and if it is true that as a group (for whatever reasons of culture, values, beliefs, or attitudes) they indeed are, it would be to their advantage both as a whole and especially individually, to quit beating the empty race card and work to counter the perception by changing the reality. In other words, they can go far by examining their own attitudes and changing what they can within themselves.

If you have an attitude of self-pity and persecution, it will ruin your day--and your life. If, on the other hand, you can find your way to an "attitude of gratitude," you will feel and be blessed. If you have the perspective of harder days, previous struggles, and less fortunate people informing your current outlook in a positive way, you will consider yourself truly lucky and you'll be able to see the glass around you as more than half-full. Extend that attitude to recognize, like our immigrants have done and continue to do, that America is an amazing place full of opportunities, adventures, and privileges, and you will be in a good position not only to be personally happy, but also to succeed.

You will have found the Miracle Drug.

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