A bit of background:
I was a single father, and while my marriage only lasted 2 years, the custody battle lasted three, and thought I “lost”, within six months, my X had asked if I would take over raising my son, as she couldn’t do it. He would live with her for a year or so, sometimes, and then move back in with me for 2 – 3 years, and so on. With that and working two jobs, I was a pretty bitter and cynical guy. It was so bad that at one job, my co-workers replaced my cubicle name tag with “Mr. Bad Example” from my favorite Warren Zevon song at the time.
There came a time when I met a woman and we started a relationship. I hadn’t been in a relationship in over a decade and didn’t want to mess it up, since I didn’t know if I had the skills to be in one, so I asked one of my co-workers at the group home.
She said I needed to practice unconditional love. I said that I do and she said that I may THINK I do, but I don’t. I had said that I would end things if the woman I was dating did this or did that, and that was putting conditions on things. I had to REALLY give that up if I meant what I said and just accept her as she was and support her changing, as we ALL change.
And I committed to that. I read up on things to help myself be calmer, to understand interpersonal stuff and to build a positive mental attitude. I used to make fun of the whole idea of a positive mental attitude, but as I committed to the idea, I found that I liked it.
The relationship ended, as relationships tend to do.
But I kept the idea of positive mental attitude and unconditional love in my head and kept working on it. As I did, my job changed and I became the director of a juvenile justice group home. I explored changing EVERYTHING about it from my new perspective and found models we could use to move from a punishment based-dynamic for the teenagers who were there to a growth based dynamic. I treated my staff with the idea of Assuming Positive Intent: Start from the idea that people are doing things for a positive reason and go from there.
For example: I would drop in at random times at the group home, partly to keep the residents thinking I could be in at any time and partly to see the dynamic of the house during times I wasn’t there. One of the guidelines we had was that we did not take the residents on activities until chores were done. I came in one night and no one was in the house. Supper was still on the table, no chores done, nothing. Rather than “Why did they do this!!??” I assumed that there positive intent behind what was done, and put away the meal, cleaned up the table and as I did, the van showed up, and everyone got out…and one of the clients was in a cast. He’d broken his ankle, and the staff had to take everyone to the ER.
So, if you simply assume people do things for a positive reason, it changes how you see the world. Walk away from your first instinct being that people are out to get you.
My son had a rough time after high school. He was angry that he didn’t go to college with his friends (he blew off all of the deadlines and wasn’t a very good student) and began to abuse drugs, be destructive to my life and the house, and generally became a horrible person. I set some final red lines around his behavior and he took off for a year…and when he came home, hat in hand, and asked if he could stay while he looked for a job, I asked if he was clean and sober. He said he was and his new job would be testing him…and he lived with me for a year, got on his feet, then needed to come back for a year…and it was raw unconditional love that made it possible for me to make it through that.
The woman I dated came back into my life, and apologized for the things she had done, and by this point, I was a different person. I was wary, as she tends to not just burn bridges, but to douse them with napalm and dance while they burn, but forgiveness isn’t ABOUT the other person. It’s about letting go of the hurt they caused you. A few years later, she did it again, and I didn’t fight or get mad, just accepted that was who she was and loved her anyway, hoping things would be well for her. And then about two years ago, she came back AGAIN, and again felt horrible about what she’d done to burn the bridge, and I explained to her that when I said unconditional love, I meant it. I keep the circle of people I give that to tight, but when I do give it, I give up thinking about consequences because I know it’s the right choice.
It’s why I laugh when she calls me “Goody Two Shoes” all the time, when my nickname when she met me was “Lousy Rat Bastard”. And when she apologizes for the things she’s done, I remind her of what the term Unconditional love means.
I’m not saying she changed me. I’m saying that she was the catalyst for a change that I needed to make. My time running a group home changed me. My last 5 years working with developmentally disabled adults taught me SO much about kindness, patience and positivity and also changed me. The last three women I have dated have all told me that I am a Good Man and that they admired how I treat other people.
It is a learned skill. I don’t believe people are good or evil, but I do believe we end up being selfish, left to our own devices. Being a positive person is hard work and a skill most of us aren’t born with. But, I made the change
And you can make it too. Fake it until you make it is perfectly valid. People were telling me that I was a calm person before I felt like I was a calm person. Find what works for you, but the biggest change you can make is your own attitude. You make the weather of your day. If you wake up unhappy, you’ll be unhappy. Wake up and remember that you woke up today, so it’s a good day. Actively look for the good things of you day. Take time to enjoy every sandwich. Do that and you’ve started down the path.
It isn’t easy. I am NOT a naturally positive person. I have dysthymia which tends to make me think setbacks are worse than they really are, but I make the weather for my day.