*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on May 8, 2011
In my third grade classroom there was a poster on the wall that read:
I wish I were a glowworm,
A glowworm’s never glum.
‘Cuz how can you be grumpy
When the sun shines out your bum!
I didn’t understand what that poem meant until I was in my 20’s, and I had an epiphany about attitude. I was partnered with a veteran officer and two hours into our eight hour shift, I began to realize that that there was not a single thing he enjoyed about his job or his life. Being assigned to ride with me was also a source of contention for him and he wasn’t bashful about telling me so.
I found his disdain for life odd – especially given the fact that it was a beautiful summer day and the few calls we answered were relatively uneventful. As we patrolled the streets, I visualized a dark cloud exclusively over his head in contrast to the sunshine surrounding the rest of us and I laughed out loud as the glowworm poem popped into my head. It was at that moment that I started to understand the effect our attitude has on our entire existence.
Throughout my life, I have been bombarded with lessons about attitude. It’s not what happens to us in life, but the way we respond that makes a difference. If you can’t change a situation, you must change the way you see the situation. I understand these lessons on an intellectual level but conceptually, there are times I find it difficult to find the light when darkness seems to be so overwhelming.
As I gained more experience as a police officer, I began to understand how the metamorphosis from an optimist to a pessimist occurs. I became distrusting of other human beings though not without reason. I had been lied to, spit on, and physically attacked while doing my job. I saw the evil human beings did to one another and started to become suspicious of motives all around me. There was a moment where I quietly challenged my decision to make this my career and I felt my own dark cloud begin to hover.
Because I’ve always been very analytical and self-aware [by my own estimation], I started to pay attention to the negativity of my co-workers and it suddenly became clear that the miserable ones seemed to feed off each other like vultures. They gravitated towards one another because they validated each other’s thoughts and beliefs. They were always victims and they effortlessly found someone else to blame for all that was wrong. Never did they stop to look in the proverbial mirror and ask themselves if they might be part of the problem.
My favorite book is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. In his book, Frankl writes about his experiences in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He took particular interest in how some of his fellow prisoners seemed to endure and even thrive, while others gave up and laid down to die. From this, he concluded that, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedom is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose ones own way.”
We all struggle in some way with things that are completely out of our control. But the way we gain control over these things – even if only attitudinally – is where our freedom lies. We don’t have to experience torture in a concentration camp to apply Frankl’s teachings to our own lives. We each have the freedom to make choices that liberate us from our self-imposed prisons.
If Frankl’s story doesn’t motivate you to choose the way you look at things, maybe you need to surround yourselves with more glowworms.