We all have bad days. Those days when all the world conspired against us and we fight tooth and nail to stay above the chaotic din of "those people."
This entire mentality seems to stem from a disdainful misanthropy that develops when we finally make the jump from childhood to adulthood. It's definitely not something present in our youth. Kids, on the whole, are full of positive energy. It's only when their innocence is tainted that they begin to see the world through a lenses of angst and cynicism.
We spend most of our lives clawing after this innocence. We want to get back to a world where we love everything, can approach even the most dire of situations with a childlike optimism, and can entertain ourselves for hours without any external input of amusement. The funny thing about it is that we seem to over-think everything.
A few years ago, I was working at a Boy Scout camp during the summer. I absolutely loved being outdoors, spending time in nature, teaching about the things I enjoyed, and being around youth so ready to learn and have fun. It's hard to not be inspired by circumstance when in a position like that. Then again, there were still a smattering of adults there to ruin everything.
The differences between Scouts and Scouters are subtle. Both enjoy being outside. Both enjoy time away from the mundane routing of regular life. Both seem to enjoy playing with fire and sharp objects when they shouldn't be. If you stop there, you'd think they were the same group. But Scouts will happily eat peanut butter & jelly sandwiches when they don't like what else is on the menu. Scouters will yell and curse and demand you change the meal plan. Scouts will get up and be excited to watch a sunrise at 5am. Scouters will grumble and complain if they're up before 9am without a hot cup of coffee waiting. When class plans fall through due to a too-low or too-high number of students, Scouts are entertained by your improvisation skills and ready to pitch in where needed to make things work. Scouters will write letters to your boss criticizing your inability to foresee the dilemma.
When you're on staff, it's easy to work with the Scouts. Even the most annoying or stressful situations can turn around and work for your benefit. Working with Scouters, though, can be a challenge and leaves even the most energetic staffer jaded about their experience.
Well, all but one.
K was a senior staffer my first year at camp. She knew her job, recruited several friends to help out, and was idolized by most of the campers. The first thing I noticed when I met her was how excited she was about everything. Even problems that made everyone else groan made her smile at a new challenge. In fact, I never saw her not smiling.
One week at camp, I received a less than complimentary review from a Scouter (OK, I'll be honest ... it was three pages explaining why I was the worst thing to ever happen to the Boy Scouts). It really ate at me, because I knew exactly who the anonymous review came from, why he'd written it, and why he was, in my opinion, absolutely off base. I stewed about it for several hours, but then finally had to vent my frustrations to my nearest co-worker. At the time, that happened to be K.
She stood there, smiling as I recounted my week, my frustrations at my 45-student class (I had materials to instruct up to 15 at a time), and my irritation with the Scouter who'd written the review. She asked a few quiet questions that got me thinking out loud about how I could do things better and, by the end of my 10-minute tirade I was more calm, relieved, and had a list of actionable changes I could make to my program to avoid the same problem in the future.
Then I realize what I'd done. I had just stood and yelled at one of my co-workers, lamenting my job for a full 10 minutes ... without any regard for her feelings, the difficulty of her own job, or the similarly frustrating reviews she'd no doubt received during her tenure on staff.
"Wow, I'm really sorry about that. Thanks for the advice, but I shouldn't have laid that all on you in the first place."
"Don't sweat it. Just remember, the next time I have to vent you get to be my victim."
Then, with a smile, she walked off to lunch.
A couple of weeks later, she pulled me aside and just whispered, "my turn." Then, she spent 10 minutes recounting her week, the amazing things her students had come up with, and how she'd managed to build friendships with a few of the more troubling people on staff. She even explained how great the challenge was of waking up 40 minutes earlier to make coffee for a more demanding group of Scouters and how the earlier alarm was now giving her time to catch up on running before morning flag.
"Aagh, it's just frustrating, isn't it," she asked with a grin.
I couldn't help but smile back. Because I knew she truly meant every word and this was the most frustration I'd ever see out of her.
We can chase after forgotten innocence all we want, but we'll never catch it. We can groan about our situation, lament our jobs, and hate the cards life has dealt ... but that attitude won't bring us any closer to being satisfied with our place in life either. Or, we can choose to see the brighter side of every situation - how a demanding boss challenges us to be more demanding of our own abilities, or how a pay cut teaches us to be more discerning about our spending, or how being stuck in traffic gives us more time to sing along with the radio.
Innocence and optimism go hand-in-hand. If we want to pursue innocence and return to a place where we can approach everything with a childlike wonder, we need to re-learn how to approach everything with a childlike optimism. It's the greatest lesson my friends have ever taught me ... and one I keep struggling to teach myself every day.