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Modern Pollyanna

How to be Optimistic in the Midst of a Crisis

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When I was about 10 years old, and refusing to read books, my mom convinced me to read my very first novel. “You will love this story, I promise,” she said. “It is about a little girl who reminds me very much of you. She is always positive, finding ways to be happy.” My mother’s comments sparked my attention. That is how I fell in love with the classic American novel “Pollyanna” written in 1913, by Eleanor Porter. 

Following my own advice to others of “honoring the desires of your inner child,” I recently ordered a copy of this novel and I decided to re-read it as an adult. It was my way of connecting to my inner child and doing a joyful activity of reading novels once again. 

What is striking about this story is that Pollyanna and her father played the “glad game” as a method of coping with the real life difficult situations that seemed out of their control. “The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about-no matter what that was”. What a time to read this book! We are in the midst of a pandemic with more bad news being announced regularly. And there is nothing I can do, besides staying at home or wearing my mask to protect everyone when I have to go out. As I was reading the book, I wondered if I could play the “Glad game” now and put aside my frustrations about our current crisis. 

As I was contemplating about this, I received an email from one of the staff that works at my clinic. She was notifying me that she had to be taken to the hospital as she had difficulties to breathe due to her Covid diagnosis. Boy, what a way to test my ability to play the game now! I was sure worried about her, but I was glad that I was safe and sound. In fact, I am glad that since March I have not gotten sick, not even once. My health was something I would have taken for granted before the pandemic. 

Pollyanna, who was living with her poor father, first starts to play this game when she receives crutches from the missionary barrels instead of the doll she asked for. As she feels disappointed about this “gift”, her father teaches her to be grateful that she doesn’t need the crutches, rather than focusing on what she is missing. Pollyanna often gets these mission barrels never knowing what will be inside of them. She talks to her aunt about how the barrels made it difficult for her to play the “game.”

In 2020 our life seems very much like the missionary barrels Pollyanna would receive. We started the year with the loss of dear Kobe Bryant. And in March we got hit with a pandemic none of us ever lived before. At first, we thought we needed a couple of weeks of restrictions and then we were free to live life like nothing has happened. Little we knew of what was coming in the next months. We sure didn’t like the surprise element as it made most of us feel out of control. 

I decided to share the story of Pollyanna with my 14-year-old high-functioning autistic son. Like many adolescents he has been complaining for many months now about the restrictions. Being out of routine has been especially challenging for someone like him. I was very curious to see if I could give him a different perspective. I told him how Pollyanna got crutches instead of the doll. “Can you guess what she can be glad for?” I asked. “She could play with crutches like a sword,” he thought. “Interesting, guess again,” I said. Although his response was better than what I expected, creative in fact, he couldn’t guess the real message of the story. He had been so frustrated by the restrictions since March that his point of view became more pessimistic than ever. I had to give him the answer eventually about how Pollyanna should be glad that she doesn’t need the crutches. “Oh, you mean I should be grateful about what I have,” he smiled. Being a psychologist’s son, he heard me talk enough about mindfulness and gratitude. He was right, Pollyanna was a modern gratitude practice. An exercise of journaling daily of what one is grateful for is often suggested by the mindful therapists. 

I searched for the meaning of gratitude and I found the following definition: “The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” I didn’t think about kindness when I talked about gratitude. I always thought gratitude was something I needed to do for myself. We need kindness right now. More than ever. 

As I continued to read this beautiful story, I wondered what inspired Ms. Porter to write this story of optimism. Was it because she wanted to give hope to people who had suffered The Sixth Cholera Pandemic that lasted until 1911? Or was it because the Titanic had sunk in 1912? I wondered about her personal life. Was she suffering? Was she able to play the Glad Game? Whatever the reason maybe she definitely made history when her heroine Pollyanna who was always looking for the bright side of things restored hope to many American homes. 

The book very soon sold over a million copies. I attribute this to the American public’s eagerness for reassurance that optimism still existed. And now as we face Covid-19, we for sure can benefit from this optimism once again.

What happens if you as a reader play the Glad Game and share the examples with your neighbors? Are you glad to be alive? Are you glad we have technology so we can still stay connected to loved ones despite the stay-at-home orders? Are you glad that you can order food online? Are you glad we now have the vaccine? What are you glad for?

Imagine if we spread this through the nation and help decrease some of this collective stress. Be kind to yourself and to others. 

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