How To Be Positive when Circumstances Aren’t: Ten Truths

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin
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I’m seventy-four. Until seventy-two, I ran, climbed, and competed. At seventy-one—because I could—I did twenty-five, one-handed pushups at the Everest Base Camp.

My body and I were best friends. 

Until it quit while trekking in Scotland. It started with a sudden loss of balance, morphed into left-sided weakness, and ended with partial paralysis. The cause: five fused disks in my neck that like a seismic crack were waiting silently for their moment. 

Two years later, after major surgery, physiotherapy, and ongoing osteopathic treatments, I walk with a cane, suffer from mild chronic pain, and feel this phantom burning sensation in my right foot. 

The prognosis: It will get worse. 

But I’m not. 

Why? Because I learned—or perhaps re-learned—some bumper sticker truths about being positive when the circumstances aren’t. 

So, here are my Ten Truths about How to Be Positive When the Circumstances Aren’t:

  1. Express your pain. Rage at first, if you must. Feel your sadness and loss. Whine a bit if it helps. And then move on. You can’t reach the positive without first expressing your loss. Perhaps, the most difficult part of personal hardship is the emotional reaction. Only by accepting the whole package of painful feelings and releasing them, can you arrive at a place of positivity.  
  1. Don’t cling to what was. To be positive you must say goodbye to who you once were and move on. It’s a gut wrenching.  To get there you’ll need to go through a painful mourning process. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s coined it the Four Stages of Loss: denial, anger, and sadness until you arrive at the final stage: acceptance…
  1. Let go and embrace what is. Let’s say you get it: Your days of physical glory are gone. So how do you stay positive when you lost a big part of who you are? My favorite bumper sticker for those circumstances I call Unforgiving Losses is: 

It is what it is. 

Ok, I get it. My personal it-is-what-it-is is that I’m handicapped? So now what?

To be positive you must discover an answer to this question: “Am I more than what I lost?” 

You are, as are so many of us who face Unforgiving Losses and discover new and positive parts of ourselves. When the athlete in me went into forced retirement due to circumstances beyond my control, I rediscovered an old, neglected passion.

  1. Be grateful for what you have and learn from everything. Being positive has much more to do with attitude than it does with circumstances. Another positive bumper sticker: focus on what you have, not what’s missing. If so, the positive in your life will increase. 


Because the more you focus on something, the more it expands. Think about buying a Toyota Prius and all you’ll notice are Toyota Priuses. Go to airport arrivals and focus on scenes of love and connection and you’ll be blown away by how much love is part of our lives. 

Focus on the positive in your life and watch it grow. 

  1. When one door closes, another opens. The hours I once spent training, competing, and climbing, I poured into writing.  I wrote Riding the Edge, a memoir about a six-month transformative bicycle odyssey I took with my life partner, Deborah. The passion and challenge of writing replaced my love for the physical. 
  2. God or Life or the Universe doesn’t owe you anything. S**t happens and when it does, accept it. Believe me, I know it’s not what you want.  Not so different from what I wrote above except that here the emphasis is on dropping entitlement. Doesn’t matter how rich, famous, or beautiful you are, the universe could care less. No one—not you, not me, not any human gets a free pass from suffering. 
  3. Humility transforms suffering into serenity. There’s a time to rage against life’s injustices and a time to recognize that there are some circumstances that neither will, nor effort can change. By becoming a master of circumstance, you transform a personal challenge into a positive leaning experience.  
  4. Surround yourself with loving people; you’ll smile, laugh, and love better. A positive community is a fortitude against despair especially during tough times. 
  5. Live for something beyond yourself: God, Community Service, or a Good Cause. Giving to others might be the single most important path to developing a positive mindset. When you learn to stare down negative circumstances with positivity, you become an inspiration and a guide to others. 
  6. Your circumstances may be tough, but you’re free to choose how to respond. Playing the victim card is easy: Anyone can be bitter; blaming is effortless; giving up—why not? What’s there to live for? 

That’s the gravitational pull of negativity. To not surrender to the nagging demands of negative circumstances, it takes the courage and conviction of the warrior, who chooses a positive, life affirming path over the compelling force of victimhood and defeat. 

To stay positive, there’s only one choice: 

Choose life!

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