These remarkable words are from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale in his best selling book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” first published in 1952.
His sage advice came to mind when I heard a 50 ish man with a big frown bellow, “All I see is misery,” as he sat in his wheel chair. In front of him was the Redondo Beach Marina, with boats moored to their docks, bobbing gently up and back in the bright blue sea.
Around us were restaurants, shops and offices and people strolling by, mellowed by the warm 70 degree sunshine, in the cloudless light blue sky. The air was fresh, as it came off the ocean and it was perfumed by the white flowered Jasmine in full bloom nearby.
This man I’ll call “Bob” had long, surfer blond hair on which the sun reflected brightly. In speaking with him, I thought being physically limited would be his major problem, but I was wrong.
Bob told me the boyhood lessons his father instilled in him about people being “cockroaches,” and too many in number, about the cheaply constructed houses in Southern California, and of how his father would’ve invested in real estate and made a fortune if only those houses had been built better.
“Yes, but that aside Bob,” I said to him, “Isn’t there anything you see that you could enjoy if only for a few minutes? How about the sunshine? How about the flowers or the beautiful blue sea? He responded by telling me things were much better before everything we could see in front us was built and attracted so many people.
Yet as I listened to Bob it turned out that through his parents, he owned his home “free and clear,” and because it had been in the family for so long, it had “a low property tax.” But this didn’t make him happy either even for a moment, although he did speak of it being “better than these crummy homes” alongside the sea nearby, as he motioned at homes that included mine.
As he spoke, I realized he was a lonely man for who else would want to listen to his unrelenting negativity, other than paid professionals.
Finally with a smile, I stopped Bob and gave him a friendly pat on his right shoulder. “I’m sorry you are so unhappy,” I said to him. “Even for a moment, you won’t allow yourself to enjoy the beauty that surrounds you.” And I shook his hand and wished him well, as I said goodbye.
In considering Bob’s outlook, I thought of my cousin Mickey who had Multiple Sclerosis and was wheel chair bound for over 30-years. Mickey, who passed away in 2003, had his angry moments, but he was personable and had a circle of friends he regularly got together with in a local diner as they shared stories over breakfast.
And on sunny days like this one, with the help of a family member, care-giver or as best he could, Mickey would roll his wheel chair out among the trees and flowers near the swimming pool in his condominium complex, to enjoy the beauty.
As I continued my walk 10 minutes later I came across a homeless woman I had met once before a few months earlier.
This trim African-American woman I’ll call Olivia is in her mid-20’s, dresses well, maintains herself and is neat and clean. Olivia is well-spoken and has beautiful teeth that someone invested a lot of money in.
She tells me she is a college graduate and I have no problem believing her. In fact, if I didn’t see her carrying all of her belongings, I wouldn’t know she is homeless.
As I approached Olivia she greeted me with a warm smile as she recalled my name and asked how I was. I invited her to walk with me to a close-by restaurant for lunch. There she told me of her plans to attend graduate school and how she hopes to one day work for a non-profit group helping those in need.
At no time did Olivia speak with a “poor me” tone or reflect any negativity. Instead she spoke of mending her relationship with her parents and was quite optimistic about her future. It may all be just a pipe-dream but it sustains her and it makes her more pleasant to be with.
I don’t know what put Olivia on the street but I’m hopeful she’ll get her life in order and attain her dreams. She and Bob have personal issues of which I have no window in which to see, nor do I know the life path each of them is on.
But as I listened to her optimism, Dr. Peale’s words came to mind.
After saying goodbye to Olivia, I walked a short distance and came across a badly scuffed penny. I picked it up and as I held it in my hand, I realized it represented a thin and fragile line in the lives of each of us. For whatever reason, it had landed on the street.
In its sorry state it seemed to have no future. But lovingly polished its shine could be restored and it could become of productive use to our society again. And if it was human, it could find pride and meaning, perhaps at a level it had never known before.