Tragic Optimism and Non-Dual Thinking

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Is it better to focus only on the positive…or expect life to be hard?

Research suggests the idea of “tragic optimism” — holding space for both pain and joy — can help you to bounce back better from tough times, and is key to finding joy and meaning in life.

The case for tragic optimism was first described by Viktor Frankl in 1949, shortly after Frankl survived the Holocaust. Since then, the construct has been evaluated and applied more broadly.

Consider a study in which researchers followed people after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Over the long haul, some found the terrible events more debilitating than others. The scientists discovered that just about everyone experienced similar levels of sadness, stress, and grief at the outset—how could they not, these were unimaginably painful events. But those who were more resilient not only accepted what happened, but they also created space for hope and belief.

Tragic optimism teaches us that we can experience pain and joy, that change can bring about anguish and hope, and that impermanence represents both endings and beginnings. In between toxic positivity and being a Pollyanna on the one hand, and despair and nihilism on the other, there is a wide chasm for us to inhabit.

If you struggle with hard times, accepting that this is part of life—and that better times are ahead or can co-exist with your difficulties—could shift your mindset and give you the focus and energy to improve your outcomes, while also acknowledging that sometimes things just suck.

Tragic optimism is an especially important concept in today’s world: there truly is a lot to be upset and frustrated and saddened by. But if we are to have any chance at fixing a broken world, we cannot become broken people. Life is hard and wonderful all at once; our work is to do the best we can to embrace it all.

Tragic optimism is an example of non-dual thinking, or holding two seemingly competing ideas at once. Non-dual thinking can be a game changer. It’s key to mental health, sustainable progress, and especially navigating change and uncertainty, which is precisely why it turns up frequently in Master of Change. (You could say its the unsung hero of the book!)

In addition to tragic optimism, here are some other examples of non-dual thinking—not this or that; this and that—that I explore in great depth in the book.

Stability AND change:

Clinging to stability and trying to avoid change or over-control almost always proves futile and leads to anxiety. But sacrificing all agency and going wherever the wind takes you often leads to overwhelm and disorientation. The key is to balance stability and change—to work on being stable thru change.

Acceptance AND problem solving:

You can’t make progress on something unless you see it clearly for what it is. Practice acceptance for what you cannot control and problem-solving for what you can. Also: not everything needs to be fixed. Sometimes the best way to “solve” a problem is to leave it alone.

Independence AND interdependence:

Independence means you are unique, influencing, and autonomous. Interdependence means you are relational and adjusting. Both are true at once. It’s useful to take stock of which view is helpful when, and be willing to adjust and use each in different circumstances.

Ruggedness AND Flexibility:

To be rugged is to be tough, determined, and durable. To be flexible is to consciously respond to altered circumstances and conditions, to adapt and bend easily without breaking. Combine them and you get rugged flexibility—a gritty endurance and anti-fragility that helps you navigate challenges.

Caring deeply AND non-attachment:

The things you care about will break your heart. That’s fine. Keep caring. Stay in the arena. The depth of your life is directly proportional to the depth of your caring. Yet caring deeply does not mean fusing your identity to an outcome. Jedi level is learning to care deeply and being able to let go.

Going all-in AND diversifying your sense of self:

This is essentially a conduit to the prior example. It can be useful, even wonderful, to go all-in on something you care aboutbe it a craft, relationship, job, sport, or educationbut not at the expense of narrowing your identity so much that there is nothing else left. It’s good to cultivate at least a few sources of meaning in your life so that when one shifts, changes, or goes wrong, you can seek refuge in the others.

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Some things in life truly are this or that. But many are this and that.

Brad

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