Dear Umbra,

I am a new but faithful reader of your excellent column. I’ve learned a lot, but one thing I’ve noticed is that there never seems to be an upside to the answers. Now, this may be just because the reality sucks so much, but it depresses the hell out of me and makes me feel hopeless about ever making a difference. Even your reply to the vinyl record guy left me feeling glum, as you told him to enjoy his records but that their disposal (which will happen eventually) will have dire consequences for the earth. How do you keep positive when the news seems so bad all the time? Do you have any advice for me? I eagerly await your reply!

Ann W.

Dearest Ann and Dearest Readers All,

Happy Valentine’s Week. I love you. Many kisses. Mwah, mwah, mwah. Chocolate all around. You haven’t sent too many romance-related questions of late, so I’m using Ann’s note to send the love.

Ann, because I love you I’m going to be honest with you. I keep positive through selective caring. It’s the way we all keep positive. How can we eat breakfast every day, given what’s happening in Darfur? Through deciding where we can make a difference, and understanding that there are other areas that we can know about, but not act upon, whether through choice or circumstance.

Think about the good things.

Photo: iStockphoto

I understand that in answering questions I almost always point out the ecological problems of daily life. But I think if you look more closely you’ll see that I often say, “This issue is less important.” I might even say, “This issue is unimportant.” We have to rank our worries, and while I’m happy to answer a wide range of questions, from what to wear to what car to drive to what disposable water bottle to own for two days, I hope that I also help with perspective and priorities. I hope to let us know where our energy will truly make a difference.

Take vinyl, for example. As a result of my choice to prioritize limiting vinyl in my life, I’m pretty calm about other plastics and don’t bother getting all het up when I or others can’t avoid buying a bottle of water, or when I come across a plastic fork. I get het up about other things instead: Aluminum! Cars! Universal Health Care! Confined Animal Feeding Operations! New Vinyl Shower Curtains! Exurbs! By prioritizing what I care about, I can reduce the amount of despair. And while it’s true that the disposal of that reader’s vinyl records will be kinda dire when the time comes, I am pleased that he is reusing objects, and I think he should enjoy the music while he can.

More on how one stays positive: Involuntarily. My personal experience shows me that our minds can only compass a limited amount of information and despair at one time. Each person has his or her own limits. I know some may be mired in despair for long periods, where others have a natural emotional buoyancy. Either way, it’s quite hard to keep global warming in mind every moment of the day.

A third way to keep positive is integrating a personal responsibility to make the most of every day of life. Life is a gift, whether you believe it was given by a deity or not. I’m doing what I can to make my life better, to help others’ lives be better, and to get better at making things better. I know many, many others out there are doing the same. I’m showered every day by letters from concerned citizens who want to make a difference in the world. That makes me feel good. Plus, I like the world. Trees and lettuce and neighbors and family keep me positive. If you find yourself feeling hopeless, a list could help. A list of the things around you that make you happy, and/or a list of actions you are taking to make change in the world. At down moments, you could look at the list and remember that snow falling is beautiful, and that you are eating less meat.

Don’t I sound like a motivational author? Stay tuned for my book, Happiness Comes From Selective Caring. Or how about, Stay Positive, Eco-Heads, Our Time Will Come? Something along those lines. Maybe even Doom and Gloom with a Sense of Humor. Although I think that one’s been taken.

Cheerfully,
Umbra