“I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
–Anne Frank

It’s easy to think that one’s mood is determined by one’s circumstances, but Anne Frank didn’t believe that. Depression and despair, hope and happiness are the by-products of our internal thoughts, not our circumstances. All you have to do is read the headlines at the checkout counter to see that people who have it all don’t seem to have happiness. My patients have taught me that people in terrible circumstances can be happy, otherwise it would not be possible for anyone paralyzed from the neck down to be cheerful.  I don’t think those people were born cheerful, I think they decided not to let their circumstances determine their attitude. And if attitude is a choice, then it starts by choosing the right thoughts.

I’m not saying that I reliably manage to choose the right kind of thoughts – but I had a good role model in my Dad. My Dad’s mother died of tuberculosis during the Depression, and he often went hungry as a child; he spent all of WWII in hard combat in the South Pacific, and shortly thereafter, during the Korean War was caught up in the longest retreat in U.S. military history during which many men froze to death. He was a Soviet military expert who found himself in Moscow as Khrushchev took power, and spent the most harrowing years of the Cold War at the Pentagon. He seemed to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he had one stroke of luck. The island of Bataan fell just before he arrived, and so he missed the infamous Bataan Death March. I once mentioned to him that he was sure lucky not to have been there, and he immediately responded, “I would have survived.” That might sound arrogant and foolish, but it was at that moment I understood the secret of my Dad’s positive attitude. He controlled his thoughts. He never said, “I am not going to get through this.”  He faced every crisis with the attitude, “I WILL get through this.” He never complained about circumstances and he never tolerated self-pity from himself or others. He always focused on what he had, and not what he didn’t have. He was thankful, even for small things – like a good cup of coffee. And he told me never to waste time worrying about things that haven’t happened yet.

When we can’t change our circumstances – we can change how we THINK about them. It sounds like a trite answer to the current mental health crisis, but it works. Decide to put a stop to any negative internal dialogue, and tell yourself you CAN do it. Decide to worry after bad things happen, and not before. Be thankful for what you have, and like Anne Frank, focus on “the beauty that remains.”

Read about a young man with an amazing attitude in my recent editorial for Today’s Wound Clinic.

Dr. Fife sees patients at the CHI St. Luke's Hospital Wound Clinic in The Woodlands, Texas. For an appointment call (936) 266-2150.

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