An attitude: Which one would you like?

I stood in front of the closed door and drew a deep breath. I knew what was behind that door: an elderly patient confined to a hospital bed. Also in the room were several members of his family seated around the bed, keeping a careful, guarded watch over the sick man.

It’s not that the patient was critically ill—the issue was the atmosphere in the room. I knew that as soon as I entered the room, any ongoing conversation would cease and all eyes would turn toward me. The faces would be unsmiling, and there would be anxiety, suspicion, and challenge. One of the relatives would reach for the large pad of paper, and the questions would start: “What is your name? What are you going to do for my father and why? Did you wash your hands?” Et cetera. Every answer I might give would be written down. Whatever I did for the patient would be carefully watched, analyzed, and recorded.

As I took a moment to prepare myself outside the door, another nurse approached and handed me an IV fluid bag. “Would you please hang this for me in that room?” she asked apologetically, nodding toward the closed door. As I took the IV bag from her, I considered my attitude options. I could enter the room briskly, make no eye contact, do my work quickly, and exit just as soon as possible. Or I could assume an air of authority—after all, I was the professional! I would then be ready to confront any challenge they might give, in a most professional manner, of course. Or I could just delay entering the room altogether and possibly pass off my responsibility to someone else, as my coworkers had just done.

Attitudes in training

Image from Microsoft Office

We are born with the potential for a great variety of attitude responses, which we usually begin to demonstrate at a very tender age. Parents, teachers, Sabbath school leaders, and others all attempt to guide us as we grow, encouraging us to develop acceptable response behavior even if we don’t feel like it.

Our two-year-old granddaughter, Ava, came out of her bedroom one morning this past Christmas season in a very grumpy mood. Nothing would suit her, not hugs, not any of the foods available for breakfast, not even her favorite stuffed animal. She pushed everything and everyone away and continued with her sour, defiant attitude. Finally her father, in exasperation, ordered her to go back to her bedroom and stay there until she could come out a happy little girl.

At first there was loud, angry crying from behind the closed bedroom door. The crying finally died away, and all was silent for a while. Then we could hear singing, softly at first, gradually increasing in volume and energy—a favorite little Sabbath school song. It wasn’t too long after that before the door burst opened, and totally a different little girl emerged—all smiles and warmth.

Life can be hazardous to your attitude

Recently, en route to an appointment, I found myself enjoying a quiet, relaxing flight. As we traveled along, I was conscious of the pleasant, congenial conversation going on between the businessmen in the seats behind me. We approached our destination, and after a smooth landing, the flight attendant announced we could use our cell phones, which many of the other passengers proceeded to do, including one of the men behind me.

Suddenly it became apparent to many of us that there was a problem. The man’s voice became loud as he demonstrated obvious frustration and anger by words such as “I told him NOT to do that! He clearly understood my instructions! I don’t care what the problem is; he should have followed my direction!” While waiting to exit the plane, I chanced to glance at the man’s face and saw deep lines of stress and worry. Whatever enjoyment the day may have held for this gentleman was now destroyed.

The fish philosophy

In one of the big shopping areas in Seattle, Washington, there is an area containing a number of stalls with fresh seafood for sale. Fishmongers in Seattle work long hours in the cold, damp atmosphere, handling ice and smelly fish. It’s job that would certainly qualify near the top of a list of “Worst Jobs Ever.”

One day several years ago, the group of men working at one particular fish stall decided to have a special meeting and discuss ways in which they could improve their work conditions and increase their business success too. During the meeting, the boss asked each one to make suggestions—any suggestion, just think of the wildest ideas possible. One young man responded with “I think we should become world famous.” The rest burst into laughter, but then as the discussion continued, that idea became less and less outrageous, and finally the consensus was “Well, why not become world famous?”

But how could this happen? The product couldn’t be changed. The location couldn’t be changed. The hours and work conditions couldn’t be changed. The only changes, then, would have to be within those who worked there—their perception of and response to their work, their interaction with one another and their customers, and their individual attitudes. As a result, four hallmark principles were established: namely, “Play”—make the job fun, “Make Their Day”—draw the customers into the fun, “Be There”—keep the focus on the job and those being served, and “Choose Your Attitude.”

From this meeting and the initial concepts that were developed there, what is now known as “The Fish Philosophy” eventually emerged. That little fish stall is even now a lively, happy place where customers gather to laugh at the cheerful, funny antics of the people who work there—and they buy fish. They ultimately did become world famous. (See www.fishphilosophy.com.)

It’s a matter of choice

When one of the young fishmongers was asked in an interview about the principle of “Choose Your Attitude,” he stated that every morning before getting out of bed, he consciously makes a choice to have a good day, to enjoy his job, and to brighten the moment of every visitor or customer who may happen by. It doesn’t matter if he awakes tired or bothered with problems. Based on that deliberate choice at the beginning of the day, he says he finds himself going into the day’s hours happier and enjoying finding ways to help others be happy too, even in a fish market. He further said his time on the job now passes by more quickly and pleasantly.

It’s encouraging to know that we don’t have to be victims of circumstance. We have a choice of our attitude responses, and it truly is a benefit to us that we do. A negative attitude causes stress on our bodies, resulting in increased blood pressure and heart rate. Our immune response is compromised, digestion disrupted, and logical thinking hindered. We may say or do something irrational, leading to further complications.

Making a conscious decision to remain calm, to see positive possibilities and explore alternatives, and to maintain a cheerful, optimistic attitude will produce many benefits —to our work situations, to our families, to our church, and to our own well-being. We can’t change the experiences of life that come to us, and most of the time we can’t change our circumstances, but we can be in charge of our response to them.

There may be times when, like little Ava, we need to retreat to “our rooms” for a while, to work out a better attitude response. There may be times, like the businessman in the airplane, when we need to stop and evaluate our predicament and decide on the best positive reaction to a negative situation. Taking charge of our response is empowering. When we focus on being who we want to be, it influences everything we are doing. We are free to deal with difficult people and situations more calmly.

Secrets to success

Here are five steps in developing a positive attitude:

1. As the Fish Philosophy suggests, choose a happy, positive attitude first thing each morning. This choice may need to be reinforced several times throughout the day as situations arise. Committing the day to God, asking for His presence and guidance will ensure success. We don’t have to go it alone. He will be an “ever-present help” as promised in Psalm 46:1, 2 (NIV). His promises are sure—we have but to ask.

2. Look for the positive points and things to be thankful for in every situation. Gratitude can help keep things in perspective. Says Ellen White: “God scatters blessings all along our path to brighten our journey and lead our hearts out to love and praise Him, and He wants us to draw water from the well of salvation that our hearts may be refreshed. We may sing the songs of Zion, we may cheer our own hearts, and we may cheer the hearts of others; hope may be strengthened, darkness turned to light.”1

3. Always keep a sense of humor. Learn to laugh, and you will be more positive, especially if you can learn to laugh at yourself. Nothing works like laughter to relieve stress, pain, and conflict. Elevated blood pressures, stress, and worry can be decreased or avoided altogether, and balance restored as mind and body benefit health-wise under the positive influence of humor. Burdens don’t seem as heavy; problems and conflicts are put in perspective, and relationships improved. All in all, laughter truly is good medicine and a powerful antidote.

Bob Newhart, who made millions laugh and brought cheer in the most trying situations, once said: “Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it, and then move on.”

“A happy heart,” indeed, “makes the face cheerful” (Proverbs 15:13, NIV).

4. Believe that you are in charge of your destiny. Life is not something that is going on around you. It is what you make of it. Our choices of reactions, words, deeds—indeed the very way we live our lives—is all up to us. We don’t have to be victims of situations and complexities. And the best news of all is that with our lives committed to God, we have promises of direction, wisdom, and His guiding presence for any and all of life’s experiences. We have a sure thing in heaven’s GPS system (Global Positioning System).

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously without finding fault, and it shall be given to him” (James 1:5, NIV).

5. Take time for breaks. It can happen during our busy days that we are confronted with seeming impossible situations. The demands and problems of life seem unrelenting and monumental. We become tired and frustrated. Nothing is going right. We can find ourselves impatient and even short-tempered.

At such times, it would be good to take a break. Step back from the situation. Retreat literally or figuratively to a quiet room or change of activity. Quiet reflective reading, prayer, exercise, a walk in the fresh air, engaging in a favorite hobby, visiting with friends, or helping with a volunteer project—all of these can promote a change of focus. Our spirits become calmer, and things fall into perspective. Jesus gave us a good example of doing this in His habit of periodically taking His disciples apart from their busy work to a quiet place where they could rest, be refreshed and re-energized. Taking a break relaxes the mind, so that it can become calm and able to think more clearly. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11.28, KJV).

As I paused outside the door to breathe a quick prayer and check my supplies and approach, I suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for the folks inside. Perhaps they previously had been affected by some negative treatment incidents that resulted in their general mistrust of medical personnel. Or perhaps they were just uncertain and fearful of the prognosis of their sick father. Whatever the situation, it was a condition I most likely could do much to change… with my attitude. I could possible brighten their day a little by a cheerful spirit, and a bit of helpful, comforting treatment to the sick patient. This was my opportunity—my moment. So with that attitude, a smile, and a feeling of calm assurance, I opened the door and entered the room.

Rae Lee Cooper, R.N., is the official nurse of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. E-mail: cooperr@gc.adventist.org.

  1. Ellen G. White, Our High Calling, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1961) p. 10.