Irene O’Garden is a distinguished American poet and author who has won or been nominated for prizes in nearly every writing category. Her latest book, released just this month, is Glad to be Human: Adventures in Optimism. On this episode, Kim Forrester chats with Irene about the importance of optimism, and how we can become happier and healthier by celebrating what Irene calls ‘the radiance of human existence’.
Kim Forrester: 0:00
Research shows that people with a rosy outlook on life enjoy greater physical health and well-being. You're listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. I'm Kim Forrester and, today, we're going to explore the awesome effects of optimism.
Welcome, to Eudaemonia, the podcast that is all about flourishing. Plug in, relax and get ready for the goodness as we explore the traits and practices that can help you thrive in life ... with your host, Kim Forrester.
Kim Forrester: 0:36
Irene O'Garden is a distinguished American poet and author. She's won or been nominated for prizes in nearly every writing category, from stage to e-screen, hardcovers, children's books, literary magazines and anthologies. Her latest book, released just this month, is Glad to be Human: Adventures in Optimism. It's my absolute honour to be chatting with Irene today about the importance of optimism, and to discuss how we can become happier and healthier by celebrating what Irene calls "the radiance of human existence". Irene O'Garden, thank you so much for choosing to be a part of Eudaemonia podcast. How are things at your end of the world?
Irene O'Garden: 1:19
I'm happy to say that things are very good where we are. Me and my husband are fit as fiddles. We are surrounded by really wonderful and caring neighbours, one of whom came and repaired a fence of ours yesterday, and the community is being very supportive to one another. So, it's a really good time to be a human.
Kim Forrester: 1:43
It is a very interesting time to be alive and a time for us to lean into and engage our optimism fully, I think. Which is why I'm so excited about having you here today. I want to start our conversation with the first question that you actually ask in your brand new book. And that question, Irene, is "Why is it important to be glad to be human?"
Irene O'Garden: 2:08
Well, I think it's really interesting that we are probably the only species that questions gladness; that questions whether we should be glad or not. If you look at any brilliantly-blooming plant, that doesn't even have a second thought about gladly and expressively being herself. And I feel, very much, that if cells weren't glad to be cells, they couldn't metabolise. The whole universe functions through gladness. If atoms were ashamed or depressed about being atoms, they couldn't join one another to create this physical world that we inhabit. So I think it's just a matter of us getting in touch with that atomic, cellular, organic level that's already within us - within our bodies - to realise that we are part of the gladness of the universe.
Kim Forrester: 3:06
Wow, so what you're saying there is that you feel that gladness is actually embedded into us? Is that right? Embedded into ourselves and into our being?
Irene O'Garden: 3:15
Absolutely, absolutely. Because it is the essential emotion of creativity, which is the essential action of the world; of the universe. We're constantly creating ourselves. The whole world is constantly creating itself. And it couldn't do that if it were paralysed by feeling unglad, shall we say. That's that thrust of gladness that keeps us - that keeps the world - going.
Kim Forrester: 3:44
I find that really interesting, though, because I think many people would kind of say that they are not optimistic, for instance, because they are realistic. So, in your experience, does reality stand in opposition to optimism?
Irene O'Garden: 4:00
Well, this is interesting, and I can be totally wrong about this. I'm happy to be totally wrong about this. But, early in my life, I came across the idea of creating a reality as opposed to being subjected to some kind of viewpoint of the world. And I simply took that as my working hypothesis - that let's just assume, let's just say, we can create our reality. If we could create our reality, what would we create? And so that, when we say 'realistic', you know, that's the derivation of the word reality, I think it goes back to what kind of a reality are we creating for ourselves by what we're choosing to focus on? And so I'm not saying that bad stuff does not happen in every human life, and that that may be part of the reason that we're here - is to learn to handle such challenges. But I can say one thing, and that is: no matter what it is in human life, it is both good and bad. You know, for example, technology arose. It's both good and bad. No matter what it is, there are these two sides. However, I think that the more we gear to the side of what is positive, what is growth-promoting, what is health-promoting, the more we can promote health ourselves, among ourselves. The more power we have as individuals to create life and to live life to the fullest. So people often will say, 'Oh, well, I don't know. That's not realistic.' But actually, I believe it is the most realistic and practical way to look at life because all we do is incapacitate ourselves by looking at life as if it were just one horrible thing after another. I'm not saying you can't build a case for that. I'm just saying I don't see the purpose in building that case because that means I am not able to serve, to play, to create, to do these verbs that we are meant to do as human beings.
Kim Forrester: 6:11
The way you explain it there Irene, though, I can see that the shadow side of life is an inherent part of optimism. Without the shadow side, what are we to be optimistic about? So, I love the way you describe it there in terms of, you know, allowing dark and painful and unpleasant things to happen to us. The optimism is in how we choose to respond in those moments. That is just beautiful.
Irene O'Garden: 6:40
Absolutely. And this time period throws it up large for us. It could not be a bigger shadow time. The human race, the world, has never known such a gigantic shadow as the darkness of the pandemic. So I ask myself, 'What is this about? What is actually happening?' And the thought that came to me ... and I do enjoy the dream state very much. I think it's an important conduit from the larger selves that we are, to the selves that we are as human beings on a physical planet. And coming out of the dream state, about a week ago, I had the understanding that a lot of people living from a fearful place of, you know, 'Is this the great recession? Is this the Great Depression?' Looking at this from an economic viewpoint. And what came to me is to look for, not the scarcity, which may be financial for us for a while. It may be material abundance is scarcer for us. But what is tremendously abundant right now is compassion. So I vote that we call this period the Great Compassion and that we see that it is arising globally in a way it never has before. And that this is a real spiritual turning point for the human race.
Kim Forrester: 8:06
Irene, I want to ask you one thing, in particular. You know, throughout your book that I read - and it's just so beautiful - there are many instances there where you talk about optimism in very specific ways. For instance, there was a house that you yearned for, and it sat there for about a year before you were able to buy it. Right? But there was a sense of optimism in you that you could buy that house when the time was right. Do you feel that, if we become optimistic about very specific outcomes or very specific situations, then we're just kind of leading ourselves towards disappointment? So when you activate your optimism, are you attaching to a specific positive outcome or, for you, is it more of a general sense that everything will work out?
Irene O'Garden: 9:02
I think it's probably closer to a general sense, Kim. But what's interesting is, if we take a sort of playful approach to life and say, 'Well, wow. Oh, it would be so great to have that house' and we put some energy towards that and we imagine ourselves having that - we enjoy the process, we act once a day in a way that displays, in a physical way, that we believe that it's possible for us to have this thing - certainly. When we use the word 'attach', however - if we attach ourselves to the outcome - I think it's possible that we might be disappointed because the universe always has some other options for us. And so, I think it's wonderful to put things out there. I was talking about putting things out in the universe, but not attaching to the outcome, because there's no need to dare the universe. It's just a way for us to create the things that will give us joy; the people around us, joy. And yet, you know, it's sort of like planting something. You know, you plant the seeds, you water the seeds, but you don't pull the plants up and look at the roots and go, 'Well, is it growing or not'. You know? I kind of just let it go and if it doesn't ... I mean there was a house that we saw before that, and we thought, 'Well, this house could work'. And it didn't work out. And if we'd been totally attached to the house, we'd have been like 'Ugh'. That's not to say there are no disappointments in life. But to say, alright, even in the face of a disappointment, you can go, 'You know, there's probably something better or more appropriate that is on the way.' And, so, I have had that general sense in my life.
Kim Forrester: 10:49
The way you say it there, I'm understanding optimism as the ability to trust that the universe - that life - has many more gifts available to you, than you can consider.
Irene O'Garden: 11:00
Kim Forrester: 11:03
Let's talk ... you were talking about disappointment there, so let's talk about life experiences and the impact that our life experiences can have on our ability to be optimistic. You endured a less than ideal childhood and it would be easy to assume that you could grow up being really cynical and, sort of, wary of life because of the experiences you had when you were young. As a child, were you optimistic, Irene? Or is it something that you have acquired over time?
Irene O'Garden: 11:33
I would say, first of all, nobody really has an ideal childhood anyway, so ... But we don't know that when we're children, we just go 'Ouch, ouch, ouch' and some people do get cynical and wary about life. But for me, that just adds to suffering. I feel like, life has enough suffering within it, we really don't need to add to it by thinking it's never going to be good. And there was definitely a part of me, as a child, that thought things were going to work out eventually. And, again, I'm a playful person. I like the idea that time may be more flexible than we think it is. So that dreams that I had as a child, that things were going to be better than they were ... I remember having an incredible moment going to a movie premiere, and I was wearing a golden gown. I was going up an escalator. We're about to go into this movie premiere, and all of a sudden my brain went right back to that child that I was. And I realised that I was physically living her dream, that someday I'd be in a ... and so I just sent it back to her. I said, 'You're absolutely right. You will have this.' So it was that what I was experiencing as a child? I don't know. But something did help pull me forward. So I think it's, yes, who I am now. But again, I believe that the universe does lean in the direction of its creations. The universe does want us to flourish, and the choice to be optimistic helps us flourish.
Kim Forrester: 13:10
My understanding, my perspective, is that when we are children, we are closest to that 'greater selves'. We are closer to that core essence of the universe. That being said then, Irene, do you feel that children are naturally optimistic?
Irene O'Garden: 13:28
I do think they are because, first of all, they're growing faster than anything and growth itself is optimistic. Growth says, 'There's a reason to be here. There is a reason to continue being here.' So absolutely. And children's curiosity; children's energy. We all can learn from that. Absolutely. I think they're right in the heart of optimism. Which is not to say, again, they don't get mad, they don't get frustrated. Of course, they do. But that doesn't mean they don't want to play the game of life because this is all part of the game of life.
Kim Forrester: 14:02
So it strikes me that, if we all sort of begin inherently optimistic, then there are probably outside factors that either enhance or undermine our optimism as we grow older. And I'd love to just run through a few of those factors and get your perspective on this. First of all, tenderness. I was taken by the tenderness with which you write about the world. What role do you feel that tenderness - towards ourselves, towards others, towards the world itself - plays in being more optimistic?
Irene O'Garden: 14:36
Oh, Kim, I love this question and thank you for talking about that tenderness. I think tenderness arises because we've all hurt. We have all hurt. So we know to treat things with tenderness; to try not to hurt them, to try and comfort them. And I think the tenderness towards ourselves is very basic and very important, and it is the place we start. We have to start with tenderness and forgiveness toward ourselves for not being some perfect image that we have. And that tenderness towards ourselves flows immediately outward, towards others, towards the world. Because we need to regard the world with as much regard as we have for ourselves. And I think, as we do that - as we create a tenderer world for the people around us - and that's critical because that goes into the person's reality. 'Oh, the world is a tenderer place than I thought; the world is a more optimistic place than I thought.' And then they can go to share that, and it all becomes ... I'm gesturing with my hands ... it builds. It snowballs. It increases the optimism and tenderness in the world because people feel they can trust one another more. Optimism is based on trust; based on trust of the universe, trust of ourselves, trust of the people around us. And we can build that again and again in each of our interactions.
Kim Forrester: 16:16
That trust that you talk about there, it sort of leans into some form of faith in the way that you describe it there. Do you think that optimism only truly can be claimed - only truly can be understood - by people who have some form of faith, or intention, or belief?
Irene O'Garden: 16:37
I think that is a limiting idea because some people will say, 'Faith is not for me' or it's too structured. Intention - I'm a strong believer in intention and I'm a strong believer in belief. But if you're coming from a basis of going, 'Well, I don't know that the universe is all that great anyway', I say that you don't have to have faith. You don't have to have intention. You don't have to have belief. If you have a body, you have the basis for optimism. Because all of this stuff is functioning so beautifully without your lifting a finger. We're part of a much larger continuum of energy. So if you just want to start there and say, 'Well, alright, I don't have any belief. But I do have a body and the body is functioning, and my breath is coming in and out of my body, and my body knows what it's doing.' You can start there with optimism and go well, 'It still wants to be here'. And that can then, perhaps, evolve into an intention. Or it can evolve into a belief, or can it evolve into a faith. But I think, as long as we reconnect with even our physical selves, that will remind us of the optimism in life itself.
Kim Forrester: 17:53
That makes absolute sense, your answer there. Because, earlier on, you were saying how optimism arises from that atomic part of us. And when I think about it, things like belief and faith and intention, they're all actually mental constructs. They are part of the brain. They're part of our ego self, our physical self, if you will. So in your answer, there you take us back down, beyond our individual selves and you're taking us deeper down into this sense of expansiveness, which I love. You're saying that that is where optimism resides, and it's obviously where it springs from.
Irene O'Garden: 18:30
Kim Forrester: 18:32
Let's talk about creativity because you have mentioned the word 'play' and playfulness an awful lot, already, in this conversation. And for me, creativity and play are two remarkably interconnected words. You're obviously a very creative person, Irene. Do you feel that creativity - in the sense that creativity is about playing with infinite possibility - do you feel that the creative space is, therefore, one where we can best explore our optimism?
Irene O'Garden: 19:05
Absolutely. And we all are creative. It's our nature. It's our nature as human beings, as physical beings. We're all creative, and the idea of being able to play is something that I cannot encourage people enough to use as an approach to life. And you don't have to be an artist. You don't have to consider yourself that. But if you're playing with creativity in the kitchen, or you're playing with creativity with your spouse - you're playing - that is optimism in action. That optimism is like trying out these different ways of being. That's one of the reasons I enjoy thinking about the dream state, and playing with that - all bets are off in the dream state. Anything can happen. So that can help feed our waking life as well. Play with images that come up in your dreams, play with words that come to you. Once we begin to trust the selves that we are - which is again the fundamental act of optimism, trusting the selves that we are - means that we have a platform to play with the possibilities for ourselves, for our lives and just for the objects in front of us. You know, pick up a pencil and play, and see what comes up. We can trust those impulses that come up within us.
Kim Forrester: 20:27
I want to ask about a very important connection that I feel may exist, and that is the connection between gratitude and optimism. In your view, does being grateful for all that we have received - for all that we have gained in life - does that play an important role in being able to have a more optimistic view of the future?
Irene O'Garden: 20:49
I believe, absolutely Kim. First of all, I think it's really interesting that leading up to this large change in our world, in the last several years, we've been seeing an acceleration of gratitude. We've been seeing science study gratitude. We've been seeing gratitude journals all over the book stores. We've been seeing people talk about their gratitude. People are writing those three things down every day that they're grateful for. I think it is the best possible fertiliser for optimism because it helps keep that energy going. The more grateful we are, the more we find to be grateful for and the more we create to be grateful for. So I think it is an absolutely wonderful aspect of optimism.
Kim Forrester: 21:37
The time that we're living through, now, there's an awful lot of stillness in our own homes - except for those who have chaos and young children. My heart goes out to them. But for a lot of human beings, at the moment, there's this stillness and, sort of, a spaciousness in their lives that they're not normally used to. And one thing that I have found that this spaciousness is really good for is decluttering; is emptying out - right - that which no longer serves me. And you actually touch on this really beautifully in your book. You take us into your study, your writing room, and you talk about unfinished tasks. I just loved it. Do you feel that it's harder for us to be optimistic about our future when we are encumbered, Irene? And so many of us are encumbered in our lives. You know, we have outdated possessions and we have unprocessed emotions, and we have unresolved issues, and we have unfinished projects. In your view, do you feel that we should make a conscious effort to simplify - declutter - our lives, our minds, our emotional state and that may, perhaps, enable us to become more optimistic?
Irene O'Garden: 22:53
I feel that those outdated possessions and emotions and projects and so forth are a beautiful place to start with optimism. Because - guess what? We can get rid of them. We are not sentenced to having these things in our life. So, it is an expression of optimism that they're even there because you can take action. And optimism is action. So what wearies us - what depresses us - are the judgments that we're passing on ourselves about, 'Oh, my gosh, I haven't done this. I got to do that.' You know? And all we need to do is just take that one - 'Okay, this possession, this I don't need'. It is very liberating to do that. So, absolutely. The more we let go of the things that are not serving us - with a joyful heart, not with a cracking whip and a 'get to it' kind of an energy. But an 'Oh, my gosh, I don't need this. Isn't that great? Get it out of here.' You know what? And that often ... doing this physically helps us release whatever those emotions are. And we look at a project, and we go, 'Do we really need to do this? Do I really? Is this where I'm fulfilled?' We begin to ask ourselves those questions. Again, going back to the trust that we're going to answer them with exactly what we need. And so, I couldn't agree with you more, that letting go of these tasks, of this clutter, gives us space to have, then, what the new energy, that really is deeply satisfying to us. What wants to be created now?
Kim Forrester: 24:33
Threaded through your answer, there, was the most beautiful advice, and I'm just going to articulate what I heard because I think a lot of listeners will need to hear this. Because unfinished tasks and clutter can actually be a source of self-judgement and recrimination. Correct? It's like, 'I really should'. People should on themselves. 'I should be doing that'. But threaded into your answer, there, was that sense of getting into a sense of play, right? Go and play with the clutter. Do it joyously. Be glad to be a human, clearing up the clutter of their lives. Does that resonate with you?
Irene O'Garden: 25:08
Absolutely, absolutely. You know everything needs space. You know? So give yourself space.
Kim Forrester: 25:17
Let's talk about healing because your last book, released in 2019, was all about the healing that occurred in the wilderness. You went into the wilderness with your family. And I do wonder: did healing occur as you were compiling this book as well? And specifically, did it change your attitude towards optimism?
Irene O'Garden: 25:40
I think that's interesting, Kim. One of the things that continues to make me optimistic about the human race is that we continually are learning; we're continually finding ways to heal. And so, well, I wasn't expecting quite the healing that occurred in the wilderness - it came through loud and clear, and it was possible for me to write about that. In Glad to be Human, I have a set of various essays and responses to life. And some of the responses happened at, you know, in 911, or a response to the Boston Marathon bombing. How do we be optimistic when such experiences happen? But the act of giving ourselves time to reflect on, 'What might this be telling me? How can I make this experience of use to other people?' I would say that it deepened my experience with optimism. I don't think my experience with optimism changed so much, but it was more of an outpouring of the optimism that's within us all, to say, 'OK, where do we go from here? How do we make sense of this? What is happening here that I can totally support and get behind?' And that might be something really incredible for the human race. Because, as I say, I believe we're at a spiritual turning point, given this global experience we're going through. And I remember saying to my sister, about a week ago. I was looking around and it seemed to me that everything was melting. All the systems were melting. The financial system, the educational system, the social system - this was all liquefying before my eyes. And because I'm a poet, images come to me. And I got the image of, of course, the caterpillar - consumes, consumes, consumes and then spins this chrysalis. And I didn't know until a couple of years ago that, in the chrysalis, the caterpillar liquefies. It dissolves. And you know, there are a few clumps of cells floating around, which is interesting - they're called imaginal cells. They imagine themselves into butterflies: this part is going to be the wings; this part is going to be the eyes; this is going to be the antenna. And once it emerges, it is this completely transformed being. And I feel very much, that's what the human race is going through right now; that we're watching all this stuff liquefy after many years of consume, consume, consume, and we are imagining ourselves into a new, more compassionate way of living with one another. And, again, to me, that's the ultimate optimism.
Kim Forrester: 28:27
Little wonder, then, that almost the entire world have been drawn to be cocooned in their homes and in their spaces as we go through this time. Such beautiful, poetic imagery there. The final question I have for you, Irene, is one that I have every guest on the Eudaemonia podcast, and I'm wondering if you can offer my listeners a simple morning reminder - this may be a practice, a mantra, perhaps an affirmation - that can help my listeners become optimistic as they go through their day?
Irene O'Garden: 28:59
Absolutely. Do some deep breathing, first thing. And, then, I'm a big fan of the work of the author Jane Roberts, and I won't get into the incredible things that she's done. But, in her work, I found this sentence that I wrote out and I look at every morning, and it's this: I allow myself to fully feel the joy and vitality of my being, and I automatically create joyful realities.
Kim Forrester: 29:33
Irene, that's just wonderful. And I'm really appreciative for your time, for your joy, for your tenderness and for the poetic way that you express the world around us. If people want to find out more about you and get a hold of this delicious book that you've brought into the world, where can people find you?
Irene O'Garden: 29:50
They can find me on Facebook: Irene O'Garden Poet and Author. Please visit my website, www.ireneogarden.com. I'm on Instagram: @iogarden, and Glad to be Human: Adventures in Optimism can be gotten at Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, at independent bookstores everywhere. And I hope you'll pick it up and take it to heart.
Kim Forrester: 30:15
I certainly enjoyed travelling through the pages, Irene. So thank you very much for all you have gifted to this world. And thank you for being here today on the Eudaemonia podcast.
Irene O'Garden: 30:25
Thank you so much, Kim. It was a wonderful experience to speak with you.
Kim Forrester: 30:30
The great Lucille Ball once said, 'One of the things I learned the hard way was that it doesn't pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself.' You've been listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. If you'd like to learn more about how to live a truly flourishing life, please subscribe and check out www.eudaemoniapod.com for more inspiring episodes. I'm Kim Forrester. Until next time, be well, be kind to yourself and gift yourself an optimistic outlook.