I must have been around eight or nine; ten at the most. On the evening news, I’d heard a story that terrified me. I’m not entirely sure anymore what the story was about — a kidnapping, maybe, or a murder — but after letting the frightening images sit in my mind for a while, crowding out my ability to think of much else, I sought out my mom and told her I was scared about what I’d heard.
She put her arms around me and held me. “Yes, there are some bad people in the world,” she said. “But there are many, many more good people than there are bad people.”
I’ve thought of those words often over the years. They comforted me enormously at the time, and even in high school and college, they still had the power to help me transcend the occasional anxiety and fear. Mom was not denying that bad things happened, which she knew would have been ineffective and false. Instead, she acknowledged the bad, but gently reminded me to look at the larger picture, to remember the fundamental goodness of the universe rather than letting scary thoughts crowd it out.
I think that this optimistic view — of life, of others, of the world — is one of the very greatest gifts my mom has given me. Mom’s default position is positive thinking. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen her angry, or upset, or hurt, or sad. But Mom’s approach to life is marked by openness, by warmth, by a belief that people are, as Anne Frank wrote, fundamentally good at heart. Mom presumes the goodwill of others; she always has, as long as I’ve known her. There is nothing cynical or bitter about her interactions with other people. I can’t help but feel that this is a rare, precious quality these days, when so much of our conversation, both online and in life, comes from a place of presuming the worst rather than the best about one another.
They say that your personality shows in your face, and when it comes to Mom, that’s totally true. She has one of the friendliest faces I know, with a smile that is genuine and inviting. “Your mom is so sweet!” I have heard throughout my life, even from people who have only met her once. Even though there have been rough times in her life, including the tragic death of her father when I was a baby, Mom seems to have a well of optimism deep inside, a well that never runs dry. She’s not naive about the world, and she recognizes the existence of what is bad. But she actively seeks out, recognizes, and savors what is good, whether it’s a visit from a friend, a colorful flowerbed, the eager faces of her former students, or time spent with family. She gives goodness a place of honor in her thoughts, and this attitude makes me think of a line from the children’s book The Secret Garden: “Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”
The older I get, the more I realize that so much of who I am today is due to my mom’s example. And when you are a kid, it is a very great gift to be raised by someone who looks at the world kindly and who — maybe without even knowing that she’s doing it — teaches you to do the same.
Mom was right, all those years ago: there are many, many good people in the world.
And I was lucky to be raised by one of the best.