As anyone who has taken up golf knows, the first few outings can be rough going. You hack up a giant clod of sod while the ball remains placidly on the tee. You shank the ball off the butt of the club. You twist your spine, rotate your shoulders, and unload on the ball, only to see it roll a begrudging 10 yards. It’s a lesson in humility, especially if you’re in the company of seasoned golfers.
My mother came to golf late in life. A childhood tomboy and college tennis player, she enjoyed most sports, yet the plodding pace of golf held little appeal to her. When my father retired, though, she wanted to join him on his long golfing afternoons. Her early forays weren’t pretty.
My mother, God bless her, was a master of positive thinking. She knew she’d eventually conquer this sport, if she could only get past its two initial hurdles: (1) learning the correct technique and (2) dealing with the soul-sapping frustration that comes with recording scores of 17 or 18 on a par-4 hole. Such frustration can lead to bad form and worse results. Ultimately, it can drive a person to quit the sport altogether.
So my mother invented her own scoring system. She called it “counting my beauties.” While my father and their golfing friends would dutifully add up every stroke, my mother would record only the shots that soared straight down the fairway. Any shot that dribbled off the tee, or bounced meanly along the ground, or veered off in an unexpected direction, simply didn’t count in her score.
In essence, she turned a blind eye to her failures. She neither censured herself nor gave herself pep talks. The failures weren’t something to curse, accept, or forgive herself for. They just didn’t exist.
I was a young adult when my mother adopted her unconventional approach, and I found it a bit embarrassing. Her game of “let’s all pretend I didn’t take eight shots to get out of the sand trap” seemed childish. I imagined her fellow golfers rolling their eyes as she cheerily penciled in a “1” at the end of a hole.
As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of her innocent self-deception. Although her failures were evident for all to see, she refused to admit them as part of her reality, as part of the measure of her worth. By not giving them any weight, she robbed her shortcomings of their power.
Of course, my mother was blessed with a healthy dose of confidence and optimism. “Moxie” was one of her favorite words. For me, blithely overlooking failure is harder to achieve. Losing a tennis match can leave me in a funk for the rest of the day. A publisher’s rejection invariably provokes a minor existential crisis.
But while my mother’s natural disposition helped her to focus on the positive, it’s also true that ignoring her failures reinforced her optimism. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, fueled not just by outlook but by choices.
As the weeks went by, my mother’s beauty count steadily increased. The higher her score, the happier she was, exactly the opposite of how most golfers want to see their scores trending.
Eventually, my mother didn’t need an alternate scoring system. She worked her way up to the point that her score matched my father’s. She became an accomplished golfer.
I’ve spent most of my life outside the optimism loop, not seeing an on-ramp for someone like myself who seems to have a naturally pessimistic outlook. While I’ll never be as sanguine as my mother, her scoring system makes me wonder if I can become more optimistic simply by acting that way, rather than fixating on my win-loss record in tennis or publishing.
I’ve started counting my beauties. That well-placed serve. That well-turned phrase.
On my mental scorecard, I pencil in a “1.”