Drinking coffee
Photo: Thinkstock
Today's world is a terrifying place. Every day we wake up facing the frightening realities of our age: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, pollution, domestic violence, psychotic criminals who steal children right from their own beds. Let's face it: Human life has always been fraught with danger, and human minds have always been fraught with the fear that comes from knowing it. But we can develop the habit of nudging our attention toward things that inspire confidence rather than fear.

Since my own nature hovers between neurotic and paranoid, I've developed the habit of mentally listing things that make me optimistic about the future. I do it every day, while I'm driving, making the bed, pretending to write. The list that popped into my mind this morning may not work for you, but perhaps they'll inspire you to create a list of your own. The simple act of hopeful thinking can get you out of your fear zone and into your appreciation zone—a habit that can replace anxiety with happy anticipation.

Thing One: Feminism
Okay, so women's lib is way imperfect: Women are still underpaid, still endure harassment, still get far too little credit for raising children—the hardest and most important work conceivable (pardon the pun). Even so, there has never been a time or place where it was easier to be female than in today's developed world. Women have gained more freedom in the past 50 years than in all of recorded history. That's especially good because as society empowers women, women are empowering society.

Factors like overpopulation, communication technology, and interdependent national economies have created a world where the skills at which women excel—connection, inclusion, nurturing—are more useful than "masculine" characteristics like domination, exclusion and coercion.

I saw this when an international dispute-meditation trainer told me women are so good at peacemaking, it simply isn't cost-effective for him to train men. I see it in mothers teaching their children to be fair and dream big. I see it in the media, where women (though still outnumbered) are adding their perspective to an entire culture. The fact that the weaker sex is growing stronger may just save the world.

Thing Two: Starbucks Mocha Malt Frappuccino, with Whipped Cream
Yes, it's odd that my list leaps from an enormous social movement to a slug of caffeine dressed in heaps of fat and sugar. But when the big things fragment our energy and optimism, it's the little things that put us back together.

I love the New Testament image of Jesus napping on a boat during a storm. Peaceful revolutionaries change the world by great effort and small comforts. Today, a mocha malt Frappuccino is my favorite splurge. What's yours?

Thing Three: Sin (Freedom to Live In)
Frappuccinos have special meaning to me, because I grew up in a religion that considers drinking a cup of coffee a sin—along with smoking, swearing, and appearing in public without a sunbonnet. (I'm kidding. Sort of.) By my childhood community's standards, I am now living in about 50 kinds of sin. Pretty much everyone I knew as a child openly disapproves. Yet no one has ever tried to take away my coffee.

That people can clash at the level of basic values but tolerate one another's differences gives me enormous hope for the future. Obviously, there are still people who feel jim-dandy committing murder and mayhem in service of their political or religious values. For centuries, tolerance has slowly been gaining ground, absolutism losing it. To me that makes even these frightening times a bit less forbidding.

Thing Four: Special Olympics
All right, I lucked out; I have a son with Down syndrome. If that weren't true, I may have squeamishly helped out at Special Olympics once or twice. As the mother of an athlete, however, I've had the privilege of sticking around this organization long enough to see countless small miracles.

I've seen intense competitors cheer the achievements of their opponents, right there on the track or soccer field. I've watched a woman in a full-fledged burqa playing superb table tennis against a red-headed Irish Catholic, both of them forgetting, in the heat of the competition, that they were different from each other or from "normal" human beings. I once saw a team of optometrists, who'd reluctantly agreed to participate in the Healthy Athletes program at the World Games, cry like babies after fitting a 30-year-old Chinese athlete with his first pair of glasses, then watching him open his arms to a newly vivid universe and whisper in Mandarin, "So beautiful! So beautiful! Oh, so beautiful!" If you are ever tempted to give up on our sorry species, just volunteer with Special Olympics and catch a few miracles of your own.

Thing Five: Situation Comedies
Sitcoms range from high-quality entertainment to boring garbage. What I love is not the television programs themselves but the fact that people keep making them. In silly stories, from Shakespeare's comedies to tales of Brer Rabbit, we see our own foolishness pushed to ridiculous extremes. Without this ability to laugh at ourselves, we might be destroyed by our family conflicts, our lame deceptions, and our own stupid mistakes. The durability of the situation comedy tells me that we can forgive ourselves and one another for our inadequacies while acknowledging that there's lots of room to do better.