Frances Edstrom

Free-falling optimism


(11/19/2003)

by Frances Edstrom

You know about the guy who went into the bookstore and asked the clerk where the self-help book section was located, and the clerk replied, "Well, sir, if I told you that, it would defeat the purpose, wouldn't it."

I'm in one of those self-helpless crises that we often get, one of those "straw that broke the camel's back" times of life when the only thing to do is to go to bed or have a good cry, but you can't, because it's demoralizing in the office.

The problem, as I see it, is being an admitted optimist. Optimists, and most of us are, I think, have the burden of always seeing the silver lining, even in the most horrible of circumstances.

(Notice I did not use the word "horrific," which, since coming to prominence after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has been used so indiscriminately as to be applied to the outcome of a football game!)

For instance, people who have lost loved ones will often soften the tragedy with "at leasts." At least, they'll say, he didn't suffer, or isn't suffering any longer, or we got to say goodbye to her, or some other "at least" that is meant to bring comfort.

Optimists rely on such thinking to avoid being mired in what they like to think of as the quicksand of pessimism.

It's only when an optimist is blindsided that she begins to wonder if it might not be a wiser course to be a pessimist, be prepared for the bad.

For instance, I was being quite self-congratulatory for getting through my brother's illness and death, which came right on the heels of the anniversary of my father's death and a short few weeks before the anniversary of my son's death, days that more often than not leave me feeliing quite melancholy, if not downright devastated.

After all, I reasoned, look how much I have to look forward to and the richness of my life with my close and extended family and friends.

Had I been a pessimist, I would have steeled myself for the worst when my longtime co-worker Linda mentioned she was going for a mammogram. But everyone gets a mammogram these days, right? No big deal, right?

Wrong. Linda has a date with the surgeon next week to remove a malignancy.

Linda said she'd never had so many hugs as the morning she came to work and told us her news. In those hugs is optimism, all of us telling her she has a support system, isn't alone, and we are all thinking such positive thoughts that they might be enough to cure her right there.

And Linda? She actually seems to be doing better than the rest of us, her "you gotta do what you gotta do" mechanism already having kicked in. That gives us hope and feeds our optimism.

It isn't really we who help ourselves, I guess, it's that we allow others to help us through. It's just those heart-stopping moments of free falling before the old engine of optimism kicks in again that are kind of hard to handle.

 

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