Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Nature of Optimism

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We had Carol, one of Simon's primary nurses, over for dinner last night. We all had a great time, and, as we usually do when we see her, we reminisce a bit about our time in the hospital. Especially about how sick he was when he first came in and what a freaking miracle it is that he is as stable and happy as he is right now.

I think I always consciously or unconsciouly check in with her about how sick he really was because I often wonder if I was just being melodramatic and somehow exaggerated the seriousness of it all. Sometimes I need the validation of someone who has seen the worst, to confirm that, in fact, we were really damn close to losing him.


At one point when we were talking about it she said very matter of factly, but not flippantly, "Oh yeah, we all really thought he would die. He'd get better and then he'd get SO sick again. It was horrible." These folks have seen so many kids die and so many kids get better and I suspect they're rarely wrong about which way things are going to go. Somehow we defied the odds, just by getting to where we are now, and it's still hard for me to believe.

Laura and I were telling Carol that actually most of our memories of the hospital are pretty good, oddly. I estimated that I remember about 80% pretty good times that mostly felt like hanging with new friends in a very strange place and about 20% the absolute worst moments of my life. Carol looked at us like we were from Mars.

"It's totally because of your attitude, you guys. You were so positive and so much fun to be around", she said. I realized that we had such a positive experience because we MADE it that. And then I started thinking about what made Laura and I different than other parents who were going through the same thing. Why were we optimistic in the face of what had the nurses thinking there was no hope? Why were we able to roll with what was happening and not split up, not fall completely apart and not wallow in misery, which in some ways would have been totally appropriate responses.

At it's root, I think , is optimism. To me, that means that in the face of the most horrible thing I can think of, I can still find something, even if it's minute, to be grateful for, to appreciate, to feel it brings meaning to the experience. And the reason we are still together, in part, is because we are both optimistic. I think discordance in that area or two pessimists together in that situation can be so so hard to work through..

I asked Laura if she thought she was raised to be optimistic or if she was born that way. She said she had not always been optimistic, that she had a period in her early teen years when she felt gloomy and dark. But really, since she was 9 and experienced community at Farm & Wilderness (the summer camp she was involved with until her early 30's) she was always on the lookout to recreate those good feelings. Then I thought about the same thing for myself.

I grew up always trying to make the best out of any given situation. I think some of that was my Southern Grandmother's "paste a smile on your face, grit your teeth and do it " training (that I have mixed feelings about). Also, there's a saying in 12 step programs that really played out sometimes over the last year- "fake it 'till you make it". The idea is that if you "act as if" something is possible- i.e. you really can stop drinking/torturing yourself with alcoholics (if that's your problem), you really *are* healthy, you really *are* happy, that will get you through until you really can do/be those things. It's a fine line between denial and positive thinking, but damn if it doesn't work a lot of the time.

I also think because I was an only child and because it was easier to take me than to not, I often had to go do things that I really didn't want to (boring adult events, etc). I would dread them and wail and gnash my teeth, but I soon discovered that it was never as bad as I thought it would be and, in fact, I could find something fun/good/enjoyable every time.

Also, when I was an adolescent and would freak out about an academic issue, my stepdad would sit me down and give me the "You Have a Choice" pep talk. He would see me veering dangerously close to panic, feeling backed into a corner with my intense self-generated pressure to be perfect and would remind me that I always have a choice, in any situation. I may not like the choices presented before me, but I have a choice.

For example, if I'm making myself crazy about an upcoming exam, I can choose to not study any more, take the test and fail. That may not be the best option, but it's there for me. Just knowing that I had another option, that I wasn't a prisoner, that I did have agency in some way, always helped me vent some of that pressure and make it through. I rarely chose to just give up, but knew it was there if I needed it.

I think I used a lot of that with Simon. Whether I realized it or not, I had to choose how I was going to handle what was happening. I could have chosen to think that the situation was hopeless, that my charmed life was over and this was the new story, that the only real response was despair.

But then my belief in what I call "the universe" would kick in. In my short 33 years, I've seen that I don't always get what I think I want, but I get what I need. It may not make sense at the time, but in the end, all the steps along the way happened for a reason and lead to a logical and good conclusion or at least make sense.

This is true of many things that seemed absolutely horrible at the time. When Simon got sick and each time he got worse, I really just surrendered and tried to wait to see what would happen. I really believed, and still do, that it would all make sense in the end. GOD FORBID he not make it, in the end there would have been some purpose. Even now, I think this experience brought a huge community together, inspired others, prepared me for something else later in life (what that is I don't know). That helps me let go and just be in the moment and pick up the little crumbs of goodness and tenderness that are being slipped to us under the gate.

Okay, enough pontification on this rainy Sunday morning. Just having a little "deep thoughts" moment and thought it had been a while...

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