A fresh cancer diagnosis is pretty hard to stomach, especially if it enters a life filled with success and joy. Leslie is a petite brunette with big brown eyes and hair pulled into a pony tail under a “Stone Harbor” baseball cap much of the summer. Husband Josh and she engineer a steady stream of adult kids, grandkids and friends who vacation with them at their beach house. Thrilled with her life, Leslie happily loads a station wagon full of family to summer outings to the Zoo and the crabbing dock in nearby Avalon.
“I need to deal with this sudden cancer diagnosis, and my family is going crazy.” Leslie caught my gaze and kept it. She was not afraid. “Sure it is awful. I need chemo and I will hate it. My father died from this at 73. But it will do me no good to worry so I’ll get the chemo and see where we go from there. Meanwhile we have summer in Stone Harbor, and plan to corral Josh so that we can have fun. I intend to enjoy it and to get Josh on board. Life is what happens before you die, and I intend for us to savor our time here. Do you see anything wrong with that?”
I smiled. Before I answered Leslie, my mind jumped back 20 years to my first marriage. My then husband, Dr. Erich Coche, had been stricken with metastatic melanoma at age 48. During the last summer before his untimely death at 49, we savored the long days in our Stone Harbor duplex, jumping off our dock into the fresh lagoon and sailing the 26” hobby that held his rapt attention. During what was to be his last summer, Erich and tiny daughter Juliette and I did all the usual things: we walked The Point and wave jumped at the Nun’s beach. We made mincemeat of two pound lobsters on my Labor Day birthday, and biked to Wildwood for Greek dinners. When he died six short months later, Erich summarized, “I have loved my life. I would change nothing. I just wish it were longer.”
My heart was filled with sadness at Leslie’s complex future, just as it had been grief stricken at the crashing blow of a metastatic cancer death warrant for my best buddy and life partner. But I applauded her courage and her optimism. Optimism is easy when life offers pleasant alternatives, but Leslie had created a mind set of positive energy that equipped her to manage her cancer well.
“Wow. Your determination is impressive! It is a pity that you are more courageous and upbeat than your panicked family but they are lucky that you are. The very optimism that has created the success you enjoy in your life has followed you into this nasty illness. Optimism is a powerful soldier against cancer. Keep it up!”
Optimism is key in adult happiness and in building happy marriages. “Finding the good thing” does not mean overlooking the tragedy that visits all of us at some time. Instead, we seize on what life dishes out as a way to develop new parts of ourselves. Optimism allows us to find the good thing in a complex situation. We develop a way to look on the favorable side of life events, expect the most favorable outcome and hold fast to the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world. And, to some extent, thinking actually does make it so.
The Optimism Scale (Life Orientation Test-Revised) was developed by Carver, Scheier, and Segerstrom from The University of Miami. It has been used widely in research. I have summarized it below. Answer honestly, then tally the number of optimistic responses. Answer according to your own feelings, rather than how you think. Give each question an A,B,C,D, or E, (A = I agree a lot; B = I agree a little; C = I neither agree nor disagree; D = I Disagree a little; E = I Disagree a lot) .
Then tally how optimistic your life attitude is. Are you pleased?
• In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.(A)
• If something can go wrong for me, it will.(E)
• I'm always optimistic about my future. (A)
• I hardly ever expect things to go my way.(E)
• I rarely count on good things happening to me.(E)
• Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.(A)
Optimists accept the inevitable lemons in our life, squeeze them hard, and wring out the lemonade hidden in the sour fruit. Whether or not we know about Mary Poppins, some of us seem to know that just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. I invite you to join that camp.
To consider: How can you “find the good” in life like the optimists you know? How would your life be sweeter and juicier if you did?