The Power of Pessimism

Many people believe positivity in thinking and attitude are needed for healing. In several blog posts I wrote about what I call the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude. When I posted those opinions I didn’t have any evidence to back me up.

Those posts expressed my discomfort with being told how I was supposed to think or feel about cancer and survival. After all, life’s problems bring a whole roller-coaster of thinking and attitudes, all of which are appropriate at different times and days.
Recently I read, and greatly enjoyed, Originals, by Adam Grant.
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Eureka, there it was. Research in support of my belief that positive thinking and good attitude will get you only so far. I’m happy to share this news with you.
Turns out that pessimists also do very well if they see the risks and prepare themselves to meet those risks. If they think strategically, the pessimists build capacity to overcome obstacles, and create resilience.
Time to turn the twin tyrannies into something less oppressive to those who have problems. How about strategic thinking and defensive attitude?
Go forth and be negative if that’s how you feel at the moment. Add defensive (as in thinking through the bad things that might happen to plan how to overcome them) and strategic and you should do well.
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Here’s the URL to take your measure of the Original’s action planimg_4057
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3 questions better than ‘why me’

I get it. Living is deadly. The risks are huge and, in time, death is certain. So, my first question on learning I had advanced, aggressive, rare breast cancer was too obvious: “Am I going to die?”

My partner, Decker, said: “Yes.”

When we were done laughing, my next question was: “Soon?”

He said: “I hope not.”

The last question I asked my wonderful oncologist: “How will I know I’ve survived cancer?”  “When you die of something else,” he said as he cheerfully discharged me from care.

Yippee. I’ve survived cancer if I die in a car accident, have a fatal heart attack, or win the Darwin Award.

If I want different answers, I have to ask different questions. Here are my replacement questions:

1. What do I fear? I survive ’til I die and not longer. All the expensive powders, pills and lifestyle secrets won’t deliver immortality. Survival is day-by-day, much like life is. Once I accept this, I can, at the same time, want to avoid and yet not fear dying.

2. Why do I want to know? It’s tempting to ask “why me” but that isn’t the right question for at least four reasons. First, there often isn’t an answer. Second, knowing “the” reason buys into blame as if I should regret my past that ’caused’ the cancer. Third, ‘why me’ makes me anxious about my actions now, when really, I’m doing the best I can. Fourth, ‘why me’ is a despairing cry for my future, as if I have no reason for optimism.

3. How can I express my authentic feelings even if they aren’t happy? Yes, cancer patients do better with positive thinking and good attitude. ‘Positive’ and ‘good’ are twin tyrannies, judging when I think negative with a bad attitude. I  could suppress my authentic feelings or just accept that’s how I feel right now and it’ll change. Conflict teaches that feelings, like relationships, can change, be enriched, repair, heal.

Cancer reduced my ‘bucket’ list to three entries: do volunteer work, write publishable novel(s), and enrich my relationships. Volunteering and writing are my solitary tasks. Relationships – now that’s something I work on with others. After all, everyone still alive is a survivor like me.

I try to ignore or manage the daily risks, live a meaningful life despite those risks, and to delay the certain end. That’s my current answer to the questions for life itself.