Pictured: Himself and myself on our honeymoon in 1999.
My husband and I have a longstanding argument about this one. Early on in our relationship it became apparent that I was the “glass half full” person and he the “glass half empty.” We’ve had countless versions of the same conversation — about who’s “right” of course — in our twenty-three years of marriage.
Himself and I have learned over the years that any debate between two people who want to continue to spend their lives together is best done lovingly and with humor – so that’s generally the approach we take, whether we’re wrangling over the big questions or our never-ending quibbles about whether it’s in fact reasonable to drive the speed limit or the correct way to clean a kitchen counter.
On the optimism front, we agree to disagree. Himself believes that pessimism helps him prepare for the worst and protects him from future disappointment. I argue that pessimism creates disappointment ahead of time, regardless of the outcome. It’s an illusion of control that actually holds us back.
About a month after we were married, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In those days, this was considered pretty much a death sentence. As newlyweds, Himself and I returned from an idyllic honeymoon and were thrust headlong into some of the darkest times we’d ever known. Chemo, surgeries, loss, terror – those first years were a kind of white-hot crucible that almost broke us and our brand-new marriage. Ultimately, it forged the bedrock of our relationship.
One of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever received was a poem he wrote for me, in the aftermath of that time, called “The Optimist.” It was about how he’d come to realize, over time, how my optimism wasn’t an innate trait bestowed upon me at birth, or a willful blindness to reality – optimism was rather something I chose. Something I worked hard to cultivate, with tenacity. Optimism was something I fought for, sometimes moment to moment.
Our optimism/pessimism set point is likely a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental influence, according to research. Thoughts we’ve practiced thinking over and over become beliefs; collections of beliefs coalesce into a philosophy or system of thinking that becomes our mindset. This mindset is a tool, and like any tool – it doesn’t work for us unless we attend to it.
Our expectations, whether about the little things or the big things, are the stories we tell ourselves about the future. These stories, which often run by default in the background of our consciousness, are more powerful than we realize. Our stories about the future create our emotions in the present. Our stories about the future influence the information our brain filters in or out of our awareness. These things, in turn, drive the actions we take. Optimism orients us toward a positive outcome.
Did optimism help me survive cancer at age 34? I honestly have no idea. I had amazing medical care and incredible support from family and friends, but beyond that I will never know why I was one of the lucky ones – I’m just so grateful to be here. But I do know this: Optimism is the fuel that allowed me to pick up the pieces and move on from cancer. Optimism is the fuel that helped me build a life out of the rubble of the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
An optimistic mindset is the fuel of persistence, of perseverance.
I write this not to portray myself as some transcendent being who’s been able to overcome the odds. Hardly. While I’ve made photo books chronicling many events of my life, I’ve never been able to tackle my wedding photo book. I’ve also never been able to watch the video of my wedding day. If I get too close to the memories of that beautiful day, it’s hard not to fast forward to the pain of what came next. While that day was unfolding, arguably the most amazing day of my life – my body was silently betraying me. There was a tumor the size of a football inside me, and I had no idea. Any time I’ve attempted to watch my wedding video, it feels like the first scene of a horror film, where the characters blithely go about their activities, unaware of the evil lurking in the shadows.
The decades that now sit between me and cancer have brought acceptance, forgiveness, and the mellowing that can only come with time. Cancer formed me as much as anything else that’s happened to me. During my treatment, I was participated in a mindfulness program for patients at Dana Farber, thus beginning a lifelong study of the power of mindset. As my hair fell out and the chemo ravaged my body, any moment where I felt some small sense of control became a lifeline. In retrospect, I can draw a direct connection from that patient experience, through my career as a counselor, to this current coaching practice, writing these words to you.
Mindset is too powerful a tool to leave its contours to the vagaries of genetics or fate. In choosing our mindset, we set our internal GPS toward a desired destination. In this human life where everything can change in an instant, mindset is something over which we have some control. In choosing our mindset, we take back our power. Whether we’re predisposed toward optimism or pessimism, the truth is we do not know what the future holds. But we do get to decide what we bring into that unknown future, what we carry forward from our past, and what we leave behind. Mindset is the container in which we can deliberately place those intentions.
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