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    Optimism Tested, Optimism Twisted

    Excerpted from
    The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things : Fourteen Natural Steps to Health and Happiness
    By Larry Dossey, M.D.

    Optimism was repeatedly put to the test during the twentieth century with two world wars, the Holocaust, repeated genocides, and a death toll unparalleled in any era. Challenges to optimism are continuing into the twenty-first century.

    On December 26, 2004, an earthquake on the sea floor off Sumatra generated a monstrous tsunami that lashed coastlines as far away as Africa, killing an estimated 150,000 individuals. Entire families and whole villages vanished. Hearts around the world ached for the victims and, in another kind of flood, millions of dollars of aid poured in from governments and individuals everywhere.

    The disaster generated around-the-clock news coverage in which pundits tried to find meaning in the disaster. These programs featured agnostics, atheists, scientists, philosophers, statesmen, politicians, and clerics of various religions. I he agnostics, atheists, and scientists generally saw the tsunami as an expression of the blind laws of nature-"nature red in tooth and claw." To them, there was no essential meaning to the event, because the laws of nature, they believe, are coldly impersonal and inherently meaningless. In contrast, several Islamic commentators managed to find positive meaning and optimism in the event. They said that the Christians, Jews, and Westerners who perished at seaside resorts were infidels and heretics who deserved their heaven-sent punishment. As Saudi cleric Muhammad al-Munajjid said in an interview on Saudi/UAE's Al-Majd TV, "Haven't they [Western tourists celebrating Christmas holidays] learned the lesson from what Allah wreaked upon the coast of Asia, during the celebration of these forbidden [festivals]? At the height of immorality, Allah took vengeance on these criminals." But what of the thousands of Muslims who died alongside the infidels? They were considered martyrs. It was a sorry moment. Optimism, in the hands of religion, can take alarming forms.

    These comments illustrate an eternal problem with optimism: What seems optimistic to one individual can be disastrous for another. Even in matters of health, things are clouded. All mothers, for example, want their newborns to be well and never to get sick. Yet the only way infants develop immune systems capable of resisting infections is through repeated exposures to swarms of microbes that stimulate mini-illnesses and the production of antibodies. If the hopes of the optimistic mom were realized, her child would wind up a "bubble baby" who must live inside a plastic shield to ward off the myriad bacteria, fungi, and viruses that are a part of daily life.

    Another widespread expression of optimism is the hope or belief that we will recover from any illness that may strike us. If this universal wish were realized, no one would die, and the earth would have become disastrously overpopulated millennia ago and rendered unfit for human habitation.

    The most egregious abuses of optimism, however, take place on a large scale and in full view. The entire advertising sector is driven by a strategy of faux optimism: your life will be happier, sexier, and better if you buy a particular product, whether or not you actually need it or can afford it. Similarly, the self-help industry also rests on a doctrine of cheery optimism and happy outcomes, if the strategy of the month is followed. And politics oscillates crazily between optimism and pessimism, each political party painting the other as pessimistic, retro, and out of touch, and itself as forward-looking, creative, and positive about the future.

    Pessimism's Paradox

    Pessimism, if carried to the extreme, often undergoes a weird transformation and becomes funny. This is the sort of thing that occurs in gallows humor, in which "things are so bad I might as well laugh."

    Many comic geniuses understand keenly that pessimism can morph into humor, and they use this to great effect. It is no accident that some of our greatest comedians have been self-styled pessimists, such as Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Red Skelton, and Rodney Dangerfield.

    Even when people try to be genuinely pessimistic, they often come off as funny and we laugh at them through their seriousness. Consider Henry Millers put-down of optimism and hope: "Hope is a bad thing. It means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is dead, if not all of you. It means that you entertain illusions. It's a sort of spiritual clap, I should say."18 Or the curmudgeon who said. "Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a one hundred percent fatality rate." Or Baron de Montesquieu, who said, in all seriousness, "A man should be mourned at his birth, not at his death."

    If we are trapped in pessimism, perhaps we should not hold back, but plunge in and be seriously pessimistic, nothing halfway. If we did so we might wind up laughing, and liberate ourselves from pessimism's grasp.

    The Health Connection

    One of the most significant breakthroughs in twentieth-century medicine was the discovery of the importance of attitudes, emotions, and beliefs in health-what is now called mind-body medicine. Prior to mid-century, it was decidedly odd to hear clinicians speak of such things; now it is commonplace. I he key premise of mind-body medicine is that our mental life is not isolated above the clavicles. Each thought and emotion is a message to the rest of the body, mediated by an intricate array of nerve signals, hormones, and various other substances.

    A major development was the findings of behavioral scientists Suzanne Kobasa and Salvatore Maddi, then at the University of Chicago. In a series of landmark studies in the early 1980s, they elaborated the idea of psychological hardiness-a behavioral pattern found in stressed individuals who almost never got sick and lived long, fulfilling lives. The key, they found, was the "3 Cs"-Control, Commitment to work, family, and self, and a strong sense of Challenge. Even during periods of intense psychological stress, individuals possessing these traits remained healthy, while those who had low hardiness scores had significantly poorer health.

    Kobasa and Maddi observed that the critical starring point for hardiness and effective coping is an "optimistic appraisal" of a situation. When an event is viewed with less pessimism, its psychological and physiological impact is reduced. They concluded that hardiness, effective coping, and optimism are not fixed but are flexible.

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