Every so often, I get the opportunity to enjoy a meal or a cup of coffee with former patients and clients. Not only do I like to see how they are doing but it feels like I am visiting with an old friend. Today I saw the Magnificent Mr. O (due to privacy laws I can’t reveal his name but the “O” stands for optimism) who clearly has had more than his share of trials in life. In his late 20′s, he was diagnosed with a lymphoma requiring surgery and radiation to his neck. The resulting scar tissue caused his carotid artery to narrow so at the age of 44, he suffered a massive stroke leaving the left side of his body paralyzed and his doctors skeptical that he would ever walk again. Along with that came cognitive deficits that impaired his ability to return to his job as a top executive in a large company. After taking not one but two major hits in his life, it would be understandable for this man to give up and accept his limitations. But the prospect of being unable to walk or return to meaningful work was far more frightening to him than the effort and attitude it would take get better….
When I last worked with Mr. O, not only had he learned to walk again, he was preparing to return to his job as an executive. No one would have predicted this, given the level of his initial disability but he proved everyone wrong. We should have known he would surpass our expectations because whatever goal we set for him in rehab therapy, he would accomplish twice as well and in half the time. For example, I remember when physical therapy gave him the goal to walk around the block at least one time during the weekend. When we returned the following Monday, he had taken several 2 mile walks! There were countless times when he did more than we asked him to do and there was joy in accepting the challenge. Although he didn’t particularly like the predicament that he was in, he did appear more alive when he had summon his greatest resources to solve the problem.
That is what I call the face of optimism! Optimism is not denying the disappointments, upheavals, and tragedies in life. Such a notion makes me think of the famous scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail when King Arthur lops off the body parts of the Black Knight in a duo and Black Knight treats it like a mere scratches and flesh wounds:
ARTHUR and BLACK KNIGHT: Aaah!, hiyaah!, etc.
[ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's left arm off]
ARTHUR: Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
BLACK KNIGHT: ‘Tis but a scratch.
ARTHUR: A scratch? Your arm’s off!
BLACK KNIGHT: No, it isn’t.
ARTHUR: Well, what’s that, then?
BLACK KNIGHT: I’ve had worse…
It is not an original thought to point out that optimism isn’t about sticking your head in the sand. This has been well-articulated in many excellent books including Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. In this book, Seligman offers several concrete strategies to reframe and re-energize your mind and spirit to take on life’s challenges. In fact, I highly recommend it! However, a mere book cannot capture the spirit I am describing when I speak of the Magnificent Mr. O and his brand of optimism. This man has a personal energy that defies any catastrophe to bring him down. Challenges energize him and when he has to accept a less than optimal outcome, he adapts and finds a way to be grateful anyway. For example, his left arm and hand have contractures rendering this limb virtually useless. What does Mr. O have to say about this? “It’s all good. It holds my wedding ring!”
It is this type of energy that inspires me to remember that letting go of preconceived ideas of what is good and what isn’t is the key to a fulfilling existence. Or to paraphrase Mr. O, “I couldn’t buy a ride like this. It’s all been good. God has always given me the strength to handle it.