Optimism

“A cloudy diagnosis is no match for a sunny disposition.”

On the rare occasions when I need to make amends on the home front, I find it easiest to buy roses. The florist and I have subsequently become fast friends. “You’re late today Doc,” she smiles, “will that be the usual?” Her pleasant face winces as she sweeps the thorns off the stems, pricking her busy fingers yet again. I was reminded of the old adage I’d heard a thousand times as a child; “Get your fingers out of there!” as well as the other old adage, “Instead of complaining that roses have thorns, be grateful that thorns have roses.”

Ted, 41, had brought his son into the office with an ear infection. Glancing at Ted, I noted his eyes were yellowish and inquired as to how he’d been feeling. “Just fine Doc. The yellow is probably ‘cause I’ve got to find your washroom in a hurry” he joked Concerned, I conducted a few tests to discover to my dismay that Ted was breeding pancreatic cancer, one of the cancers that really frightens me. When I visited him a few days later in the hospital, he grinned at me and declared he was doing great. “I have my own TV, the nurses are top notch and the food is superb.” Either this man was sicker than I thought or he’d been given an enormous amount of mind-altering drugs. But the nurses were likewise drawn to Ted’s upbeat nature, explaining that he never, ever complained. Two months later he was back in hospital, the cancer and the treatment having left him gaunt and wasted. “Look at this, Doc, thinnest I’ve been in years.” Discussing the gravity of his situation he reminded me “Everyone has to die sometime and I’ve lived a very rich life.” A few weeks later he died. Several nurses went to his funeral.

Taking the chart out of the door I noted that my first patient of the day was Ruth. I knew what to expect. Unhappy Ruth would blame someone else for something gone askew, would want a CT scan for every sniffle and complain that she was never well. I don’t recall ever having heard Ruth laugh or even having seen her smile. Constantly beset by a myriad of “problems”, she reeked pessimism from every pore.

In the extraordinary book Standing for Something, Gordon B. Hinckley advises that to enhance optimism “…as we go through life, we ACCENTUATE the positive… look a little deeper for the good… still our voices of insult and sarcasm.” A must read for anyone with a pulse, he reminds us of the importance of “giving strength to the voice of hope” while avoiding becoming trapped in negative sophistries.

Did Ted’s optimism help him get better? No. Did it affect the way in which he suffered? Without doubt.

Pessimists, also described as those with an attitude of “learned helplessness”, not only cope poorly with illness, but also get more of it. University of Pennsylvania researchers have found that pessimists and their immune systems become more easily depressed. Neurotransmitter action of the pessimist’s brain hinders both NK (natural killer) cells and T cells of the immune system. Consequently, they become more ill more often, focus on how much they will suffer and take longer to heal. Optimists, on the other hand, believe in healthier lifestyles, seek to improve their health and take bad news as only a temporary setback. Learned helplessness begins in childhood in kids who feel lack of control over their lives. No child should ever hear: “Stupid!” “Let me do this!” “Hurry up!” “Shut up!” “Useless!” “That’s a poor job!” Such youth acquire learned helplessness and ultimately develop a painful way of seeing the world about them.

Go buy some thorns.

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