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The Optimist's Manifesto

There's no better life lesson than a near-death experience

The writer with his friend Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," in 2008. Photo: Paula Allen

When you’ve been hauled back from death’s door, it’s hard not to be an optimist.

I was supposed to be dead at 30, over two decades ago. The condition didn’t kill me but what did get annihilated was the cynic hiding under my cheerful mask — the clever, dystopian pessimist part, who secretly feared that the future would only get worse and mocked optimistic, smiley-faced ninnies.

This cynic’s death transformed my life. Survival stripped me of the fantasy that I was entitled to be on this planet. I surrendered the myth of guarantees along with the right to take anything for granted. Life had become miraculous. I felt like a walking miracle. I was humbled by gratitude and awe. My optimism did not make me stupid. Did I like taking fifteen pills a day just to stay alive? No. Did I tell myself that everything would be just fine, and whatever happened was for the best? Please. Still, I was enormously glad to be here.

Gladness is the point, really. Whether or not you’ve survived some big deal (and who hasn’t?), gladness matters more and more as we age. “You shall above all things be glad and young,” wrote e.e. cummings. “For if you’re young, whatever life you wear/It will become you; and if you are glad/whatever’s living will yourself become.”

When we understand this, even bad days are good days. Tough-to-swallow things turn to gravy. This is nothing to do with Pollyanna. Survivors are the true realists, in fact; that’s why people who have been through the worst are also, frequently, the most wise. They know the value of the day. They’re no longer deluded into believing that 90 percent of life’s trivial concerns matter one bit. As a friend of mine likes to say about getting older, “More happens. Less matters.”

Optimists are people who know what matters. Optimism does not mean believing that only good things will happen. It means that, regardless of what happens, you will make the most of it. An optimist believes that — with the exception of physical torture, extreme pain or grief — there are optimal ways of moving through with minimum pain and maximum growth in any given situation. Optimizing experience means being aware that all circumstances teach us something, especially the unwanted ones. Painful things can crack the heart open, render us more human, vulnerable, tender, even compassionate. Optimists aren’t grateful for bad things that happen; we just know for certain that nothing is wasted.

Take a friend of mine, Eve Ensler, who just published an astounding book called “In the Body of the World,” about surviving Stage IV uterine cancer. Eve, who wrote “The Vagina Monologues,” and whose movement (V-Day) has raised over $90 million to help end violence against women and girls, describes what it felt like to be changed overnight: From her playwright/global crusader self to a bald, emaciated cancer patient, worrying about chemo-ports and fistulas, waiting for the curtain to fall.

At the lowest point of her grueling journey, Eve questioned whether the fight was worth it. The oil spill in the Gulf had just happened, which she likened to her own body’s disaster. To the horror of her caretakers, she couldn’t stop watching the awful TV reports of petrol-drenched pelicans and dead baby dolphins. “I really don’t mind dying,” she wrote. “I mean, who wants to live in a world where the ocean is bleeding?”

Even bad days are good days. Tough-to-swallow things turn to gravy. This is nothing to do with Pollyanna. Survivors are the true realists.

Eve couldn’t remain pessimistic, though, no matter how little time she had. She realized this one pain-ridden day, upon noticing a tree outside her hospital room window. Eve had been a cynical New Yorker toward nature; her mantra after escaping her girlhood's suburbs had been, “I never want to see another fucking tree.” And yet, in her vulnerable state, this arrogance fell away from her eyes, leaving her glad for the simplest things. “(To) actually lie in my hospital bed and see ‘tree’ … to find the green life inherent in ‘tree,’ this was an awakening. Each morning when I opened my eyes, I could not wait to focus on ‘tree’… Each day it was different, based on the light or wind or rain. The tree was a tonic and a cure, a guru and a teaching.”

Her spirit lassoed itself to that tree and hoisted Eve’s sick body back to health. This is what optimists learn how to do. We find a way through, we persevere, and we see “no” as a failure of the imagination. It’s not that we’re especially brave; we’ve simply been struck by life’s brevity and know that if we don’t find joy now, when can we expect to do it? Cynics scoff at insights like this one, calling us sarcastic names like "converts" and saying idiotic things about atheists not liking foxholes. But they completely miss the point.

Optimism has nothing to do with faith. It’s all about facing the facts and standing amazed before the mystery of where we find ourselves: ephemeral beings on a wondrous planet. More like scientists than priests. That is what an optimist does. Even a heretic like Richard Dawkins, author of the God-trashing book, “The Selfish Gene,” takes this point. “We have won the combinatorial lottery of DNA” and been given “the stunningly rare opportunity to be alive."

Even when we lose, we’re winners. That’s the jackpot. The big A-HA. That’s the optimist manifesto.

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