When my wife’s health declined and we didn’t know if she’d be able to undergo a lung transplant, I decided to reject blind optimism and pessimism and chose a third path.
I read so many Facebook comments that stated “things would work out” as I sat in my wife’s hospital room. I wished I believed them. What did they know about Rebecca’s condition and what comes with end-stage cystic fibrosis? It sounded like the blind optimism that you see in memes. You see the words “Just believe” in front of a rainbow or something.
Well, I didn’t believe that things would just work out simply because we hoped hard enough. When Rebecca suffered respiratory failure and was placed on a ventilator, I knew that her situation was dire. At the same time, I knew her drive and her strength would work in her favor. I wasn’t being pessimistic. The funny thing is, whether you’re talking to an optimist or a pessimist, they both think their predictions will come to pass. That’s because everyone thinks they are a realist.
The danger of being an optimist is that blind faith can lead to a terrible surprise because you haven’t prepared yourself for bad news. As a CF spouse, I am reminded every day of the risks to my wife’s health. I watched her on a ventilator for six months, hearing abysmal news about her deteriorating condition. Had I lost her then, it would have been devastating but I doubt that the surprise from it would have been the worst part. Expecting bad news would have not made the loss any easier.
The real danger of blind optimism is that you might fail to prepare for more than one scenario. Had I simply believed that Rebecca would recover, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to get her listed for a transplant. Had I simply believed that she would get listed, I wouldn’t have pushed her so hard during her physical therapy sessions. And had I simply believed that she would get a transplant in time, I may not have said the things I needed to say while she was so close to death. Knowing her declining chances for survival motivated me and provided direction. Hearing that bit of reality from the doctors allowed me to respond and affect the odds for the better.
Conversely, pessimism certainly has its pitfalls. It’s hard to put your all into working toward the best outcome if you’re already convinced it won’t come to pass. And after waking from a six-week coma and finding herself on a ventilator, the last thing Rebecca needed was to see me give up on her. When she was too weak to lift her arm, much less stand, it was my job to motivate her. That says nothing of the fact that thinking the worst (for lack of a better word) sucks. Some of the toughest nights of my life were spent sitting in my empty house imagining a future where Rebecca never came home. Looking back, I can say that fewer of those nights would have been inarguably better. Even if she lost her fight, experiencing those dismal nights beforehand would not have made mourning any easier. Those nights just made it harder for me to get up the next morning and keep trying.
I see the danger of pessimism as lost motivation. Had I simply believed that Rebecca would not recover, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to get her listed for a transplant. Had I simply believed that she would not get listed, I wouldn’t have pushed her so hard during physical therapy. And had I simply believed that she would not get a transplant in time, my negative outlook may have affected Rebecca when she most needed my support and her resolve.
So, what are we left with? Since we already think we are realistic, I propose something slightly different: realistic optimism. The idea is that we can choose to be positive today while staying informed so we are prepared for tomorrow. We can accept harsh possibilities but resolve not to let it sap our motivation. We can contemplate the next steps yet remain present with our loved ones. We can believe in a plan, but not only believe in a positive result.
As CF families, we are constantly forced to walk a line between managing the bad news we receive while striving to remain hopeful for the future. After receiving our fifth consecutive transplant center rejection, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t crushed. But I had to choose how I would present it to my wife. “They may have turned us down but now we won’t waste precious time at a hospital that would have rejected us.” We faced a difficult reality but chose to be optimistic. For us, realistic optimism proved, through the toughest of circumstances, to be our best approach to living with this disease and the incredible challenges that it brings. Together, let’s stay realistic and be optimistic because our hard work puts us one step closer to a cure!