VIEW VIDEO Winter arrived this past week, and with it, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), when the lack of sunlight plunges many of us into despair. The solution, of course, is Florida, which raises other difficulties, namely snakes. When I said winter arrived, you might have thought, “Not until December 21st,” but in the Gulley household, winter officially begins when Joan says to me, “Why don’t you bring in some firewood and put a fire in the woodstove?” We are not calendar fundamentalists at the Gulley house. Winter starts when you carry in the first load of firewood.
When I was a kid, the start of winter was always a Saturday, usually in early November, when we removed the screens from the windows and carried them up to the attic, then carried down the storm windows, lifting these heavy, unwieldly windows up a rickety wooden ladder, the wind catching the storm window like a sail. Our ladder was too short, so I had to get it nearly vertical to reach the second story windows. Kids today like rock-climbing, but when I was a kid we scratched that itch by installing the storm windows. I would fall at least once a year, and lie on my back, staring up at the bare trees, cold wind blowing across my broken body, and I would pray to God to let me survive another Indiana winter, thinking to myself, “Someday when I’m a minister, I’m going to talk about storm windows and winter and depression,” and here we are, another dream realized.
Toward that end, we’ve been talking about dying before we’re dead, more specifically about the challenges of depression and the habits we can cultivate to enhance our lives, so we don’t die before we’re dead. If you suffer from depression, I urge you to consult your doctor and seek medical treatment, but that is just a starting point, because, as I’ve observed, taking antidepressants is a bit like living in Indiana. It’s a rather flat experience. While the valleys go away, there are no mountains either. To attain those higher, more elevated moments we must practice certain behaviors that can enrich our lives.
So today I want to talk about the importance of hope, or cultivating the habit of optimism. While I believe most of our physical features and many of our psychological qualities are rooted in genetic factors over which we have little control, I suspect our general outlook on life is ultimately a conscious decision, that just as one can choose to be pessimistic and negative, one can also decide to be optimistic and positive. I am not saying that cultivating the habit of optimism is easy, only that it is possible. And more than possible, it is essential to our emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being.
Optimism begins with self-awareness, which means we must be conscious and mindful of our moods to counter our feelings of pessimism and gloom whenever they arise.
This past Monday my dermatologist phoned to tell me a biopsy I’d had done indicated basal cell carcinoma, which, if you know anything about cancer, you know is the weakest, scrawniest cancer you can have. If pancreatic cancer is the Chuck Norris of cancers, basal cell carcinoma is the Pee Wee Herman of cancers. You go in, you have it removed, you live another 30 years. But all I could think about a friend of mine who had ignored his skin cancer and how it nearly killed him, and the next thing you know, I’m designing my tombstone, deciding between marble, granite, or slate.
Joan came home. I sat her down. “I have bad news,” I said. “It’s basal cell carcinoma.”
“That’s no big deal,” she said. “You’ll go in, they’ll cut it out, and you’ll be fine. Why don’t you carry in some firewood while I start supper?”
Firewood? Supper? How could I even think about eating when I was ten minutes from death? I’ll be honest, I was a little put out. Here I was, in the icy grip of death, and Joan wanted firewood and food.
So I made a fire and Joan made supper. After we ate, we went for a walk. It was a beautiful evening and walking along it occurred to me that I had let my imagination get the best of me, that rather than assuming the best, that I would be well, I had assumed the worst, that I would be dead in ten minutes.
The moment I realized that I began to feel better. Optimism begins with self-awareness, which means we must be conscious and mindful of our moods in order to counter our feelings of pessimism and gloom. Optimism is the deliberate decision to make the best of our lives, to hope for the best, to work for the best. As it turned out, everything went well. I went to the surgeon on Thursday, she removed half my neck, and here I am, fit as a fiddle.
There’s a little story in the New Testament, in the fifth chapter of John, about a man who had been sick for 38 years, lying beside the pool of Bethesda, where it was said angels would regularly stir the waters. It was believed the first person to touch the water after the angels had visited would be healed. Jesus came along and saw the man and could tell from the cobwebs he’d been there a long time. He asked him, “What is your problem?”
In the English translations, Jesus is a bit more diplomatic, but the original languages have a note of exasperation. What is your problem?
The man immediately blames others. “If only someone would help me get to the water. I’m this way because other people are inconsiderate. No one will help me.”
If only, if only, if only…
Now bear in mind he is reclining right beside the water.
This is pessimism at its deepest, darkest moment. If only, if only, if only…
Optimism is the deliberate decision to make the best of our lives, to hope for the best, to work for the best. Medicine will put us beside the pool, in a place and position to be made well. But it is up to us to reach out for the water. No one can do that for us. Cultivating the habit of optimism allows us to reach for the water the angels have stirred.