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Hope, Optimism and Aging

Several days ago I attended the health planning meeting of a friend who is in a long-term care facility.  The conditions at the facility have been very irksome and trying for him, and, given my experience of the setting, his perception is not distorted.  The meeting was arranged to discuss a move to another setting that promises to be better suited to his needs and more likely to enhance the quality of his life.

As he spoke I noticed frustration, incredulousness, anger, and discouragement, bordering on despair.  I did not doubt that I would be feeling much the same if I were in his shoes.  He lacked optimism about the future and was filled with pessimism.  Hope was absent.

As I listened to him and the facility staff discussing the situation I thought more about what contributes to our optimism and pessimism, what enhances each and what reduces each.  I recalled the meanings of these words as they are used in everyday language.  Optimism is “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and happenings or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”  In contrast, pessimism is “an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome.”

This was exactly what my friend was experiencing, pessimism eclipsing optimism—an experience with which all of us are familiar, I suspect.  In the past, when I saw the world through more rose-colored glasses, I would have said to him, “Be optimistic!” hoping to avoid being dragged into the downward spiral of his pessimistic bent.

 Instead I suggested, “Be optilistic and pessilistic.”  I reminded him of something we had spoken about in the weeks preceding this meeting, my personal emphasis on being, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but “optilistic” and “pessilistic.”

One of my great pleasures in life is playing with words and noticing the organic and evolutionary nature of our language.  I enjoy coining new words.  These words, optilistic and pessilistic, were born of my increasing focus on aging, my own and others, and the place of spirituality in our aging processes.  They are important to me because they reflect the realities of my life as I have come to perceive and understand them, based on sixty plus years of life experience.

Each word is a conjunction of two words.  In the case of opti-listic it is a joining of “optimistic” and “realistic.”  “Pessi-listic” is a conjoining of “pessimistic” and “realistic.”

To be optilistic is not to set aside completely or lose the meaning of optimism.  We can still envision “the best possible outcome.”  However, we temper it with the reality of our circumstances and the reality of life itself.  This means that we realize that life does not always deliver what we want, how we want it, sometimes at all, and, even if it does, to whatever extent, it is not on our schedule or according to our particular hopes.  In other words, the best possible outcome is that we use whatever we are given to enhance the fullness of our lives such as they are.  And this is the true basis of HOPE.

Being “pessilistic” is essential as well, and I encouraged my friend to be both optilisic and pessilistic.  Being pessilistic means understanding that the worst case scenario might come to pass while, with a binocular-like focus, realizing that even the worst case does not last forever.  Even in the extreme situation, when facing death, there is an ending to the pain and suffering that may accompany it.

Posted in HopeOptimismPessimism on 21 December 2009
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