Wednesday, March 10, 2010

POSITIVE VIBES ONLY


“I need to keep positivity around me,” said a woman with stage four lung cancer.

Toward that end she’d hung a sign on her front door requiring “Positive Vibes Only.” She insisted that her family and friends speak only optimistically. Her husband, her two grown children, and visiting friends wore fixed smiles. Hand-lettered aphorisms hung everywhere: “You’re never a loser till you quit trying.” “Perseverance is many short races one after another.” "An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

Her home’s positivity was tangibly artificial. When I left, I felt less uplifted than stifled, as though I’d been drawn into a vortex of denial gone stale. 

Not that I have anything against denial per se; in psychological circles denial’s a “defense,” and a terrific defense it is. When some prospect’s too hot to swallow, we delay until it’s cooled off a bit.

Maybe I’ve written this story here before, but it’s worth repeating. A support group member with aggressive metastatic cancer decided she was going to live as though her disease didn’t exist. She re-opened her law practice, and she took dancing lessons as often as her waning energy permitted.

One afternoon another group member asked her, “Aren’t you in denial?”

She answered, “Of course I am. It’s the only medicine that works for me these days.”

Hats off to her! It’s impossible to tell if her denial bought her time, but it definitely bought her quality. Still, it wore out with use. Sooner or later denial becomes impossible to maintain.

Manufactured positivity is common in Cancerland, probably as an understandable reaction to our traditional—and actually obsolete—notion of cancer as implacable doom. Even though it’s time-limited, though, it’s still more useful than its yin-yang twin, pessimism, which, as studies have repeatedly confirmed, adversely affects the immune system.

Fortunately, our attitudinal choices aren’t limited to forced grins or gratuitous gloom. How about simply recognizing one’s current reality without projecting anything—“positive” or “negative”—into the future? Sure, that’s not an easy skill, but the fact is that we really don’t know what’s going to happen over the short run. The older I get, the more regularly I’m surprised. In regard to the woman who demanded positivity around her, there are only four things I know with certainty:

1. She has stage four lung cancer.
2. She will die one day.
3. At the moment, she’s unquestionably alive.
4. My own feelings in response to being with her.

If I, as a caregiver, can nurture those facts in my mind, I’m more likely to act therapeutically.

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