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The Heart of Life

The Heart of Life: February 2012

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Beauty of Consequences

My initial goal for these monthly themes was to write at least 3 posts on each topic. The problem is, I have a tendency to take extended periods of time to mull over what I've written. I took about two weeks to mull over this one, and it's kind of a miracle that I finished it before March. Quick writing isn't one of my strengths. I'm working on that.
Anyway, in my last post I talked about how pessimistic thoughts happen to pretty much everybody, and it's something we each need to overcome. I also discussed the idea of using hope to combat pessimism's ever-present accompice--fear. However, I really didn't talk too much about optimism. I knew if I even started into optimism I'd go off on another risk-related tangent, and I wanted to save that for another day. Today happens to be that day.
Because hope and optimism are so intertwined, it really is amazing that I was able to stop myself. Here is how I separate hope from optimism. Hope is something you do--an action--while optimism is more of an attitude--something you become. If we get into the habit of stopping pessimistic thoughts with hope, an attitude of optimism is created, and fewer pessimistic thoughts surface. Our hope strengthens our optimism, and in return optimism increases our hope.

Let's use a metaphor. If hope is an action, then we can compare it to running. What happens when you run a lot? You get increased strength, and thus more endurance; your body becomes something greater. You're seeing the parallel between strength and optimism right? Neither are things you really do. They are things you develop. With this increased strength and endurance, you are capable of running farther. And in turn, the farther you run, the stronger you get. It's a pretty awesome cycle.

Anyway, in the last post I differentiated between realistic pessimism (both hopeful and hopeless) and unrealistic pessimism. I could probably do the same with optimism, but at this point it's like splitting hairs. Optimism, whether founded or unfounded, is a good thing, so I won't go there. There is, however, one very strange breed of optimism out there: denial. It's probably optimism's third cousin twice removed or something like that, but there are definitely some similarities.

A couple months ago my husband and I were flipping through the channels on TV and happened across an interesting show on Discovery Channel called Curiousity. This show explores a variety of life's big questions. The topic that night was, "Your Body on Drugs." They found users of several different drugs and asked them to accomplish some tasks while under the influence to see how the drugs impacted their performance. They also measured the person's heart rate, body temperature, etc. to see the physiological impact on the drug users as they performed these tasks.

At the end of the show, they showed each drug user the results. One girl was told that the drug she smoked regularly had caused her 20ish-year-old lungs to look like the lungs of an 80-year-old. As they told her of the implications of her drug use on her health she began to cry. She looked terrified. They offered to get her into drug rehab, and she accepted.

For one man who was in his twenties, his drug of choice (I want to say cocaine, but I can't remember for sure) caused his heart rate and body temperature to go crazy high. They informed him that if he continued to put this stress on his heart, it would almost surely cause cardiac arrest within the next several years (I can't remember the exact number--probably 10 or 15). They showed him all sorts of graphs and statistics, and strongly encouraged him to enter drug rehab in order to extend his life. He acted as though they'd told him that he had a 0.1% chance of getting cancer from Bubble Yum Bubble Gum. He insisted that those things would never happen to him.

Is this optimism? Kind of. Does he have hope? Yes... although it's somewhat misguided. He has hope that his harmful behavior won't have negative consequences. But here's the kicker--is he fearful? He definitely didn't show it, but I would imagine that deep down he knows what he's doing to his body isn't good. I'm sure he has noticed that he can't function without this drug, and it probably scares him. But he probably figures that if he ignores it long enough, it will go away. That's what denial is all about--hope that there will be no consequences. So while denial looks very similar to optimism, it has one very important difference. Denial's hope stems from the fear of consequences. Optimism's hope is something that occurs in spite of fear, with definite mindfulness of consequences. It all goes back to how we look at consequences. Do we fear them? Embrace them? Avoid them? Or do we use them to become better?

I have a friend who wrote a fabulous post about jumping--it's really short, so read it. I love this idea. There are so many great consequences that we miss out on because we're too afraid to go out on a limb. Be nice to the people around you! Try new things! Celebrate victories! Address your problems! Be awesome! These things can't happen unless we're willing to live a life free of fear and denial.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Seeing as last month's theme was marriage and February is the Valentines month, it would only make sense that this month's theme would be love. But it's not. February's theme is... risk! And no... I'm not talking about the board game--that game takes forever to play. We're talking about the artful task of risk-taking, with all it's pros and cons. Romantic, yes?

To start off, I need to talk a little bit about research. Research is incredibly useful when it comes to risk-taking. Research is used in food, medicine, cars, cleaning products, travel, insurance... you name it, and it relies a lot on research.

Companies use it to predict how successful a product might be. Based on their research, companies can better guess what risks are worth taking, and which ones aren't. If Hidden Valley wanted to introduce a new flavor of ranch dressing, you better believe they want a good sized sample of average(ish) people tasting it. They want to know if the product tastes good and also if people are going to be willing to buy it. If the taste testers guzzle that new ranch down and start chanting "HVR! HVR!" it's probably safe to say releasing it would be a good risk to take. If the results are a little more nonchalant, the risk goes up.

(How could I resist posting this video? "There's a Hidden Valley Ranch party in my mouth!")

Research is incredibly crucial in the medical sphere as well. For one, research ensures that a medication or procedure is safe. It also helps determine risks factors or side effects. For example, if I were prescribed ear drops for an ear infection (and I was), I might wonder what the side effects are for these ear drops. So I'd pull out my handy dandy ear drop information sheet from the box (and unfold it a billion times), and from it I learn that some side effects might be discomfort, bitter taste in mouth, itching, earache, dizziness, abnormal sensation, or rash. If upon reading these side effects I think to myself, "An abnormal sensation is something I just can't deal with right now,"I could delve further into the information leaflet and learn that just 1% of the test subjects who used these ear drops experienced an abnormal sensation. At this point, I can make an informed decision on whether using these ear drops are worth the 1% risk of experiencing an abnormal sensation. Of course, I'd choose to use it. Can you ear drop blast me now?! (Reference to the above video. Watch it.)

But what about this? Let's say a doctor recommends a surgery with an 80% success rate. Thus, there's a 20% chance of failure. Research predicts that usually this operation goes well, but recognizes that it's also possible for things to go wrong. This is definitely more risky than a 1% chance of abnormal sensation, but the odds are still on your side.

There are several possible reactions to this situation. First of all, there are the realistically optimistic people. These people would look at that and think, "Things usually work out fine for most people, so chances are things will work out fine for me too." They realize that success is not guaranteed, but they're probably going to take the risk because the odds are so good.

And then we have the paranoid reaction. These folks--bless their dear hearts--are unrealistically pessimistic. These people look at an 80% success rate and think, "There's a 20% chance of failure. With my luck, there's no way this surgery will work for me." They assume that they will fall under the minority. For them, Murphy's law is gospel. If something can go wrong, it will surely happen to them, no matter how good their odds are. They become so paralyzed by the fear of negative consequences that they don't take risks. I don't know if J. K. Rowling is an authority on this subject, but she said something I really like. "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all--in which case, you fail by default." Sometimes cars crash, but that's no reason to never get in a car. Super glue can sometimes make your fingers stick together, but that's no reason to completely avoid it. Sometimes the ranch dressing doesn't get finished off by the expiration date, but that's no reason to not buy ranch. Life is risky. But fear of risk shouldn't stop us from living.

When we talk about optimism and pessimism, we usually talk about a glass being either half full or half empty. And really, both sides are correct, regardless of how they look at it. But the funny thing about unrealistic pessimism is that the glass might be mostly full, but it's still seen as being half empty. It's a negatively skewed reality, and I find that incredibly interesting.

Now, what about in a situation where the success rate of a surgery is 40%? The risk is much, much higher. In this situation, the same people who earlier were realistically optimistic might now lean more toward realistic pessimism. They may feel reluctant to take that risk, and that's completely normal. If the stats say things usually don't work out, it's completely rational to fear that things will go wrong. However, perhaps the risk of surgery isn't the only risk they have to take into consideration. Maybe the risk of developing a life-threatening condition is much higher when the surgery is avoided.

At this point, the realistic pessimists divide. On the one hand are the ones without hope. They look at poor odds expecting poor results, and dwell on that fact. Hopeless realistic pessimists and unrealistic pessimists have one essential thing in common: They are both controlled by their fears, regardless of whether they are real or imagined. And fear is a merciless master--it corrodes the soul and restricts the mind.

On the other hand we have hopeful realistic pessimism. First of all, hopeful pessimism seems like a complete oxymoron. How does that work? The dictionary says pessimism is, "an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome." We usually see this as someone who is always pessimistic (and those people definitely exist), but I want to emphasize the "inclination" part. Are we not all inclined to be pessimistic every once in a while? We've all said or thought things like, "This is going to be a long day," or "This probably isn't going to turn out very well." We're all inclined to be pessimistic, even if we're usually pretty optimistic. Pessimism comes so naturally--it's not something we have to work on. However, optimism does take work. Some of the most optimistic people I know are also very self-disciplined.

Now that we've established that pessimism is a normal reaction (although definitely not the best reaction), we can bring hope into the picture. What separates the hopeless from the hopeful is how this pessimism is handled. The hopeless pessimist might think, "This is going to be a long day," and dwells on this belief. Eventually the fear may set in that the next day is going to be a long day as well. Then perhaps that person might fear that every day for the rest of his or her life is going to be a long day. Fear wins.

When the hopeful pessimist thinks, "This is going to be a long day," something very essential happens: the hopeful pessimist hopes that tomorrow will be better. The hopeful pessimist does not let a moment of predicted failure define and destroy his or her life.

Fear focuses on today. Fear would have us believe that today's failures will fill all of our tomorrows. Fear encourages the belief that today's bleakness will never end. But with hope, the focus is tomorrow. With hope, the those things that didn't work out today can perhaps work out in the future. Hope sustains us through our failures and makes change possible. Hope gives realistic pessimists and optimists alike the courage to make hard decisions and take big risks, regardless of what the odds look like.