by Carole Duff
My father loved to tell stories at the dinner table, especially those from his New England youth. He was third of ten children born on a farm in far northern Maine, also a medical doctor and university professor. My sisters and I always knew when a story was coming, because he’d take off his glasses, rub his bald head back and forth then stroke down his face so he wouldn’t forget the punchline, he’d say. After collecting his thoughts, Daddy put his glasses back on and began. One of his favorite stories was about the optimist and the pessimist. It went something like this.
Once upon a time there were two brothers, an optimist and a pessimist. The Optimist always saw the bright side of things, no matter how unrealistic. The Pessimist, equally unrealistic, saw only the negative. Much concerned and hoping to balance their sons’ perspectives, the boys’ parents came up with a plan.
For Christmas, they gave the Pessimist what he had always wanted, a beautiful, expensive watch. The Pessimist opened his box and started to worry. “Oh, oh! This watch is so precious, I just know I’m going to drop and break it.” He then did just that.
His parents sadly shook their heads then looked toward their other son. When the Optimist opened his gift, he discovered a lump of manure. “Oh, oh!” the Optimist exclaimed, “I had a horse, but he must have gotten away.”
After pausing for laughter, my father told us the moral of the story: no matter what parents do, they cannot really change pessimists and optimists.
* * * * * * *
I am a pessimist, a worrier, and someone who suffers with GAD, generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety isn’t fear of an actual threat in front of you; it’s future fear. Though Jesus said in Matthew 6:34, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself,” I worry anyway. It doesn’t take much for my mind to spin out of control, thinking up bad things that might happen. If loved ones are even a little bit late getting home, I just know they’re dead in a ditch.
In his 2014 book My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel, an editor for The Atlantic, writes about his fear of uncertainty and his panic attacks, which I’ve experienced, too, both short and long term. My symptoms include trembling body, racing heart, GI distress, throat constriction, ringing in my ears, insomnia, frequent and intense hot flashes, cold chills, muscle spasms, and obsessive worry. Like Stossel, I’m good at hiding my anxiety—most people never guess what’s going on behind my false mask of composure—but the effort is exhausting.
Is anxiety a philosophical problem treatable with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), a medical illness, a psychological problem, a product of children trauma, a spiritual or cultural condition? Stossel asks. As he presents each case, I identify aspects of my anxiety in each of those scholarly camps. But the anxiety within me is predominantly a spiritual condition.
I am a perfectionist, which is another way of saying I want to be God. But when my performance is less than God-like, I become anxious. Like the pessimist, I just know I’m going to make a mistake, drop the beautiful watch and break it. As a pessimistic perfectionist, I feel all alone but know I have company, especially among women. Wall Street Journal writer Andrea Petersen, in her 2017 book On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, describes her obsessive worry about making mistakes, because a mistake means failure. In college, she became absorbed with self-doubt and self-criticism. Petersen practiced CBT techniques, and over time her anxiety became manageable. For me, anxiety became more manageable in my early forties when I decided to believe in and stop competing with God.
Twenty-five years on, my faith is imperfect and thus not a perfect solution to anxiety. Many nights I pray my way through long periods of second-half-of-life, anxious sleeplessness. Instead of taking medication, a decision based on medical advice, I read scripture and journal to shine a light on other possible contributing factors—philosophical, psychological, and cultural conditions and events from my past. I’ve learned to be grateful for my anxiety, because it leads me to find my optimism in God.
One cannot change others against their will, but a pessimist can practice optimism, says psychiatrist Steven Southwick and neurobiologist Dennis Charney. These medical doctors studied resilient people and identified ten behaviors they have in common. Resilient people foster optimism, face their fears, have a moral compass, practice spirituality, give and receive social support, mirror resilient role models, maintain physical fitness, keep their brains active, have a mission or meaning in life, and cultivate a number of coping techniques, including humor.
* * * * * * *
Some fifty years after my father told the story of the optimist and the pessimist, I repeated it to my husband one night at the dinner table, sans the glasses ritual. I’m not a great joke-teller but rarely forget the punchline. After I delivered the moral of the story, Keith said, “Wait a minute, Carole, back up. ‘He must have gotten away’ is not what an optimist would say.”
“But that’s how Daddy always told the story,” I said. “The Optimist had a lump of manure and oh, oh, the horse got away.” I paused. “So, what would an optimist say?”
“He’d say, ‘Oh, boy! I just know there’s a horse around here somewhere!’”
In my father’s story, both the optimist and the pessimist were pessimists—dark humor for hard-bitten, dour New Englanders. The story’s punchline was the horse that had gotten away from me. Until now.
And the moral of that story is: it’s never too late to embrace optimism.
Editor’s note: We believe in optimism – and we also affirm that some battling anxiety may find God’s gifts of counseling and/or medication an important part of restoring their mental and spiritual health.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, now writing creative nonfiction. She posts to her weekly blog Notes from Vanaprastha(http://caroleduff.wordpress.com), writes personal essays, and is working on a book-length faith memoir. Carole lives in Virginia with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large overly-friendly rescue dogs.