The Thing with Feathers

The Thing with Feathers

"Hope" is the thing with feathers  / that perches in the soul "

--Emily Dickinson

I write a lot about optimism. It’s a natural subject for me, because I’ve always been a half-glass-full sort of person. I can’t help it. It’s just how I roll.

But optimism has its downsides.

By itself, it can be a shield against reality. For instance, I can be optimistic about the lottery ticket I just bought, but reality tells me that the odds of winning that $50 million prize are seriously against me. I’d better have a backup financial plan!

That life is brutally real is the most frequent argument I hear against being an optimist. The truth is that bad things happen. They can easily knock my half-full glass over. Pessimism—the glass-half-empty view of life—is far more realistic, the argument goes.

I say phooey to that. Like most people, I’ve lived through my share of spilled glasses and clouded-out sunshine. I’ve lost loved ones, been through a couple of miserable divorces, and had to start over, both financially and emotionally, from scratch more than once. And as if that wasn’t enough, I’ve also had rheumatoid disease (arthritis) for the last three decades.

RD reminds me on an almost daily basis just how truly mortal I am. “This is the reality,” it whispers (and sometimes bellows). Life hurts. Life can end—and not always in quick, gentle, or painless ways.

Enter Hope, Stage Left

On the other hand, life has handed me a whole passel of joy, too. I have a delightful daughter. I’ve traveled across oceans and lived abroad. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living doing what I love to do. And life makes me laugh in mostly unlooked-for ways every day.

Because I’m the endlessly curious type, I looked up the words “optimism” and “hope” in the dictionary. They seem mostly interchangeable to my mind, but they’re not. At least, not exactly. Here’s what I found:

  •     “Optimism,” according to Oxford Dictionaries, means “[h]opefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.”
  •       “Hope” means “[a] feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.”

The main difference, as far as I can tell, is that while “optimism” involves hopefulness and confidence, “hope” involves expectation and desire—but not, necessarily, confidence. So, when I buy that lottery ticket, the more realistic attitude is to hope I’ll win—but hedge my bet with a healthy dose of common sense by making sure I have some other source of income. Knowing I’ll survive when I don’t win is optimism.

I believe hope is, like air, water, food, and shelter, vital to human life. When things happen that cause sadness, hurt, or harm, we must be able to hope—with a sober sense of realism—for some relief and for better times. We know that life ebbs and flows, like the ocean, sometimes bringing waves of sadness, sometimes leaping breakers of joy. The latter keep us going.

… But Just Call Me Optimistic

Optimism is more confident and realistic than hope, though no less “feathery.” When I wake up in the morning and my RD joints are stiff and painful, it’s optimism (with its inherent confidence)—not hope—that gets me up and out of bed. I know from long experience with this disease that eventually, as I move them, my joints will loosen up, at least to some degree. The pain may lessen. But if it doesn’t, I am confident that there are things I can do to get some relief, like use an ice pack; stretch and do gentle, targeted exercises; use over-the-counter salves and balms that cover or blunt my joint or muscle pain, or take OTC oral pain relievers.

If none of these things work to ease my pain, I can take an opioid pain reliever. That won’t remove it, but I’m always optimistic that it will help. The point here is that I do each of these things not with hope that they’ll make me feel better, but with confidence that they will. I’m optimistic, and optimism makes me smile despite myself. Meanwhile, I’m getting on with my day to the best of my ability.

Granted, there are days—and even weeks—when my ability doesn’t quite match up with my optimism. But that doesn’t bother me much. There’s still—wait for it—hope—to keep me going.

I hope, every day, for medical science to find a cure for rheumatoid disease, one that can work for each of us as individuals. I recognize that it’s a lofty goal and one not easily reached. I hope for—desire and expect it—anyway.

In the meantime, I’m optimistic about my day-to-day ability to cope with my RD. It, too, is often difficult, but I know all about survival, and I know that remaining optimistic—hopeful and confident—gives me the kind of strength, courage, and resilience I need to get through today. Tomorrow, I'll start over.

Hope may be the thing with feathers, but optimism gives it a safe place to perch in my soul.

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