Choose Optimism

“It’s a wonder I’m even alive. Sometimes I think that. I think that I can’t believe I haven’t killed myself. But there’s something in me that just keeps going on. I think it has something to do with tomorrow, that there is always one, and that everything can change when it comes.” — Augusten Burroughs

The reaction to my essay Essential Goodness took me by surprise. I was deeply gratified to hear from so many people who were in some way touched by the journey that I have been on since I lost my wife, Jamie, to a violent act nearly two years ago now. People seemed particularly struck by what some viewed as the audacious act of choosing optimism in the face of extreme difficulties and trauma.

Perhaps that is because too often it is easy to believe that our choices are predetermined. We believe that we should do things a certain way, or that our choices only exist in grey scale.

I know this to be true because I found myself embracing that thought process in the months after tragedy struck. My wonderful therapist then and now begins each visit with a deep sigh and a simple question — “How are you doing?”

Those who have lived through tragedy understand that no question is more weighted than that one. My father-in-law once broke it down by saying, “It’s hard to answer. If you say, ‘I’m doing fine’, then they might believe that you are over the loss. If you say, ‘I’m doing shitty’, then they feel shitty for having asked you in the first place.”

But my therapist means it. Means it in a real way.

How. Are. You. Doing?

One day my answer was, “I’m doing Okay. I’m living. I do not have any other choice.”

He interrupted me to say, “Oh, but you do. You just do not have any other good choices.”

It was as if a lightning bolt had struck. I did have choices. Most importantly, I realized that I had been making them each day.

My favorite writer is Anne Lamott. She describes the way that we proceed through life sometimes as, “Right foot, left foot, right foot.”

I suddenly realized that is exactly what I was doing. I actually was making a choice to put one foot in front of the other — and that choice was one way to honor Jamie and our life together.

Instantly I thought back to a time when I had made a choice. A few weeks prior I had dinner with friends. We laughed. We had multiple drinks. We told stories. I walked a friend to his car, feeling somewhat relaxed for the first time, and then I broke down. Through my sobs I told him that I was impossibly sad because it was the type of evening that Jamie would have loved so dearly. After I reassured my friend that I was going to be Okay, he drove away.

I decided to go on a walk. I meandered around downtown Raleigh. Before long I found myself standing at the bottom of a particularly tall parking garage where I began to consider whether or not I should walk to the top and jump off in an attempt to die.

Various thoughts ran through my mind. Would I actually die? Did a chance exist that I would survive with severe injuries that would only make life worse? If the afterlife exists would this jeopardize my opportunity to reconnect with Jamie and other loved ones?

Right foot.

Left foot.

Right foot.

I walked away.

Then I returned. The same thoughts ran through my head. I finally decided that I would wait until the morning to make a decision.

Morning arrived. The same deep hole existed in my soul, but I had a lot to do on behalf of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation that day. Meetings with wonderful people who had ideas to share that could benefit many individuals in need. At the end of the day I decided that the end of my life would come, but not yet.

THAT was a choice I realized. A choice on behalf of hope and optimism. A choice that reflected Jamie’s values — the values that we shared.

That is what I meant when I said we can, and should, #chooseoptimism.

Hope

It is easy to be cynical, to reject hope as something that is foolhardy, but throughout the grief journey hope has simply been the one essential value that has kept me alive more than any other.

As Lamott wrote, hope often begins in darkness. It is a small ray of light in the dark valley you find yourself in during grief. A light that can be invisible at times, but still one that reappears if you look hard enough. If you wait. If you watch. If you keep going.

Right foot.

Left foot.

Right foot.

Hope can take many forms. A dinner invite from a dear friend two days in the future. Another donor stepping forward for the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation. A service project six weeks away. A favorite author issuing a new book in two months.

Hope isn’t always about some big breakthrough moment where you get better. I have found that you don’t necessarily ever get better. The loss remains. The hole remains. I have never found a morning where I woke up and suddenly felt better — at least not in the classic, Hollywood sense of better. The Oprah moment where you are healed.

Hope means you can smile when a puppy or child does something goofy without feeling a horrific sense of loss. Hope means laughing without clapping your hand over your mouth in guilt. Hope is discovering that you can work even when your loved one isn’t just an instant message away, or that you can hear great news and not immediately feel like shit because you can’t call the one person you want to share it with.

Hope, to me, is as simple, and profound, as being the one essential quality that keeps you moving.

Right foot.

Left foot.

Right foot.

Love

“Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” — Anne Lamott

As Anne Lamott wrote, hope isn’t about proving anything. It is about love.

Jamie believed in the redemptive power of love. I can remember during a difficult time for us when I was burdened by a larger than usual dose of anxiety (and God knows that makes it a huge dose) Jamie ultimately calmed me down simply by saying, “Look, as long as we have each other we’ll be Okay. We have love.”

She probably followed up by saying, “So, shut the hell up, and quit freaking out.” But I can’t remember that part as clearly!

One of the struggles that I faced during grief, a common one I believe, has been that I cannot turn to Jamie for advice now.

In the run up to the trial for the person who attacked us I constantly found myself wondering what she might say to me in the face of reliving the horrors of the violence, facing the perpetrator, and grappling with all of the trauma in the full view of the press, our community, and our family.

One day while on a run — by the way, running and/or walking has proven to be the fourth pillar of making the choice to survive, along with the fifth pillar which is a formula of strong drinks + great food + remarkable friends — I realized that Jamie was with me, with all of us really, because her love remains in our hearts. Her spirit was with us. And that spirit did not die when we lost Jamie almost two years ago. In fact, I would argue that her spirit is greater now than it ever was. It exists in the form of friendships that have deepened, family members that have grown closer, thousands of people dedicating themselves to service through the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation.

I realized that her spirit exists every time that one of us shows up instead of saying, “Let me know what I can do for you.”

Her spirit exists whenever we stop saying, “Not my child, not my problem,” and instead dedicate ourselves to alleviating childhood hunger and poverty.

Jamie’s spirit exists when we choose love.

And, yes, that sounds hokey as well when you turn on the news and see genocide, civil war in Syria with child soldiers riding shotgun, Ebola, Ferguson. And, yes, it might even sound hokey when you turn on your television and see Ted Cruz announce his candidacy for President of the United States.

But love exists.

It exists in the nurses who tended to those suffering from Ebola. It exists in the form of Eric Garner’s children paying their respects to cops who were killed in the line of duty. It exists when people do not turn away from their problems, but rather turn towards them and attempt to find solutions.

When we put love at the center of all that we do then Jamie is here, and your loved ones who you have lost are here, and, yes, hope is here.

But love is a choice too. It opens you up to pain. After all, I know that the past two years would not have been so painful if Jamie and I didn’t love each other so deeply — but would I have given up that love to avoid the pain? Hell no. So I am not giving up on love now.

Choosing love? That is about optimism too.

#ChooseOptimism

Life is about choices. And I have found that grief, and trauma, reflect life. The way that we greet them, the way that we survive, often reflects the way that we have lived in the first place.

Please do not buy into the false idea that you don’t have any choice but to live during trying times. That actually robs you of your glory, of your love, of your spirit, because you do have a choice. Just not another good one.

Right foot.

Left foot.

Right foot.

To put one foot in front of the other is hard work. When facing grief it might be the hardest work that you have ever had to do in your entire life. But it is also the most important work.

You do not prove anything by “healing” — you show your character by surviving. You honor the person, or people, that you have lost by the way you live, by the way you love, and by fighting for hope.

You honor them, and yourself, by choosing to be optimistic in the face of every internal voice that says to give up, that life is too hard to survive.

I hope that you will always remember that tomorrow does come — and that the spirit of those we have lost is honored when we greet the dawn.

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Please consider joining us at the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation as we work to spread Jamie’s spirit, values, and impact: http://www.jamiekirkhahnfoundation.org

We intend to #chooseoptimism every day through our work.

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