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How a 46-year-old dying man revived my hope in optimism

Updated: May 12

Optimism isn’t just "positive thinking", it’s the heroic way to move through life.

Courtesy of David Ferguson

I read a letter written by 46-year-old Simon Boas about his impending death from terminal throat cancer.  First published in the Jersey Evening Post, then republished in The Spectator under the headline “An optimist’s guide to dying: Life lessons from cancerland”, what was so beautiful about Boas’ letter was that it was not a lament or protest against death, but an uplifting message about the privilege of having life.  


Told that he only had months to live, Boas – the director of Jersey Overseas Aid and chair of Jersey Heritage – wrote, “Although the chemo and radiation did a good job on the tumors in my throat and neck, my lungs are now riddled with the bloody things. The prognosis is not quite ‘Don’t buy any green bananas’, but it’s pretty close to ‘Don’t start any long books’.”


Boas mentioned three related thoughts that kept coming to his mind, which brought him joy and which he wishes to share with his readers. He does a more eloquent job than me in expressing his sentiments, but I’ve summed them up below:


1)        He knows he has had “a really good – almost charmed – life”, primarily because he has loved and been loved.


2)        He believes that while “nobody knows whether there’s a God, or an afterlife,” it seems unlikely that human existence is random and meaningless, that “there is something rather than nothing” and that “what will survive of us is love.”


3)        He understands that just to have lived at all makes him one lucky fellow.


I needed to read Boas’ letter when I did because my hope in optimism as a philosophy was waning. I’ve noticed that ­optimists seem to be in short supply these days as so many of us have gotten into the habit of doom scrolling and frequently bemoaning global warming, inflation and the generally “awful and hopeless state of the world”.


On an average week, more than half the people I meet are either cynical or pessimistic about their lives. “No”, “It won’t work”, “It’s not possible”, “What’s the point?” are typical pessimistic statements. With the cynics, it’s “It’s not possible”, “There’s no evidence”, “The evidence isn’t strong enough”, or “Yeah, right!” Many of them talk about how they are unable to feel joy; about how their world feels like it's black and white and how they'd like it to be colorful again. But they consider themselves pragmatists or realists, not pessimists, though their outlook is, well, pessimistic and cynical.


 “We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect,” goes the quote from Canadian economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith. In this age of information, I venture to speculate that our – conscious or unconscious – desire for intellectual superiority, and the value we place on scientific empiricism – the de rigueur world view associated with education ­and sound mindedness – though certainly useful, might be doing us more harm than good. When I engage in optimistic talk with dogged cynics and pessimists, I often sense I am being viewed as naïve, sentimental, or intellectually unsophisticated for choosing a brighter, more positive view of things.


The Spanish playwright Antonio Gala referred to a pessimist as “just a well-informed optimist”. In that case, if we wish to be more optimistic, perhaps what we need is less information!


Merriam Webster defines optimism as “a doctrine that this world is the best possible world” and “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome”.


I think optimism is more than this – it’s a way of being that encompasses a vast amount of gratitude and hopefulness. Being pessimistic is easy. Being optimistic is a feat, because remaining thankful and hopeful, continuing to let your heart dance in the midst of bad traffic, bee stings, unmet desires, random tragedies, grief, regret, suffering, and death requires an immense exercise of will. And because of this, it is the optimist who triumphs in the game of life, regardless of how long or short this life is.


Closing his letter, Boas writes, “Life is inordinately precious, unlikely and beautiful. You are exquisite. When you say – as you do, 20 times a day – ‘I’m fine’, realize that you don’t just mean ‘I’m adequate’. You are FINE. Refined. Unique. Finely crafted; fine dining; fine china! You really are fine in that sense too. We say it all the time, but unknowingly we speak the truth. We should be dazzled by our good fortune – dancing on the tables every day. And I mean to keep dancing in whatever time I have left here, and (who knows?) perhaps afterwards too.”


By Michele Koh Morollo, NUMEN NoSC Therapies

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