On May 8, 2020 a fire swept through our townhome destroying everything, except our lives. A car speeding at around 70 mph crashed into our house hitting a gas line and instantly setting our house ablaze. The crash and fire occurred adjacent to the bedroom of our two-year old son as he slept. When the crash occurred, my wife heard a benign noise, and then house shook for a solid two-seconds. I thought it was a small earthquake, so I casually laid my head back on the pillow to go back to sleep. My wife felt compelled to go downstairs where upon she opened the door and was met with 15-foot flames. She rushed upstairs to get our son whose room was directly in the line of the flames. His room would be engulfed with smoke in the next 60-seconds. Realizing we could not escape through the front; we had only our small patio area in back to flee. Our small patio area hugged up close to the house and was simply too close to danger. With the fire encroaching closer we also feared an explosion. Our horror was magnified by my futile efforts to find a way to get my family across our nine-foot fence. Feeling trapped, there was a sixty-second period of blood curdling terror where all I could do was scream for help. After a last-ditch effort, I was finally able to get my family over the fence to safety.
Life is interesting. One minute we are resting comfortably just after tucking our toddler into bed, and the next minute is filled with terror as I try to get my family out of a burning house. One moment I feel completely in control of my life, and the next I am standing barefoot in the middle of the street helplessly watching our home burn to the ground. Finding myself surrounded by a fleet of firetrucks and a large crowd of on-lookers, I slowly began to allow reality to sink in.
In the weeks following the fire, I began to obsess over one simple question: how can I remain optimistic and hopeful? Having spent a career of counseling people dealing with grief, anxiety and death, I knew that it was now my turn to practice what I so often teach. But why optimism? Honestly, the post-traumatic stress of almost losing our son linked with losing the safe and secure sanctuary we had created was sending me into a psychological abyss of despair. But it was even deeper than that.
For a solid two weeks after, I battled a barrage of rage, despair, shock, and sadness. More pointedly, rage at the careless drivers who turned our lives upside down. You see, the drivers fled the scene after the crash and their only punishment was a ticket for reckless driving. That was it: a ticket. I found myself ruminating of the absolute worst outcomes for the two drivers. Despair also reared its head daily as I struggled with the loss of our possessions and sentimental items. Sadness and shock bowled me over often as I realized just how close we were to losing our son. Hours would just fly by with me all the while ruminating with dark thoughts and brooding emotions. Feeling paralyzed by the multitude of debilitating emotions, I knew I was on the precipice of spiraling deep into my own personal Hell. For the sake of my mental health and my family, I needed to make a change- immediately.
I sat down one day in my living room and decided that I was going to review the psychological literature as well as my notes specifically on the idea of learned optimism. Led by psychologist Martin Seligman, learned optimism is a path of psychological rescue that contends that you can choose the way you think. Based on cognitive behavioral psychology – which is what I practice with my clients – learned optimism has been demonstrated that our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues.
When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop and focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have consequences. The beliefs are the direct causes of what we feel and what we do next. They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other.
Realizing that my thoughts were congealing into destructive maladaptive beliefs, I decided to act. Every day I committed to reading sixty-minutes on learned optimism as well as writing down the values and needs in my life that give me a firm foundation and coherence. The acknowledgment of values and needs in one’s life is crucial because tragedy often shatters our closely held beliefs or even calls them into question. Tragedy throws our homeostasis into a chaotic whirlwind, so reviewing one’s values and needs- the things, people, and experiences that make life worth living- can serve as a compass to navigate the tumultuous waters of suffering, grief, and angst.
Determined not to be dominated by a pessimistic haze of despair, I employed empirically tested methods to help change my thought patterns. To liberate myself from the bondage of pessimism, I began the journey of doing the diligent work of daily cultivating a practice of changing my thought patterns. Here are the four insights that helped me through the suffering.
I am responsible for my response to suffering
I can choose my response. No matter what evil or tragedy befalls us, we our in control of our response. In my situation, I realized that I could continue to spiral into an abyss of despair, or I could choose to pursue hope and optimism. Trust me, dwelling in despair did not require any “work”; it was natural and even justified given what we had been through. Cultivating an optimistic hope-filled outlook, however, seemed like climbing Mount Everest. Daily, sometimes hourly, every time an agonizing thought entered my mind, I had to be diligent to respond and re-frame the thought to a healthier perspective. For instance, when anger would take over, I would quickly re-frame the thought to gratitude that I have family with me right here and now.
I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s story of being imprisoned in a concentration camp during the holocaust. Surrounded by death and misery, he realized that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I control the story
We all live by the stories we tell ourselves. The way you explain events (in your head) determines how helpless you can become, or how impowered, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats. For me, wisdom and growth became pivotal themes in my story. I could easily create a story in my head with themes of victimhood and helplessness. Instead, I took control of the story by re-framing my tragedy as a freak event that gifted me with an opportunity to gain wisdom and insight. Your explanatory style that views suffering through the lens of personal growth is the hallmark of a hope-filled optimist.
The dark place is temporary
Anytime we experience tragedy or trauma, the natural inclination is that it will last forever. Moreover, we feel like we are the only one on the planet feeling deep emotional pain. But the reality is that the emotional turmoil is temporary. In my situation, I went from thinking “I will never get over this” (permanent and pessimistic) to trusting that “I have begun the process of healing” (temporary and optimistic).
It is what it is (and that’s okay)
I remember the weeks after the fire thinking: this isn’t fair! I mean, my wife and I work hard, we are responsible citizens, we are good people. It isn’t fair that the careless driver only got a ticket and we have to endure the suffering. Within all of us is the tacit belief that we deserve fairness. I see this often when young people get a terminal diagnosis, when babies die prematurely, when hard-working employees are unexpectedly laid off. We have ingrained patterns of beliefs and expectations that bring coherence to our view of the world; sometimes when those expectations are disrupted, we simply cannot accept it. We quietly believe that there is some cosmic justice that ought to work in our favor if we play the game of life right. Bad stuff is supposed to happen bad people, right? However, when we adopt that idea of fairness, we are setting ourselves up for a rude awakening. Life, mother nature, and cancer does not care about fairness. Rather, it is what it is.
I remember listening to the Dali Lama give a speech right after the attacks of 9/11, and his opening words were, “It happened.” He then paused for a long thirty-seconds to allow those two words to sink in. In the midst of anger, fear, and sadness those two words provided the necessary starting point for everyone struggling to make since of the tragedy. Before any judgment of bad/evil or right/wrong takes us emotionally hostage, we should train ourselves to first acknowledge that it happened; it is what it is. This is the path to acceptance. The mental pivot toward accepting that it is what it is, is crucial for an optimistic mindset and for hope to flourish.
Life is too short to live with mental unrest. Knowing that I have the autonomy to do something about the thoughts in my head gives me hope. Knowing that tragedy can be an opportunity for growth and wisdom rather than spiraling into depression is reassuring. It doesn’t mean, however, that if I just believe good things, I will be happy. I still battle anger and resentment, it’s just that I now have a healthy practice to address distressing thoughts. I take responsibility and I stop, focus on my breaths through mindfulness meditation, and remind myself that grief and suffering is a process towards growth and wisdom. The goal isn’t happiness, it’s acceptance. And through acceptance (it is what it is) we can experience post-traumatic growth.
 Seligman, Martin E.P. Learned Optimism