October 28, 2010
As you may know, I just returned from a month long expedition to the Himalayas helping to lead a team of injured soldiers to a 20,000+ foot summit near Everest. One team member, Steve Baskis, is not only blind but has pretty serious nerve damage on his left hand. We had three amputees, three folks who struggle with post-traumatic stress, and others who struggle with brain injuries. To use a positive pessimism, "All our soldiers have serious disabilities, but at least we're attempting a dangerous high-altitude Himalayan giant."
While it may sound like an oxymoron, positive pessimism is a valuable tool when confronting adversity. Here is how I explain it in my new book:
My friend and climbing partner, Chris Morris, is known for a little trick he uses to deal with hardship. He calls it "positive pessimism." We'll be sitting out in a raging storm. We've gone a month without showers. The wind is driving snow directly into our faces, and I'm wondering what insanity led me to this nightmare in the first place. That's when Chris will look up with a big cheesy smile on his face and say, "Sure is cold out here…but at least it's windy.” Another time, we had been moving through the cold for ten hours, and we were all wasted. Chris turned to our team and said, "Boys, we sure have been climbing a long way…but at least we're lost.” In the Khumbu Icefall, as Chris was halfway across his first ladder over a giant crevasse, he came out with the classic, "This ladder may be rickety…but at least it's swingin' in the breeze."
Positive pessimism is a humorous way to take the edge off your current problems. If you can throw out a positive pessimism when you're really hurting, it helps you maintain some control over your predicament by giving you a healthy perspective. Once I overheard a guy who was hiking with me in Colorado, and struggling to keep up the pace, say from behind me, "I may be fat…but at least I'm old." Embracing the gravity of your situation with humor and humility speaks loudly about your character and helps those around you to stay cheerful. It’s like saying, “This may be a grim situation, and I know we’re all suffering, but we can get through it.”
On Aconcagua, I had just struggled to the 22,841-foot summit. I was barely hanging in there and worried about falling on the long descent. Chris gave me a big hug and croaked, "Big E, you may be blind…but at least you're slow!" Oddly, his statement made me feel that Chris believed in me, and that we would be okay. In fact, as fatigued as I was, I grinned and shot back, "Chris, you're not the nicest guy in the world…but at least you're stupid.”
I've seen people use positive pessimism in all aspects of life. How about, "I'm going into a three-hour meeting…but at least I didn't have time to eat lunch," or, “We may not have gotten the account...but at least our stock price went down.” At home, try this one: "Honey, we may be on a really tight budget… but at least our heating bill doubled.” Or, "We may be moving into a smaller house…but at least your mother is coming to live with us."
With a week to go until this book was due to the publisher, I went into my computer file and found that the entire chapter I had been writing was deleted. My first reaction was to do something violent, but then I thought of my good friend Chris Morris and said to myself, "I may have lost the chapter…but at least I'll be up for the next three nights rewriting it."
Photo of Chris Morris while trekking into Lobuche during
the Soldiers to the Summit expedition by Didrik Johnck.