Confession of an Optimist

02/15/2013 01:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

I try to hide it, but most of the time, I'm my father's son and his glass was neither half-empty nor half-full -- it was overflowing. His generation overcame poverty, prejudice and struggle. They experienced a Depression and a World War. Of my father's six siblings, one was institutionalized for over 50 years, two were incarcerated after felony convictions. A sister-in-law was murdered. In my generation we have experienced great successes, but also overdose, suicide and AIDS -- the last on the list being me. When my beloved Aunt Estelle, before her death at 88, looked back on her family's times, she could smile and say "We are very lucky" and mean it. I was taught that if you have lemons make it champagne!

I was reminded of this today when I sat with a client in extremis, a man who presented himself as unwilling to live with the anguish he felt so deeply in his body, a lifetime's anguish activated by the recent death of his wife of more than two decades. That we spoke for 45 minutes and we both left the room with a sense of possibility, I can credit to my lineage -- I really believe this life is worth living -- even when it is most difficult. A brilliant physician was quoted as saying "We are so busy trying to be happy, that we fail to recognize that it is catastrophe which reorders our lives in extraordinary ways." This was a man who years earlier had watched a plane carrying his wife and two children crash on the tarmac as he stood waiting for their arrival.

When I told my family that I had tested HIV-positive their reaction was singularly unusual for the 1980s: "If anyone can get through this, you can." There was not a whisper of pity or maudlin sentiment. I got on with the task--to keep myself alive and healthy. After my immune system crashed in 1994, my family was there with all their resources, financial, emotional and spiritual. After a severe bout of AIDS related pneumonia, some thought I was delusional to have written about living to be an old man. Later, after good fortune and early access to a workable cocktail eliminated the effects of HIV in my body, the same people thought I was visionary. I was just being a Levithan.

Professionally, I have ascribed to the brilliant concept that the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full, that in fact it, like life, both empty and full. I know that life contains joy and sorrow, loss and celebration. It is indeed a mixed bag. However much I get this intellectually, I find myself continuously renewed in my optimism, a firm belief that life is a privilege and a passionate opportunity to grow and fulfill one's personal best.

I believe in luck and love and good fortune. I am a professional optimist.

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