Mixed-Bag Living

12/12/2011 06:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Robert Levithan Psychotherapist, Writer and Expert on vital aging and living with illness

So, is your glass "half-full" or "half-empty"?

When my brothers and I eulogized our 94-year-old father at his funeral, there was so much laughter that we received comments such as, "That was the best funeral ever!" and, "Do you write a thank-you note for a funeral?" In my brother Jack's section, he had us all standing and taking deep breaths, among other activities that characterized "Big Time Lou." Memorably, he also said that "our father's glass was overflowing..."

My father was an extreme optimist -- except about "the Jews": he was always suspicious of the powers that be and was sure that "they" would turn on us again, even here in the U.S. This is not surprising for the child of parents who fled the pogroms, the anti-Jewish riots of late-19th- and early-20th-century Russia, and lived through the Holocaust and World War II. It represented his shadow, his "half-empty."

For many of my clients, being gay or HIV-positive can represent their "empty." Their tendency to fall into the empty part of the glass has an issue to organize itself around. Persecution and stigma are society's gifts to the pessimist: "See, I am being treated badly because of who I am or the illness I have." Prejudice is real, of course. What we do with it is an inside job, however. Internalized prejudice (buying into the belief that we are less than others because of something we are) is insidious. The good news is that we can change how our insides are organized a lot more easily that we can change the outside world. The moment we recognize that we are operating out of "I am less than" because I am gay, or black, or a woman, or a Jew, or HIV-positive, or, most commonly, because I am getting older (internalized ageism), it has begun to shift. Awareness weakens the unconscious pull to a victim mentality and opens us to the knowing that differences can be acknowledged without judgment. The tide is turned, and with time, the shift can be significant.

After all, what we each have to offer is the sum total of everything we are. Rather than being separated by difference, we can choose to organize around our similarities and celebrate the rich colors of our diversity and uniqueness. I am sounding like an optimist again, I am sure!

So, is the glass half-empty or half-full? I subscribe to the answer my colleague Sally Fisher formulated: "Both!" Life is both full and empty. When we are only in the empty part, we are suffering; when we are only in the full part, we are in denial. Life is a combination of joy, love, and adventure, and loss, pain, and suffering. Being fully alive means experiencing it all. Life is a delightful and challenging mixed bag.