Saturday, August 11, 2012

Beauty, Humor and Healthy Pessimism

David Rakoff
David Rakoff has died at 47. The gay essayist, comic, avowed pessimist and self-proclaimed neurotic Jew has crossed over to the other side. His book of essays, "Half Empty," extolled the virtues of a realistic, pessimistic attitude when looking at the world.

The cause of his death was a tumor caused by radiation treatments he had for lymphoma when he was 22. Like any logical realist, his own demise was an option he was prepared to accept with the same humor and grace he used to write about his cancer.

Like Jewish tribal affiliate and fellow cancer survivor, Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote "Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America," he espoused a realistic, rather than a sugar-coated view of life. Of late, psychologists and psychiatrists are arriving at the conclusion that this attitude is healthier for many people than a sunny-bunny perspective that leaves sick and depressed people saddled with guilt and blame for their own illnesses.

Like Rakoff and Ehrenreich, I too, am a cancer survivor. After my Clark's level 4 melanoma diagnosis in 1991 I contemplated for the first time the fact that my life might be concluding shortly. As a terminal Jew, healthly skepicism, i.e. pessimism was always been my modus operandi anyway.

But surprisingly, I actually came away from my cancer experience with a lot of practical and positive resolutions that a cheerier person may not have adopted. I made a list of concrete proposals to change my life just in case I survived the ordeal. That was nearly 21 years ago, so I was one of the lucky ones.

I promised myself that I would write and try to get my work published, that I would hold world travel and language learning as life priorities and that I wouldn't be consumed by the workaday rat race. Four years after my diagnosis, I took a part-time job and have never worked full-time for the capitalism dream-shredding machine again. Yet my overall, dark-sided nature has remained fundamentally unchanged, although in many ways I have definitely mellowed with my(unanticipated) advancing age.

True creativity is not born of sunshine and lollipops, it is a survival mechanism that comes from profound inner struggle mixed with existential angst and humor. Farewell David Rakoff, we will miss you and we will bear in mind that we are all coming up right behind you!