Confessions of a Professional Optimist



Robert Levithan

I TRY TO HIDE IT, but most of the time I am my Father’s son, and his glass was neither half-empty nor half-full–it was overflowing.

His generation of our family 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’re given lemons make it into tart 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 emotional pain 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 feels most difficult or the circumstances are extreme.

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 1980’s: “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 be writing 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. Not so. I was just being a Levithan.

Professionally, I have ascribed to the concept that the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full, that in fact, like life, it is 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, and know that difficulty is part of the package, 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 essence and be our personal best.

I believe in the power of love and support–and good fortune.  I am not only a professional therapist, I’m a professional optimist.

Robert Levithan is the author of THE NEW 60: Outliving Yourself and Reinventing a Future. A psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, he also facilitates groups at Friends In Deed–The Crisis Center for Life Threatening Illness. He has written a sex advice column as The Sexual Ethicist, he was The Design Shrink for Oprah, and is now a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post. His rather varied past experiences include dancing for Twyla Tharp, performing with Robert Wilson and under the direction of Roman Polanski, and driving a NYC Taxi. He is working on a memoir. See: