How Michael J. Fox Stays Optimistic Even When Times Are Tough
Michael J. Fox is flat on the floor in his Manhattan kitchen. It’s 6:30 a.m. on August 13, 2018. He is supposed to go shoot a scene for the movie See You Yesterday, but he has fallen and broken his arm. For the first time in his life, despite writing three books about optimism, he can’t see a bright side. On that floor now, there’s not even a glimmer.
This is how Fox opens his latest book, No Time Like the Future. He knows how it feels to be set back — something everyone has felt, in some way, this year. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 29, in the white heat of his fame. Two decades later, doctors discovered an unrelated tumor that could paralyze him; it took months to recover from the surgery. But even now, he is finding ways to feel positive. In this conversation, he shares how to strive for an enduring optimism.
Take me to that moment on your kitchen floor, with your shattered arm. What were you questioning about optimism?
Optimism was always ready for me. I could just pick it up. But when I had that moment, I thought, I’m reaching for it, and it’s not there. I don’t know that I’ll get it back. Was it just bullshit in the first place? Did I sell optimism as a panacea? Did I commodify it to people? What does it mean, if I can’t get up off the floor?
How did you start to find your way to it again?
I went down all kinds of pathways, like useless, mind-wasting television bingeing. Then I stopped to look at my relationships — what I got from people and how they fed my optimism. Then I got into gratitude and acceptance. That was a huge thing. As a nation, we’re struggling with accepting facts and realities. If you can accept something, it doesn’t mean you can’t hate it, and it doesn’t mean you can’t change it. It means you can say, “OK, I know what it is. It’s this big. And that’s where it fits in. And it gives me room to do this.” Then it’s about being grateful to be able to do that. So after spending time with my family, traveling, thinking, and even the bad TV, I realized that with gratitude, optimism is sustainable.
You say in the book, “I don’t talk about things being for a reason.” Is that part of accepting reality?
It’s like, it doesn’t have to be for a reason. It just has to be — and now I can respond to it. You can take some responsibility and credit for what you do. Sully Sullenberger landed a plane on the Hudson River, and everyone says it’s a miracle. And I’m like, “No, he’s a goddamn good pilot.” I mean, it’s a miracle, too.
People talk about “seeing the big picture.” How important is that?
I think that’s worthwhile. But it’s also important to see the little pictures that make up the big picture. You may have lost the big picture because you lost the little pictures. There are all these moments, and when they happen, you have to go, Oh, I don’t want to let that go by. I want to look at that and stay there for a while.
That can be hard! People today are dealing with all kinds of difficulty and fear.
There’s the fear of what you see. There’s the fear of what you don’t see but you think is there. And then there’s the fear of the completely unknown. A lot of us feel that on a daily basis. Back when I was first diagnosed, people would look at me in the eye — and they’d see their own fear reflected back at them. Because I was fine with it. But they were like, Shit, this could happen to me.
How do you manage that kind of fear?
Again, acceptance and gratitude. I’m unbelievably lucky. I’ve got a wife [Tracy Pollan] I love very much and [four] kids that are spectacular. I won that lottery. On a practical level, I’ve done Jungian analysis and I meditate. I look at these things as tools for the chemistry of your brain. Just sitting there and letting stuff come through — look at it, don’t judge it, don’t hang onto it — is really helpful. As things go through and go by, you’ll retain a little bit of those things that mean something, and they will feed your thoughts. I encourage everyone to avail themselves of resources like this because new understandings can make huge changes in the way you appreciate life and the way things affect you.
Conversations with my children help, too. My 18-year-old daughter and her boyfriend had no graduation, no prom. No big ceremony. It was all virtual. I said to her, “I feel so bad.” And she said, “Well, 2020 is going to be a memorable class. The bottom line is people are dying and we’re not; we’re just going through this, and it sucks, but we’ll get over it and we’ll turn it into something.”
Speaking of the celebrations, the Michael J. Fox Foundation turned 20 this year, and you’ve raised more than a billion dollars directed toward research.
When I started it, I didn’t know much about business. I was just a TV actor. But I knew we had to treat it as a startup. I didn’t want to have an endowment. I wanted the money to come in and go out. Science was ahead of the money; we wanted to catch up with the science. So it meant identifying the people who are doing the best research and getting them money for what they need. Today we have about 150 employees. It’s big.
Has it been hard raising money this year?
It’s been a little challenging. We’re down about 20 percent. But all our backup systems kicked in, and we’ll get through this strong. We’ve identified so many things. [Right now we’re working on finding] a common marker so we can treat the disease before it progresses. That would be as good as a cure.
You’re going to turn 60 next year. Your dad died at 61. Does that freak you out?
Well, my dad was really overweight, had diabetes and heart disease. He was playing the short game, and he knew it. I’m playing the long game. I’m here for a long time.