I have often said: “Life has a way of getting in the way of itself.” I had been implying that life plans don’t necessarily work out due to the vagaries of life itself. In my wife’s case, a more literal interpretation is fitting. A DNA replication error set in place a rapid cell duplication process resulting in invasive ductal carcinoma. Her breast cancer, this life gone amok, has taken center stage.
Talk about a game changer – this changes everything. In my role as a psychologist I long ago became acutely aware of just how wrong things can go in life, and these professional experiences solidified in me the importance of appreciating the things that go well. It has also instilled in me the knowledge that absolutely nothing is permanent. But this cancer diagnosis has taken this enlightenment to a whole new level.
Thomas Hobbes once noted, “… the life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Historically, this has been true for many of our ancestors, and it remains true for many today. Such is not the case for many of us who have been fortunate to be born into a time and place where survival is not an everyday struggle. But when facing a diagnosis of cancer, Hobbes’ perspective seems particularly cogent. I can only imagine how true this perspective must be for Kimberly. Although her family surrounds her with love and support, only she alone, faces the scaring scalpel and the life sucking chemotherapy.
In the vast configuration of things, we all know that she is not alone. Many people go through this, but none of those near and dear to her, know what she endures and fears. Life for her has temporarily, and most certainly, become at times, nasty and brutish. There is an ebb and flow to this process, but the difficult times rob her of the many activities that filled her with zest. Even at relatively good times, her quality of life is a poor reflection of what it had been. Often food is less tasty, if desirable at all. Restful sustained sleep is hard to come by and endurance and fortitude seem to be a thing of the past: as is her gorgeous full head of hair. It’s one thing to be a man and gradually lose one’s hair over a period of decades (I know it well). It’s quite another to be a woman and leave a trail of hair where ever you go. And really feeling good – it’s an occasional visitor that does not stick around long. I know this is torturous for her. It breaks my heart.
On the plus side, there is the reality that this life-run-amok has changed perspectives and brought our family closer together. From my point of view, it has brought into focus what really matters in life. It has freed us from the banal fruitless issues du jour.
But underneath this greater closeness is a universal fear. We all share it, but I am certain that it resonates deeper in Kimberly’s mind. The fear is: “What if this isn’t over?” We have no certain answers, but the statistics are on her side. Long term survival is the norm. This is one form of cancer that science and medicine has effectively constrained.
Her chemo is a preventative measure, not one aimed at eking out a few months or years. With this in mind, I try to frame this phase of treatment within the context of a physical challenge. One of our favorite activities is riding our tandem bicycle. We don’t just get on a clunky unwieldy tandem and leisurely putz around town. We ride a high tech machine and we ride it hard and fast. A typical ride covers 20 to 30 miles and often involves ascending some of the biggest hills in our area. These climbs are often long and brutal – requiring a special focus and tenacity. The reward however, is the effortless descent that is sweeter for the effort that made it possible. Over the next few months we will be climbing a new and even more difficult hill – struggling as we go. We shall strive to endure it for the rewards on the other side. We will make it.
And once we reach the top, it is my sincerest hope that all of us who have fought this battle with Kimberly will make the best of the rest of the ride. Life, with or without cancer, is short and exceptionally precious. This experience has certainly and deservedly taken center stage, but it has also put a spotlight on what is truly meaningful. The other stuff is just clutter. Meanwhile, the slow arduous slog continues – and we endeavor upward with anticipation of the sweet descent. All the while we take solace in the warm glow of love that sustains us and powers us up and ever onward.
I have long suspected that a certain amount of adversity in life ultimately leads to greater degrees of happiness. This is contrary to the commonly held notion that suggests that traumatic stress is inherently harmful. It can be argued, as Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’m in sync with Nietzsche here: hard times build resilience and help one appreciate the better times with deeper enthusiasm. A recent Scientific American Podcast indicated that I might just be right. In Adversity Is Linked to Life Satisfaction, Christie Nicholson reviews the results of a multiyear study by Mark Seery, Alison Holman, and Roxane Cohen Silver that was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Using a national survey panel consisting of 2,398 subjects who were assessed on multiple occasions over a four year period, the authors tested for “…relationships between lifetime adversity and a variety of longitudinal measures of mental health and well-being: global distress, functional impairment, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and life satisfaction.” In their analysis of the data they found that:
“people with a history of some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity but also than people with no history of adversity.”
For the purposes of this study adversity included: “own illness or injury, loved one’s illness or injury, violence (e.g., physical assault, forced sexual relations), bereavement (e.g., parent’s death), social/environmental stress (e.g., serious financial difficulties, lived in dangerous housing); relationship stress (e.g., parents’ divorce); and disaster (e.g., major fire, flood, earthquake, or other community disaster).” It is important to note that adverse events were measured using a frequency count rather than any qualitative analysis of degree of adversity.
The implications one might draw from these findings is that without at least some adversity, individuals do not learn through experience how to manage stress; therefore, “the toughness and mastery they might otherwise generate remains undeveloped.” Overwhelming levels of adversity, are more likely to exceed one’s capacity to manage stress, and thereby impede toughness and mastery. The authors are careful to note that these data are correlative and as such do not establish causation, but they contend that moderate exposure to lifetime adversity may contribute to the development of resilience.
So, it seems, as Nicholson notes:
“… there’s a sweet spot, where a certain amount of struggle is good and produces a toughness and sense of control over one’s life, but anything above or below that amount is correlated with the inverse: Distress, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed.”
You might ask “Where is this Goldilocks Zone?” At what quantity does adversity benefit one’s life perspective and where does it cross a line? Seery et al., acknowledged that it is impossible to pin point the exact parameters of such a sweet spot, but that the data suggests that around two to four adverse events may sufficiently enhance one’s capacity to sustain happiness and tolerate stress. However, and this is important to note, They do not recommend engineering disasters for those who have been “fortunate” enough to escape adversity.
This research reminded me of a story by an unknown author that my mother sent me a few years back. I’m guessing that it has made the rounds on the internet. Regardless, and despite the melodrama, it seems relevant here. What is cogent here is the notion of just enough.
I Wish You Enough
At an airport I overheard a father and daughter in their last moments together. They had announced her plane’s departure and standing near the door,he said to his daughter,
“I love you, I wish you enough.”
She said, “Daddy, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Daddy.”
They kissed good-bye and she left.
He walked over toward the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see he wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on his privacy, but he welcomed me in by asking, “Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?”
“Yes, I have,” I replied. Saying that brought back memories I had of expressing my love and appreciation for all my Dad had done for me. Recognizing that his days were limited, I took the time to tell him face to face how much he meant to me.
So I knew what this man was experiencing.
“Forgive me for asking, but why is this a forever good-bye?” I asked.
“I am old and she lives much too far away. I have challenges ahead and
the reality is, her next trip back will be for my funeral, ” he said.
“When you were saying good-bye I heard you say, ‘I wish you enough.’
May I ask what that means?” He began to smile. “That’s a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone.”
He paused for a moment and looking up as if trying to remember it in detail, he smiled even more. “When we said ‘I wish you enough,’ we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with enough good things to sustain them,” he continued and then turning toward me he shared the following as if he were reciting it from memory.
“I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish enough “Hello’s” to get you through the final “Good-bye.”
I don’t suppose that it is a reach to suggest that exposure to small inconveniences such as rain or pain will likewise help you be more appreciative of sunshine and comfort. After all, we as humans tend to quickly habituate to smooth roads. Without a few potholes, we tend to take unbroken roads for granted. But, the adversity study is suggesting more than this. Its about developing resilience or reparative mechanisms that help us cope with future stressors. This is referred to as adversarial growth, of which, I wish you enough.
Nicholson, C. (2010). Adversity Is Linked to Life Satisfaction. Scientific American Podcast. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=adversity-is-linked-to-life-satista-10-10-16
Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010, October 11). Whatever Does Not Kill Us:
Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021344
How one chooses to live one’s life is complicated by the uncertainties of tomorrow. Often there is an internal tug of war between the interests de jour and those that will be realized tomorrow. Due to the wonders of compounded interest, it is wise to save as much as you can – as early as you can. However, another powerful reality is that there may be no tomorrow – or a reality that tomorrow may manifest itself in unimaginable ways.
I am surrounded by reminders that saving your better days for tomorrow is unwise. Over the last decade, I have witnessed numerous loved ones and colleagues ravaged by disease. Most of them died, but those who survived are essentially incapacitated. They live-on, but are unable to experience life as they would prefer. Of those that are no longer with us, some were quite young and some were reaching or had just reached retirement age. Most lived their lives well, some did not: regardless, their peril certainly raised the value of their time, and they certainly had much left to live for.
Then there are the statistical realities of threats that my loved ones and I face. These threats include cancer and car accidents and even the more improbable, but not impossible, threats associated with catstrophic volcanism and asteroid strikes. The latter two events may seem to be ridiculous considerations, but the fact of the matter is that both are likely in near geological time. Some facts to contemplate:
Volcanoes -In a Discovery Channel piece on the supervolcano at Yellowstone it was indicated that “A modern full-force Yellowstone eruption could kill millions, directly and indirectly, and would make every volcano in recorded human history look minor by comparison. Fortunately, “super-eruptions” from supervolcanoes have occurred on a geologic time scale so vast that a study by the Geological Society of London declared an eruption on the magnitude of Yellowstone’s biggest (the Huckleberry Ridge eruption 2.1 million years ago) occurs somewhere on the planet only about once every million years.” It was also reported that “But at this hot spot’s current position under Yellowstone there have been three massive eruptions: 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. While those eruptions have been spaced roughly 800,000 and 660,000 years apart, the three events are not enough statistically to declare this an eruption pattern…” The risk is low but the threat is very real.
Asteroids – Although small (relatively harmless) bodies frequently enter the Earth’s atmosphere, it is estimated that 1 km (0.62 mi) in diameter asteroids hit our planet on average every 500,000 years. Larger asteroids (5 km or 3 mi) strike Earth approximately once every ten million years. Even more rare are the large body impacts (10 km or 6.2 mi). The last known major impact was the dinosaur killing KT extinction event 65 million years ago. Although it is unlikely that an Earth shattering asteroid will end or drastically alter my life – were it to happen – life as we know it would end. And we are past due. According to NASA “Statistically, the greatest danger is from an NEO [Near Earth Object] with about 1 million megatons energy (roughly 2 km in diameter). On average, one of these collides with the Earth once or twice per million years, producing a global catastrophe that would kill a substantial (but unknown) fraction of the Earth’s human population. Reduced to personal terms, this means that you have about one chance in 40,000 of dying as a result of a collision.”
I am careful not to “blow” these threats out of proportion, but they have figured into my thinking. Taking all this into consideration, I find it prudent to plan for tomorrow (by saving for retirement), but I find it equally important to live for today. Thus tomorrow, my wife and I jet off to Europe for a two week exploration of Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome. This is something that my wife has dreamed of her entire life. We are relatively young and able-bodied and can afford it (kind of): putting it off any longer seems unwise. Next Friday we will be in Venice, but I think I’ll wait to make my next post until the weekend when I’m in Florence where I’ll post a picture of Galileo’s middle finger. 😉
Perhaps the most valuable asset we have is Time. Its value is set by the fact that we have a finite supply of it. Equally influential is the reality that there are multiple competing demands for it. These factors contend with one another, the outcome often being that aching feeling that we just don’t have enough of it. Whether it is enough time for sleep, fun, socialization, reading, work, we generally wish we had more of it.
The finite nature of time is determined by the cosmological realities that there are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. Our biological limiters include fatigue, the related need for sleep, and the ultimate reality of our impending mortality. The contentious demands that vie for this precious asset include the all too real certainty that most of us have to work in order to survive. Also heavy, are the demands that I refer to as life maintenance tasks: you know, like shopping for food, cooking it, washing the dishes, cleaning and maintaining the home, washing the clothes, paying the bills, etc. etc. These demands, coupled with raising children put a tight and limiting strangle-hold on the typical parent’s time.
It is unnecessary to devote too much time to this discussion as the scenario is all too familiar to most of us. It is the implication of this reality that deserves precious thought and consideration. It is important because we can’t and won’t get a refund. We can’t get time back! The choices we make each day pertaining to how we spend our time deserve much more thought than we give them. The time we are very, very fortunate to have, deserves the respect of forethought and proactive contemplation; otherwise, we are likely to squander it.
How is time squandered? This, I suppose, is a matter of perspective. One’s perspective is shaped by the choices made in living out one’s life. How are your priorities set? Do you prioritize work [making a living] over, for example, time with family? And do you prioritize life maintenance tasks over exercise? There is a transient hierarchical list of priorities we all set, and the reality is that those values further down on the list are sacrificed to accomplish the higher order priorities, regardless of the true value of each priority. The question that begs to be asked is “To what degree are you an active participant in setting your priorities?” Too often I imagine, the urgent pressing “demands du jour’ take precedence over even highly valued ones.
It is not only profoundly important to take an active roll in establishing one’s own priorities, it is equally important to respect the time of other individuals. This necessitates striking a careful balance, but, that respect is manifested by being punctual, following through on commitments (keeping one’s appointments), and considering the person’s own priorities and demands when tasking that individual. Tardiness and failure to keep commitments is, in effect, valuing one’s own time over the value of those who have agreed to devote their limited and precious time to you. With this in mind, it is fair to conclude that failure to keep such commitments is egregiously disrespectful, even selfish. You are essentially saying, when you are late, that your time is more important than the person’s time with whom you have made a commitment. The truth in this notion is demonstrated by the anger and downright resentment you likely feel when your time is squandered by another. Time is a two way street.
So, how do we give Time its due respect, be it yours or another’s? First, you have to look closely at your priorities; and task your life with the ever present notion that you will NOT get a refund. The time you have is a limited and precious commodity with many competing demands. You have the choice: in fact, a powerful cognitive capacity, to prioritize or reprioritize your time. Ask yourself, “When this hour, when this day, weekend, or week, is up, will I have spent my time well?” Ask yourself this, knowing that when it is up, you can’t get it back. Will you have the feeling that the expenditure of this precious asset was really worth it. Or was it squandered? Keep in mind that you never really know when your time will be up – in fact it is unwise to assume that you still have a full lifetime to live. Each day is precious and it brings you another day closer to your ultimate demise.
In your dealings with others, apply the golden rule. Show respect for the limited time other’s have and demand respect from them for your’s. However, if you do not proactively prioritize your time, DO NOT assume that others are likewise (for the lack of a better word) negligent.
It IS important to devote time to important tasks. Work, life maintenance tasks, these are important – actually very important. So too are, exercise, fun, relaxation, reading, learning, adventure, companionship, travel, and novelty. The urgency of the former is a tyrannical should that minimizes and often overshadows the importance of the latter. Give the latter their due respect and proactively prioritize them, OR they will fall victim to the deceptively “more pressing demands.” Give priority to, or at least make a commitment to devoting a good portion of your time to those tasks that will build and expand your mind and strengthen your body. Challenge yourself through adventure to be more. Expect more from life than to be a worker drone tasking away until death comes. Dare not to look back with regret at the lost and irretrievable time that you squandered.