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  • Writer's pictureBrad Thiessen

Psychological Richness: Embracing the Beautiful Mess

Updated: May 20


Life can be such a mess sometimes.


One minute everything is good, normal, okay. Literally a second later, with one twinge of pain that leads to one MRI result in the doctor’s office, it’s soul-crushingly terrible.


Then again, it will sometimes go from tedious to joyful in one second when the sun breaks through the clouds and lights up a hillside.


Living in this back-and-forth, messy reality, which we all do, can sometimes be overwhelming.


I’ve been on a long journey—maybe a lifetime long—trying to make sense of all of this.


Since childhood, my favorite book of the bible has always been Ecclesiastes, because it asks the hard questions about the meaning of suffering and loss and joy and plenty. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes but the earth remains forever.”

I wasn’t interested in all the talk about how to live the “pure” life or how to get into the next one. I wanted to think and talk about the big universal questions about why we’re here, now. What makes life worth living day to day? How do I find value in this world, and add some back in?


Cancer only intensified this search for meaning.

And it was brought to a whole new level when I nearly lost my mind and my life to hydrocephalus three years ago.

I was just coming to terms with the fallout of my mind-boggling cancer treatment journey five years earlier when an abscess appeared on the top of my forehead out of the blue.

That led to three brain surgeries, a month in rehab and a 4-year recovery.

Learning to walk again in 2021

Those two experiences, and the randomness with which they hit—coupled with my lack of control over the outcome—have brought me to look through a new lens that answers some of those questions of meaning.


That’s the lens of psychological richness.


Psychological richness is the understanding that that everything we experience—the deep and powerful and joyful, and the painful and anxiety-causing and life-threatening—are all woven together to make a rich life.


I’ve come to view my life not in terms of the good things I’ve experienced or done or the bad—although I try to seek out beauty and joy. I’m trying to move beyond judging how good a person I have been or where I (or others) have failed—although I try to work toward wisdom.


Instead, I try to view my life in terms of how rich it has been.


Psychological richness has become my way of seeing life and the world. It’s the truth I go back to when things are really tough and discouraging and when things are so damn good I can’t believe my luck.

There have been some really cool and incredible things like a year in Edinburgh smack in mid-life, followed by a year of travel across western Europe, the UK and the Pacific NW. And like watching my two boys grow into adults. Like hikes in the Rockies and the Scottish Highlands with my brother and my wife, and long training runs with my friend that led to completing a 50-mile trail run. And talking with my 80-year-old father on the phone like friends.

And there have been devastatingly tough things like watching brain fluid leak down my temple and feeling my brain throb through a grapefruit-size hole in my skull, and identifying the broken body of my brother-in-law on the coroner's table 25 years ago. (These things stick with you.)


There have been ways I’ve grown and ways I’ve failed myself and others.


There have been times I’ve felt intensely alone and questioned the meaning and value of life and times I’ve felt a tremendous and deep connection to nature and the people in my close circle and the whole of humanity.


In the past I got frustrated with the sudden changes and the randomness of it all. I tried to get a hold on it and control it. If only I could make the good things last a little longer and the bad things have a little less impact, that would be something—or so I thought.


But over time I realized it isn’t going to change. Life will always have the potential to go from okay to terrible in literally a second with one MRI result in a doctor’s office, right?


And it will always have the potential to go from tedious to joyful in one second when the sun breaks through clouds and lights up a hillside.


Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt myself finally emerging from the mental fog I’ve been under for the past three years. And then the question comes: What’s the next thing going to be? And when will it hit?


But then I realize again how blessed I am in so many ways. I have to hang onto that and expect more of it.


I’ve come to see—and cancer has been a big part of that discovery—that all of this—the deep and powerful and light-hearted and painful—they all play an important part in shaping me.


I know if I die today, I will have lived a rich life. That’s not to say I welcome death, or that I wouldn’t have regrets, but all in all, I have to say I’m okay with it.


That’s psychological richness. Savoring the pluses and the minuses not as benefits and burdens but as two sides of the same coin, two layers of the same cake. Two ways we learn and grow and experience the world. The two elements that are making us grow and learn and become better human beings than we were yesterday.


Life may be a mess, yes. But if you look at it in the right light, it’s a beautiful mess.

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