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The (Positive) Power of Harsh Realism


Photo by Brad Thiessen


A few weeks back I met a young man who has gone through a number of extremely tough experiences. He said "I'm so tired of people telling me I'm resilient. I hate that word. What choice do I have? I don’t want to have to be resilient.”


His point, basically, is that if nothing goes wrong, you don't have to be resilient. You only have to be resilient if things go bad. The more resilient you are, the bigger the brick that's been dropped on your foot.


I get it. People have often used that same word, resilient – along with its close cousin, positive – when they talk to me about how I’ve handled life.


Maybe. But what's the alternative?


If you aren't resilient, if you don't rise above your troubles, you'll crumble.


And if you aren't positive, you curdle into bitterness. I tried that after the first cancer. I don't recommend it.


There are many, many days I wish I didn't have to be so damned resilient and positive.


But isn't that the same for most of us as we face earth-shaking events, or confront childhood trauma, or are overwhelmed by depression and anxiety?


We become resilient because we have to. Or we just stay damaged.


I was recently introduced to the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism and have been finding it a source of strength and wisdom.


Stoicism isn't the humorless repression of feelings we often think of, that of my family's immigrant farming roots – "oh, just suck it up and stop whining."


Stoicism for the Greeks meant (in a very small nutshell) accepting your fate and making the most of it. There was a lot more to it than that (you can learn more about stoicism here), but that's the main idea as I understand it.


It's the soil out of which grew the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference."


I've adapted that prayer into my own slightly different mantra: "Accept what you can't control. Act on what you can control. And (as I wrote about recently) just keep moving."


My version deliberately subs out the word "change" that's in the Serenity Prayer with the word "control."


Accepting the things you can't change and the things you can't control are both important. But they're different.


Maybe I'm wrong, but my guess is that the person overcoming addiction is trying every day to live past the past; to not get caught up in the net of what has already happened so they can move forward.


The person going through cancer or trying to make sense of life after cancer is in a bit of a different situation. Cancer (and, I imagine, any other risky or terminal condition) strips you of the illusion of control we all so naturally cling to.


You can change your diet, you can exercise, you can pray and/or meditate, and it may not matter. Cancer, and conditions like it, have a mind of its own. And so it can cause a hell of a lot of fear.


That's why acceptance is so key. If you don't accept the possibility of return, you can be plagued by self-pity and worry that continually sucks you down a manhole as you're out on your daily walk.


"When I am told there is no cure for my condition, it is easy to focus on 'why not?' or 'poor me' or 'I don't want to die.'" Jarem Sawatsky writes about dealing with the gradual onset of Huntington's disease that will inevitably take over his body and mind. "That reaction adds suffering to suffering."


In fact, I take acceptance one step further. I don’t just do my best to accept the bad stuff when it comes – I plan for it to happen. It's a habit that started some time in my teens.


I’ve already planned out what to do and how to respond and how to shelter my loved ones in a myriad of disasters, both personal and global.


I won't bore you with the exhaustive list of all the bad things I've planned for, from a broken leg to bankruptcy, to the Yellowstone explosion that wipes out everything from here to New Brunswick, and all kinds of disasters in between.


This slightly-bizarre habit has served me well over the years. If you accept that something bad can happen and you’ve played it out in your mind, it doesn’t surprise you when it actually comes to pass, and it’s that much less likely to take over your life.


I didn’t exactly plan for cancer, but I did have an expectation that life would go seriously sideways at some point.


How's that for positive?


Planning ahead like that seemed to dampen the blow. The news of my first brain cancer didn't hit as hard as it probably should have (although that may have been a prime example of ignorance=bliss).


Lucy Hone found herself similarly prepared when she lost her twelve-year-old daughter in a car crash.


As a resilience researcher and expert, she knew the tools for resilience. And she knew what was at stake. If she didn't use the tools she had discovered and taught, she risked clinical depression, the loss of her marriage, and damage to her living children.


So she used the tools she had learned.


Her explanation sounds a bit calculated and clinical, but being deliberate and looking at your situation from the outside seems to be one of the keys of building inner strength. It's what helped get her and her family through to the other side, albeit with a lot of devastating loss carved into her soul.


You can (and should!) watch her TED talk here.


I know the cancer is coming back. I’m ready for it to come back. I don’t want it to come back. I’m doing my best to live my best life. And if it doesn’t come back, all the better.


It's this realism – a pretty harsh realism, by many people's standards – that allows me to accept the inescapable facts of my situation: the very real possibility of death. Like Jarem Sawatsky, I think it's key to living freely in the face of our shared mortality.


It's this acceptance that can push us to move past fear and look for more.


It's this stoicism that can keep us from blaming anyone, including and especially God, for our situation, which in turn allows us to be as positive as we can be.


It's the mandate to act on the things we can control that gives us the freedom and the power to search for meaning and purpose.



If you're into podcasts, check out the Stoic Coffee Break or the Daily Stoic.


... and as always, please share this post with anyone you think would be helped, especially a cancer survivor.

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