May has always been one of my favorite months. On an ordinary year, it’s chock full of celebrations—my birthday, my twins’ birthday, late husband Brett’s birthday, grandparents’ birthdays. The end of the school year, picnic season, and more. This May, however, is unlike all other May’s owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also the year my twins graduate high school and prepare for the next chapter of their lives—college—which I hope they will be able to attend in-person this fall.
With all the disruption and upheaval in our lives, it’s been a real struggle to feel joyful about welcoming the happy moments this month typically brings. My kids have been riding the rollercoaster of emotion, as have my husband and I. Everyone I know seems to be riding this rollercoaster: fearful and anxious one day, grateful and calm the next. This is to be expected in the throes of such global uncertainty.
I was in a real funk at the start of the month, and a bit conflicted at having to be the face of resilience when I felt anything but resilient.
But then two things happened that shifted my perspective.
I was talking to my close friend Mary, one of the most can-do, positive, spiritually centered people I know. It surprised me when she told me that she felt exactly like I did a few weeks prior—ungrounded. It was the perfect word choice. “How did you move beyond it?” I asked her.
“First, I let myself be upset,” she said. “Then I had a good, long chat with myself because I realized that my happiness and state of mind is entirely up to me.”
Bingo! It was up to me to change my mindset, even amid the wreckage of a pandemic whose path is well beyond my control.
Instead of feeling upset about feeling upset (the epitome of crazymaking), I decided to take a different approach. I allowed myself to sit with my fears until I was done doing so. How did I know when I was ready to move past them? I got tired of the same negative thoughts spinning round my head and said, “enough already.”
The second thing that happened is that I turned 54. My husband and twins knew that I’d been in a tender place and were doing all they could to lift my spirits. I wanted to feel joyful for them, and for me, but joy isn’t something to be forced. So, I stopped trying. And wouldn’t you know that the minute I removed my expectations to be cheerful, I felt present and open to the love that surrounded me as I entered this new year—from the phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, and especially from my family. My whole attitude shifted to one of pleasant surprise and gratitude.
A resilient mindset is a matter of perspective. We need only look at Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist and neurologist who wrote about his harrowing experience as a Holocaust survivor in Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that has made a profound impact on millions of people around the world. Frankl spoke passionately about the need to change ourselves when we can no longer change our circumstances. “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude,” he said.
Resilience isn’t about avoiding feelings of pain, grief, and conflict. It’s about learning to move through them by honoring the process instead of fixing on a particular outcome. This is especially important for those whose lives have been touched by cancer. It’s tempting to define ourselves as patients, caregivers, survivors, widows or widowers, but we are so much bigger than these labels and presumed identities suggest. When we shift our perspective by recognizing all that we are capable of becoming, we put ourselves on the path of growth. Sometimes we just need to say, “I’ve got this.”’
Note: This post originally appeared as part of a series on Resilience for the Cancer Support Community