Like the rest of the world, I watched as Hurricane Harvey, with its torrential rain, ravaged the Houston area. It is an unfathomable event, tragic in the number of deaths, homes destroyed and the lives that are forever changed.
In another tragedy this week, a friend’s son died from a drug overdose. Though I did not know her son, his death affectedly me deeply. He was the same age as my daughter. I can’t imagine the loss of a child, and I mourn with her for the loss of this precious young man. I pictured her cradling him as an infant, the happy first day of school pictures and feeling the devastation of life potential left unfulfilled. I cried for her and for her son, for what had been and for what will never be.
My grandma always said that bad things happen in threes, and this week I also learned that a woman I know was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. She is a young mother, with much to live for, and her situation is serious. Fortunately, she has a strong support network and does not have to worry about finances or receiving optimal health care.
Sometimes life sucks. Bad things happen, and we can’t control them. They are not of our making and we didn’t deserve them. It is not our fault and yet we are left to suffer the consequences. It feels unfair, and we are justified in our grief.
We can’t always control the bad things that happen to us, but we can control our attitude, our reaction, and our actions.
I am reminded of a scene from Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets when Dumbledore is helping Harry, who is struggling with understanding who he is and his place in the world. He fears he has inherited negative abilities which will cause him to be a bad person. Dumbledore reminds him that he has also shown positive traits such as resourcefulness and determination. “It is our choices, Harry,” he reminds this young protégé, “that make us who we are far more than our abilities.”
Our choices, in the face of devastation, are a sign of our true character. Our attitude and our choices change how we experience negative things, and change how we recover from them.
We all felt proud when regular, average citizens took their boats and their trucks and helped rescue those whose homes were flooded. They didn’t have to get involved, and it would have been safer for them not to. Yet they came out in a storm and did what needed to be done. When they were interviewed by reporters who asked them why they jumped in to help, person after person just said that something needed to be done and they were in a position to help. There was no self-aggrandizement, no looking for glory, no claims of greatness and no desire to get anything in return for their service.
That is positive attitude while taking positive action. There is no doubt that it made a difference to the lives of the people who were rescued.
I watched my friend as she handled the death of her son this week. She looked to her faith for comfort and wrapped herself in the love of her friends. She expressed gratitude for her son’s life and the time they had together. She put her business on hold, and graciously thanked those who stepped in to cover for her. I know she must have wanted to curl up in a ball and shut down her own life. She did not succumb. One week later, she is back to her work, getting on with her life. She is taking whatever positive action she can, making the best of an impossible situation. The wounds are deep; her life is forever altered. She will learn to cope and I know she will become a stronger person because of it.
Sadly, the woman with cancer has shut down. She has stopped interacting with the world, stopped taking action. Convinced she is going to die, she is not researching treatments, or reaching out to those who have experienced their own cancer. Her first chemo treatment sent her to bed, and literally and figuratively, she has stayed there. She is not open to advice and seems to have just surrendered. I am worried about her.
Perhaps I have no right to comment on her situation since I have not experienced cancer in my own body. But I have experienced it through the people closest to me, and I have seen how attitude and choices make a difference.
My husband reacted to his cancer with a pragmatic attitude. He chose an aggressive surgery, and forged forward with absolute determination that he would be fine. My sister-in-law traveled around the country for multiple opinions and multiple clinical trials. She fought with a fierceness that still leaves me in awe. My father faced his lung cancer with far more determination and stamina that I would have believed he possessed. What impressed me most, however, is that he didn’t undergo those treatments for himself, he did it for us, for those who still needed him to live. His self-sacrifice did not go unnoticed.
I am well aware that changing your attitude and actions towards a challenge may not change the outcome. Despite her valiant efforts and unwavering positive attitude, my sister-in-law died, though she lived much longer than doctors thought possible. My father died in the midst of his second round of treatments. Were their efforts in vain, or did their attitude and actions toward their disease make a difference?
It made all the difference.
Changing your attitude and your actions might not change the outcome, but it does change the journey. It changes your day to day experience. It changes how you feel and how others feel towards you. You find a moment of laughter, or share a conversation with an old friend. You experience a wedding, a graduation or a family Christmas celebration. Doing whatever you can do takes your mind off of the pain and gives you and those you care about moments of life and happiness. Hundreds of little moments, strung together, are what make up a life.
Your attitude in how you deal with adversity is part of your legacy, it tells the world, “This is who I am and this I what I stand for.” Attitude is no small thing. Like sunflowers, we can turn to face the sun, hold up our open faces, and in doing so, shine for the world in our time on this planet.
This week I honor positive attitude in the face of adversity. I honor brave actions in tragic circumstances. And maybe most of all, I encourage optimism in a time when having a positive outlook seems impossible.
Wishing you all love and strength,