This past Saturday, my husband and I went down to the basement to do some cleaning out in preparation for major work on our sewer. After we’d worked for an hour or so I glanced over at the sink.
It’s an old one, from the 1940s maybe, complete with a washboard in one tub and two more tubs for soaking and rinsing. It looked like they were covered with ice. As we looked closer, we saw that it was full to the brim with water, and whatever oils, paint residues and cleaning agents had been at the bottom were now glistening on top. It was a breath from overflowing.
My husband, a man gifted with seeing the silver lining, looked at me and said, “Whew. We’re so lucky. We got here just in time before it started overflowing.”
The word “luck” never entered my mind. Instead I was immediately trying to figure out what was going on. Had the sewer backed up into the sink, was there a clog, was water trapped behind the wall? Was disaster imminent?
Seeing silver linings is not a natural thing for me. But I’m learning. And, I believe that I can get better at it. In fact, I’ve been giving myself some high fives this week. We cleaned out the sink, I figured out the source of the water and guessed (correctly) what was causing it.
Within a half hour, I was saying to myself, “Whew, we’re so lucky that we got here before this was pouring all over the basement floor.”
I’m learning to honor my natural way of responding to life, but changing and improving my emotional responses. The 2011 book “Redirect” by Timothy Wilson, which I stumbled across last week, has reaffirmed for me that I can change. And, I can become more resilient, even as a cancer survivor.
He recommends three strategies.
Write to reframe your story.
Wilson explains that traumatic events remain problematic when we can’t understand them or find meaning in them. They are intrusive because they interrupt our expectation that the world is safe and predictable.
Writing about cancer has allowed me to step back and look at my experiences from a safer distance. I’ve been able to bring some coherence to an initially overwhelming and chaotic event. As I look back at my early writing, I can see how I’ve found ways of re-telling my story, of emphasizing different plot points, re-imagining my own role in the story, and bringing meaning to my experience.
Wilson notes that those of us who struggle with resilience get stuck in self-defeating patterns. If we can imagine different conclusions and, more importantly, imagine the behaviors that can help us get there, then we can find hope in the midst of pain and suffering.
Three empowering behaviors that have helped me choose hope are quitting smoking, focusing on nutrition, and re-dedicating myself to exercise. I have no control over whether my cancer will recur, but I can take action to reduce my risk. More importantly, all three of these behaviors enrich my present lived experience.
Give back and find purpose.
Sometimes you just have to behave like a resilient person, whether or not you feel like one. Once I got past my initial diagnosis, surgery, and treatment, I started to walk out of a tunnel. I was able to see the suffering of those around me, to appreciate the care and love that my family, friends and support group had given me, and to understand that I had something to give to others.
I have recently taken steps to be formally involved in advocacy work through the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, training to be part of their speaker’s bureau. Since beginning that process, I have felt such a sense of renewal.
Wilson’s book offers specific writing assignments and data to demonstrate the success of his recommendations. I recommend it. You can buy it here.
Two final thoughts, though, about learning to be resilient and finding silver linings. It doesn’t help to find silver linings for other people. Please don’t ever tell someone with cancer that they’re lucky or that cancer is a blessing or a gift. If you’ve found those things to be true for yourself, then by all means tell your story, but don’t expect others to share that story.
And, give yourself a break. I struggle to be resilient. I know what resilience looks like, and I admire and respect those around me who are resilient. And, then, I judge myself for the struggle. I beat myself up. Don’t do that. Accept yourself and appreciate what you bring to the world. Know that you learn and change, and that the struggle is part of the process.
In pursuit of the silver lining: the resilient ones (Part 1) is here.
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