I live by several mottos, but one that touches my life daily is that “we are forever incomplete.” This philosophy feeds my desire to learn and to teach, daily. I, too, feel driven to “rehumanize” humanity. I oftentimes question the state of human consciousness and whether we have lost sight of what really matters.
Life Lessons Shared
Whenever I learn an important life lesson, I feel compelled to share it with others. Why reinvent the wheel? was one such lesson taught to me by my colleagues who happily offered to share their lesson plans with me when I began teaching (grade four) many years ago. Similarly, why not share our collective life lessons rather than always having to experience our own version of personal adversity in order to grow?
In that vein, I recently finished a remarkable memoir entitled Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action by Dr. David Fajgenbaum. It was filled with powerful life lessons learned from his inconceivable medical journey.
After he went from being a healthy medical student to nearly dying five times from a rare disease, he decided to fight back to search for his cure. The guiding principle that carried him from one challenging chapter to the next was imparted by his mother. It was a message she cherished from Pope John Paul II and carried with her on a scrap of paper in her purse:
“Dear young people, whether you are believers or not, accept the call to be virtuous. This means being strong within, having a big heart, being rich in the highest sentiments, bold in the truth…generous in love, invincible in hope.”
Invincible in Hope
At first, David misinterpreted the phrase “invincible in hope” thinking that it was speaking of passive hope—of needing to trust and simply wait. But once he read through the remainder of the Pope’s speech, he understood the truth to mean hope and action; it became his fuel. He wrote, “I became invincible in hope only after I realized I was called to act on—and with, and through—that hope. I knew what I needed to do.” He went on to explain his motivation:
Fear disintegrates. Doubt disorganizes. Hope clears the way, pushes out the horizons, and gives us space to build structures…Think it, do it is how I “programmatized” hope, how I turned it into action that I could take and make every day. Hope wasn’t something precious I had to preserve; it was something stronger, stronger than I was, that I hitched onto for dear life.
Each of us have been living in the vice grip of a global pandemic for almost a year now. Although we are each experiencing this COVID chapter in our own way, it seems fair to assume that at some point we have all felt varying degrees of hopelessness and helplessness.
Because in the human mind, story trumps truth and our fake news feeds are relentless, we need gentle reminders and periodic “reality checks” to nudge us back on track.
Here’s a piece of truth we all need to hear as we approach this holiday season, perhaps feeling emotionally depleted. Every emotion lies on a spectrum with two extremes at either end. If hopelessness lies at one end—hopefulness and even invincible hope lie at the opposite end. The space in between is vast, yet navigable.
When you give yourself permission to feel all of your feelings and notice them, you become more self-aware and mindful of how your feelings change. When you really investigate them, you realize that they do, in fact, fluctuate moment-to-moment. If you were asked to rate your anxiety from 0 to 100 and to imagine where you are on the anxiety spectrum at different times during the course of one day, you would see and understand that movement across is natural, and even normal.
Our “Overtime Story”
Before he became ill, David’s first passion was football, and he knew the importance of overtime. A dropped pass in the second quarter was not great, but one in overtime meant the end of the game. David used this “overtime metaphor” throughout the book and maintained that his repeated near-death experiences made him feel like each new chapter of his life was a new overtime for him and his family. He wrote:
“This feeling was now with me, 24/7. Every second counted. Everything needed to have a purpose…In football, every second of the overtime contains three possibilities—one perfect move that means victory, one awful misstep that means defeat, and a draw that means one more shot at another moment of overtime. Every second of my life was now filled with the same three possibilities: triumph, failure, or getting by. I was hurting, but metaphorically limping off the field and icing my aching body wasn’t in the cards. Surprisingly, living in overtime liberated me to be my best self.”
2020 has unprecedently proven to be a most challenging year and we are all hurting. As we approach a new year, why not make use of David’s lesson and tell ourselves the same “overtime story” that he kept telling himself? The fact that we are still here suggests that we too can see ourselves as if we are living in overtime—as if every moment counts.
We get to choose to suspend all disbelief, accept the truth of our times, and still find ways to turn hope into action—to be invincible in hope. Like David, we get to act on—and with, and through—that hope. We, too, have to understand the difference between being hopeful and being invincible in hope. As David explains, “There’s a big difference, as big as the distance between wishing and doing.”
Life is seldom black and white, so learning to navigate the vast terrain of the grey zone in between the two extremes is what is key. Some days we may be feeling utterly hopeless, and others, we may find ourselves feeling hopeful, yet unable to act. Still, on many others, we will feel invincible in hope and ready to take action.
Just remember to find compassion for yourself, like you would for your good friend, wherever you find yourself on your feeling spectrum in the moments of your day. And take things one moment, one step—one day at a time.
The serenity prayer is another such life lesson to live by:
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
Wishing you good health, safety, and permission to feel.
- Dr. David Fajgenbaum’s memoir: Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action
- Castleman Disease Collaborative Network (https://cdcn.org/). (Thanks to the CDCN’s innovative approach to research and his “turn hope into action” mantra, Dr. Fajgenbaum found a drug that he began testing on himself which is now saving his life.)
- If you’d like to support his work, which now includes the search for COVID19 treatments, you can donate at: https://cdcn.org/donate