The perspectives you need to get through any adversity
By Andy Burrows, 19 December 2018
One of the things that is common when talking to people who have had a brush with cancer is to hear phrases like, “it certainly changes your perspective on things.”
And people pick up on that and make all kinds of assumptions about the perspective we’re talking about. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate and put into words. You just know that you don’t look at things the same way any more. Things that used to feel important are not as important. And other things feel more important.
The thing is that not all perspectives are helpful. There are perspectives on a mountain climb that have you thinking, “I’m in the cold, dark, shadowy side of the mountain and it’s not very nice, and why the heck am I doing this?” That’s not as helpful as the perspective that says, “I’m walking this way to get to the awesome vista I will get to experience at the top, and this is actually the safest route to getting there!”
This is my attempt to put into words the perspectives you need in the face of any adversity in life, including cancer (either your own orin someone close to you). What are the helpful ways to “get things in perspective”?
The perspective of priorities
One perspective that often changes when you have cancer, or any kind of health scare, is that it makes you realise how fragile life is.
Now, having experienced the levels of toxicity it is possible to put through the human body, and seen the way that the human body can regenerate, I know that life is both fragile and resilient at the same time. And I’ve seen that it’s possible to push yourself physically and mentally further than you ever thought you could possibly cope with.
But, the fragility is what hits you when you have some thing as serious as cancer. And the perspective speaks in your mind as, “if I knew I was close to death, would I be doing the things I was doing?”
“Nobody lies on their deathbed and wishes they had spent more time in the office,” is a saying that has stuck with me.
It first resonated with me when I was made redundant after spending several years discovering the meaning of the word, “beleaguered”, as a young Finance Director. I had worked 60-70 hours a week. The only day I consistently protected was Sunday. I’d been stressed and constantly shattered. And only felt the appreciation and support of my fantastic boss (the divisional Managing Director) and a few close colleagues. The more senior lot were pretty nasty, and I found myself suddenly out of a job at Christmas in 2001.
My loyalty, the extra hours I spent in the office, juggling projects, travelling around Europe, meant nothing to the company. I was just a resource to use for a while and then replace when a better option came along.
And yet I knew that my biggest impact wasn’t in the work. It was in the personal connections that I’d not had enough time for – including those with my wife and young kids at home. And so, increasingly in my enforced career breaks I’ve really appreciated the time I’ve had to help my kids with schoolwork and things they love, like football or piano playing. And I’ve also found a little niche in writing encouragement for a wider audience.
That’s called, “positively reframing” a situation, I think – so I’ve heard!
So, as you go through life’s difficulties, ask yourself what’s important to you – really important. Are your priorities right? The chances are that even in adversity and hardship you can still connect with that purpose and meaning. The chances are that you will find that connection can be strengthened more effectively in and through what you’re suffering.
The perspective of time
Are you living for now or the future?
I’m not a great fan of putting it like this. The implication is that you should, “live every day as if it’s your last,” or, “live for fulfilment now because tomorrow you may not be around to enjoy what you were working towards”. The former is not possible. The latter is a recipe for global disaster.
The latter could be restated as, “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,” or as John Maynard-Keynes infamously said, “in the long run we’re all dead.” And so we could add, “therefore, to hell with the polar ice caps and the ozone layer!”
The temptation after going through a brush with death or serious illness is to think in a similar way. I certainly know people who have spent their entire lives working hard to build something for retirement – they worked for the future – and then they died suddenly within a few short years. Putting your enjoyment off into the future while you use up your best energy now may mean that you never reach that point of enjoyment.
That’s what we fear. And the hardship amplifies that fear.
The real point about the time perspective is that we only have a limited amount of it, and none of us know how much of it we have overall. If we’re really fortunate, we might live until we’re 80+, so long as our energy doesn’t fail us and leave us in hardship for years at the end.
The point is, as John Piper (one of my favourite authors) puts it, “Don’t Waste Your Life!”
The point is to live purposefully. Make every hour count. It can be building for the future. But make sure it’s a future that you care about, most likely for others, or for mankind, or the “greater good”. That way, every day you can say you did something that someone is going to benefit from. It won’t be wasted.
And that means remembering that small things count as well as big things. I have to remember that a five minute conversation with one of my kids, helping them get a right perspective on their problems, is as important as sharing my cancer experience on this blog, or mentoring Finance professionals, or earning money to provide for the family (when I can!).
Adversity certainly forces you to confront “what’s important”. And those are the questions of meaning and purpose that are helpful for us all to face up to.
Another restatement of that positive reframe – suffering helps you to connect with your purpose!
The perspective of inconvenience
Next, one of the benefits of big bumps in the road – our times of adversity – is that they make us more patient with the small bumps.
I almost always get stopped at the same set of traffic lights every single day near our house… for no apparent reason. There is no traffic coming from the other directions. No need to manage the traffic at all at those times. Why stop me? Grrrr! Thump the steering wheel and heave a big sigh!
And then I sit and count the seconds – all 20 of them.
What am I making such a fuss about?!
Compared to being out of work for eight months, or dealing with cancer for a year or so, or any of the major traumas all of us deal with at some stage in our lives, we start to realise that the smaller things are closer to trivia than we used to think.
I say this to my wife and kids sometimes – though it doesn’t tend to be well-received – “get things in perspective!” Stop worrying about how your make up has gone wrong, or your friends are leaving you out of conversations, or you’re not invited to a particular party, or your phone is not working, etc etc. Or at least stop stressing about it! There are much bigger things to stress about!
The perspective of joy
The saying I seem to have landed on to get through hard times is, “one step at a time, and keep smiling.”
The second part of that is based on this perspective of joy. And the perspective of joy has three parts.
First, as the saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining!” Ok, it’s corny. But I find often that corny sayings have a kernel of worthwhile truth. There are positive aspects to be found in almost every negative situation.
Your hard tasks can be opportunities to learn. Your enforced downtime (through illness or redundancy) can be more time with your loved ones, opportunities to help them more. Your job losses can be times to try something new. Your relationship breakups can be time to heal and reflect. All misfortune can make you open to receiving help from others and creating closer relationships.
In a thousand-and-one ways, there are positives even within the negatives of life.
Second, every day has things to be grateful for and joys to experience.
We need to learn to appreciate the simple things, because they really count in a big way when you need a lift during hard times.
There have been times I simply sit and think about each of my kids and how I’m proud of them. They are each doing so well in different ways. They each have their unique characters and strengths.
I remember in July, sitting with Heidi on a restaurant veranda on the Port Solent marina one glorious hot evening, watching the sunset, and wondering at the beauty.
The Christmas lights put a smile on my face.
And even when I’m not smiling because I’m happy, I find that smiling can make me happy! Weird that!
Third, almost every trial is temporary. Very few of our hardships will end badly. Most will be resolved and we will move on, stronger and renewed, and joyful.
That’s the hope we need to hold on to, that it’s worth putting one foot in front of the other, even when things are bleak, because we are going to end up getting through it and into a happier place.
Even after multiple redundancies and career gaps, and the previous three rounds with cancer, I still look back and say that I got through each one of them. There was a happier place the other side of each one.
And that’s the way I tend to try and encourage friends who are going through tough times. It may feel tough now, but I promise there are better times to come. Just keep doing what you need to do each day, and you’ll get through.
And each time we experience that, and find it to be true, it strengthens us and gives us confidence to face whatever we need to face in future. We have proved we can do it, and we’ll be able to do it again.
The ultimate perspective
But, you know what? I can’t leave it there. I just can’t.
You see, we’d be kidding ourselves being fully comforted by all of the above. Because there’s always that nagging thought – none of those perspectives gives us 100% cast iron guarantees.
Silver linings may reside in most clouds, but not every cloud.
Most trials are resolved with us being strengthened and reaching a happier place, but not all of them.
I may live through many rounds with my cancer, but one day my earthly end will come, whether at the hand of the dreaded “C” or some other way, orin old age. None of us lives for ever.
But just the fact that we think naturally in this way, with hope, in my reckoning shows that God, as the Bible says, “has also set eternity in the human heart.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
We are made to hope, to look forward, to live for a future. We were made to seek joy.
The perspective we find from that point of view is all over the Bible. “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Why I have to talk about Jesus
And that’s why I urge you to think about where you stand from an eternal perspective. Because ignoring it is like being satisfied with seeing the tips of the mountains, but failing to see the stars. It’s making yourself out to be a dumb rock, when you’re not; you’re a meaningful human soul.
I have to talk about my faith in Jesus, because the Bible tells me, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
And people are asking. That’s the question I sense in everyone who meets me and wants to know how I keep smiling through adversity.
Sure, I’ve been granted some mental and emotional strength through the trials I’ve been blessed with. But ultimately, it’s because of hope. And the reason for that hope is Jesus Christ.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? …
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
Someone once said to me, thinking to honour my courage, “there is always hope.”
I said, “unfortunately not without two additional words – in Christ. Without those two words there is only sometimes hope.”
But there is always hope in Christ. That’s the ultimate perspective needed in adversity.
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I wrote at one point about my struggle with “being that guy” who has cancer and writes about it. I’m starting to embrace that periodic role more, and hope that I can encourage as many people as possible with my writing. To help me out – but only if you truly think my writing is encouraging and helpful – please share my posts far and wide on the internet in whatever way is your thing!
Thanks for being interested in my journey. And always feel free to interact and let me know your thoughts. Thank you to those who leave comments and reply to the emails. I’m sorry if I don’t have time to reply to them all, but I do read every single one and find them an enormous source of strength and encouragement.
Becoming a stem cell donor
By the way, if you want to find out more about being a stem cell donor, here are a few links (UK-based mainly):
(Stem cell and bone marrow donors are amazingly kind people who offer to sacrifice their time and endure some mild discomfort to help save the lives of people like me who have a type of blood cancer – lymphoma or leukaemia.)