Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Finding Grace When "Life is Hard"

When I was a little girl, I remember often being told by a variety of adults that "life is hard." This was most typically said when I complained about something I saw as terribly unreasonable or unfair, such as not being able to eat dessert without first finishing all the broccoli on my plate. While this certainly did seem like a rather cruel injustice, I always found this particular response to my protests a bit puzzling. Was life really all that hard? It certainly didn't seem that way to me. Granted, I may have only had four or five years of experience at the time, but for the most part, life actually seemed pretty spectacular. The repeated sagas over broccoli and other such matters were indeed quite frustrating, but overall, I absolutely loved being a kid. Life was new and exciting and full of wonder.

Yet, adults seemed to repeat this phrase rather consistently, as though it were some long-accepted truth that children just needed to learn as they grew older. And while I did come to understand it in terms of dealing with disappointments, struggle, death and loss, I still didn't quite get why even the smaller issues of life so often garnered this response. Why did adults seem to find life so troubling? Like most kids, becoming an adult was something I looked forward to with great eagerness. After all, it was they who got to make all the decisions and have the final say on every single topic of importance. What's not to like? :)

I understand it now, of course. Children can't possibly grasp the wide range and weight of responsibilities that accompany adulthood. Grown-ups yearn to be kids again, and kids yearn to be all grown up.

Still, I remember thinking that adults didn't often seem to fully appreciate their much-coveted privileges. They even actually sometimes complained about them. They didn't appear to have quite the same energy and awe for life that children did. They had too many bills and too many things on their mind.  There was never any time to stop and focus on the little things.

Struck by this realization one day as a young girl, I vowed to be different. I vowed to be fully grateful for all the special perks of adulthood when I grew older. I would continue to look at life as being grand, not hard. I would make it a point to try not to complain about small, mundane inconveniences.

I confess I am not sure just how well I have done with this little goal of mine over the years. If I am honest with myself, I've probably been far less successful than I'd like to admit. For the most part, though, even when I lost sight of the good in any given circumstance, I was generally always able to return to a place of gratitude.

And then... I got sick. Really sick. My life was turned upside down until it essentially came to a standstill. Everything I had just begun to build for myself was slowly slipping away. From my social life, to my hopes of finishing graduate school, to the career I'd enjoyed and had just started to begin. The more I tried to push past it, the more I lost. As the years went on, simple, everyday privileges that I had not even recognized as privileges (the ability to shower, walk, talk, read, watch TV, get out of bed) suddenly started to disappear.

I actually remember once wondering if God had heard that little, silent declaration of mine all those many years ago and decided to respond with this, the ultimate in a series of complaint-inducing circumstances, as some sort of resounding challenge.

No doubt it has been incredibly trying at times, given the downward turns my life ultimately took, to keep that long-ago vow of mine. It was particularly difficult for me when I first became ill. I saw my life slipping between my fingers at what felt like whirlwind speed, and I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by it all, especially given how little others (or even I) understood what was happening to me.

Clearly, the challenges of this illness are beyond enormous. It has literally and ruthlessly invaded every aspect of my life. There are times, particularly during setbacks (which, given the nature of this illness, are quite frequent), when I want to throw all positivity right out the window. There is so much loss, grief and frustration to grapple with, not to mention the all-encompassing physical distress that can coincide with such a setback. It can be an arduous task to focus on gratitude when you feel so sick you can barely move.

I often dump my frustrations on my fiance during those times, because I know he understands them. Then I feel regret for doing what I had always vowed to avoid -- allowing myself to whine. My fiance assures me I am not whining, but merely coping, and finding my way through what would otherwise be an intolerable situation. I'm not always so sure, though I do recognize the need to share such emotions from time to time and not keep them all bottled up.

Those of us stricken with this disease face every day the kind of loss, disappointments, deterioration, limitations, struggle and physical distress that most people don't experience until they are near the end of their life. Consequently, it is beyond reasonable, even perhaps essential to coping, to often feel complete and utter exasperation, as well as to at times experience deep sadness over what is lost and what we are missing out on, or on all that could have been. This, after all, is not the life any of us, even in our worst nightmares, ever anticipated for ourselves.

It is, however, still a life. Undoubtedly, this is not the road I chose or would have ever wanted for myself, and there is nothing in this world I wouldn't do to change it.  My dreams, my ambitions, my education, my career and all my former hopes have, thus far, gone by the wayside. That is, without question, a tragedy.  But my life, with all its struggles, loss, pain, limits and difficulties, is still a life. It still has value. It still has joy and love and dreams and meaning and hope.

Today, as I write this, I am so grateful for the grace of my young self who, in her innocent, little girl wisdom, somehow knew that I would later need the constant reminder. I would need the reminder to try to stay focused on the positive even in the midst of struggle, to acknowledge my blessings despite despair, and to take stock of the beauty that surrounds me and that always, under any circumstance, remains visible -- even if from afar. Life is simply too sweet to spend it being bitter.

This has been an extremely rough journey for me. It has tried my patience and endurance in ways that, when healthy, I never could have imagined. And yet, through it all, I need to remember that I've still had birds, butterflies, cactus blooms and beautiful mountains outside my window. I've still had the love of my friends and family and my remarkably wonderful fiance. Despite my body's failings, it still has breath. It still holds my spirit, which, though at times shaken and tested, remains strong and able. And it is with that resilience of spirit that I will continue to hold on to the undying faith that someday, somehow, things will get better.

Even now as an adult facing such difficult obstacles, I still don't think I really agree that life is hard. It's our individual circumstances that are hard. It's not being able to live your life to the fullest that is hard. But life itself is pretty amazing.