Sometimes we have an experience that really matters — an experience that enriches our understanding of ourselves, our values, our life direction and our life itself. Such experiences can also enrich our connections with others, our universal struggle for survival, our shared concern with the quality of that survival, and, most significantly, what the quality of that survival really consists of.
These experiences are also valuable reminders of two basic truths: There is far more that unites all of us than divides us and, as John Bradford said, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” or as Phil Ochs wrote, “There but for fortune go you or I.”
I was reminded again that no matter how bad it gets, someone else has it worse and the dismal presence of hopelessness can be a bridge between lost valuables and strengthened values. Like so much that really matters, these realizations are choices.
We make our survival far better when we focus on what we have, rather than what we have lost.
President Franklin Roosevelt, a polio victim who spent half his life in a wheelchair, reportedly said, “It’s not what you lose that counts. It’s what’s left.”
In the 1980s, between my clinical practice, professional speaking, conducting seminars, and management consulting nationally, I was having more fun and making more money than I ever had.
In the 1990s, changes in administrative policies and procedures, personnel, and the economy caused my income and work satisfaction to become fractions of what they had been. Worsening diabetes lead to cardiac bypass and four eye surgeries, three strokes, and a significant loss of energy and well-being.
In 2006, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2008. Our relationship was the best I ever had of any kind with anyone. I adored her. I never felt so cared for or cared about in my life. The week before her death, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. That year I lost almost all my life savings to the recession.
In a six-week period in 2009, the three most important men in my life died: my therapist — who literally gave me my life, my closest friend of over 50 years, and my younger brother — my only sibling. All were unexpected and before their time.
In 2009, my daughter had unsuccessful knee surgery, followed by three unsuccessful corrective surgeries. She is now facing three more surgeries and possible amputation.
I am not preoccupied with, “What’s next?” But I’m always aware something could be. We all know that loss, suffering and death could be just around the corner for us and those we love, and that death is inevitable for all of us. We invest ourselves in enjoying our lives anyway. I don’t live around the corner, but I know how very close it is.
Recently, I was down. I was thinking about my losses and how none could be recovered. I then saw an emaciated, old man with a pushcart scavenging redeemables from trash cans. The next day, I saw a lovely young woman in a motorized wheelchair. She had exquisite features and a friendly smile. She could move only her head and the fingers that controlled her wheelchair.
Two weeks earlier, a plane crashed at the San Francisco airport, killing two teenage Chinese girls. Their families had sent their precious daughters to a program in America where they could learn English and share their Christian faith with adolescents from all over the world. As China allows you to have only one child, both girls’ parents lost the only child they would ever have.
I can’t imagine any of those people not gladly trading their problems for mine. I can’t imagine trading mine for theirs. This awareness was a major, life-altering experience for me. I have my home, friends, mobility and my daughter. I have money to get by. I don’t have Parkinson’s disease after all. I am embarking on a new career path that will enable me to pursue my interest in mental health education.
Roosevelt was right. It’s what’s left that counts.
Don Farris is a licensed clinical social worker in Fresno, providing counseling and psychotherapy to individuals, couples and families. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org