Living with Setbacks
Everybody has setbacks. We all have our cross(es) to bear. No one is exempt. One of the main crosses I bear is multiple sclerosis. As with most crosses people bear, I can’t fix this. There’s nothing I can do to make it very much better. The only thing I can do is decide how I am going to respond to the challenges it presents. Though I have no love for this illness, I can say that it has made me a better person. That is beyond doubt. Setbacks are frustrating. They tend to make us angry and, with enough setbacks, we can become bitter and resentful.
22 years ago, when I was diagnosed with this disease, after the obligatory years of completely freaking out, I decided to work from the possible endpoint, back to my present life. In other words, I pictured the worst — I’m 40 or 50 years old, in a wheelchair. My arms and legs don’t work. I’m incontinent. I cannot feed myself and when I eat I often choke on my food. I cannot do productive work. I am a burden to my family and friends. That is the possible endpoint, the worst case scenario (barring death, which is rare with MS). That may or may not occur. It is not for me to know. But what is for me is to consider what kind of person do I want to be in those circumstances.
So I set out many years ago to become the kind of person I would respect in those circumstances if it were someone else. I wanted to live in a way that, if it was a close friend or family member of mine, would inspire me and make me want to rise to the challenges in my own life. It was easy to imagine what that might look like and how that kind of person might react to bad news, to a worsening illness that is slowly taking away his freedom and independence, and threatening to take his dignity. That is what I mean when I say I started at the end and worked backwards. I knew if I could become the kind of person who could handle the absolute worst this disease (or any life circumstance) has to offer, I would be able to handle the sometimes constant but fairly minor setbacks that normally characterize the disease — and everyday life.
Then there’s setting an example for others. I know others are watching me. Students, parishioners, family, clients, friends. And I want them to be inspired. Why wouldn’t I? I love them. We want the people in our lives to be inspired and challenged to be the best they can be don’t we? I deeply desire that for all people. I think about that sometimes. But in the end, I do what I do for ME. I need to be a person who can deal gracefully with life’s setbacks and obstacles. Why not be that kind of person? We’re all going to have them, after all. I figured early on, even if the MS never flared up at all, that was still the kind of person I wanted to be.
Knowing the wisdom in this, I studied. Jesus, Buddha, the Apostle Paul, the Baghavad Gita, Gandhi, Dalai Lama, James Allen, Dallas Willard, Richard Rohr. I read books and listened to lectures by people who have found God, have found peace, have found a way of being satisfied, okay, through all the setbacks of life. Mostly, I tried to follow their examples. I learned to meditate, to get comfortable in quiet. I learned to listen to my own soul, to God in that place, to identify and own my emotions instead of blaming them on others (e.g., “That guy makes me so mad.”) I internalized the message of The Prodigal Son and other stories Jesus told — that we already have the very thing we are seeking, if we can simply learn to be still. In my studies, I found absolutely nothing unique, no knowledge or information that are not available to every single living person. All that is required is willingness to be open to truth and learn to live in it.
Bottom line: we’re all going to have terrible things to deal with in life. The question is how we handle them.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. — Viktor Frankl