Live Your Best Lesson 3: Accept Limits
Contentment. The word alone can produce a ripple of frustration in my soul: I imagine a quiet peacefulness that’s at odds with what I often feel my life to be. I’ve known people who seem to inhabit that kind of space, and I’ve always wondered what it might be like.
I remember being sixteen and sitting on our front step one hot summer day in Kansas, bored out of my mind, wishing I was older and could take on all the amazing things that only adults get to do. I wonder if this doesn’t represent the first seeds of my discontent. A restlessness that only now, many years later, is being tamed by Parkinson’s, of all things. It’s an unrelenting master. You may dance with it, but it will choose the music and the timing. At best, you can only follow along.
I’ve come to terms with this fact. That is, the nurse in me understands the clinical reality; I can say the words out loud without flinching. I’ve also taken it that difficult step further: I acknowledge that modern medicine cures very little and that I’ll likely go to my grave with this new best friend whom I hate.
Surprisingly, this has brought me a level of peace, of contentment.
Sounds insane, I know. Does my acceptance of Parkinson’s equal a lack of courage to move forward? Not at all. Instead it gives me a foundation from which to attack the future. I can’t change the fact that I have Parkinson’s. It doesn’t mean that I can’t live well with the disease and that I can’t work for a cure. But until I accept reality, I’ll never be able to successfully move forward and I’ll never know true contentment.
What is contentment? Is it merely “a state of happiness and satisfaction,” as it’s defined? I think it’s more than that. I think it involves a choice—but do you always have one? Yes and no. I can’t choose to not have Parkinson’s, but I can choose how I respond to it. The disease is a hard thing to bear, but is it any more difficult to choose contentment? Parkinson’s has taken my ability to run as well as I did, but what good would it do me to daily lament that I can no longer manage a seven-minute mile? It seems like a silly notion. The disease has also taken my ability to function as a nurse—and of what value would it be for me to lament this loss? Yes, there is an appropriate mourning to be had, but at some point I need to move on.
Here’s the hard part, the part that many people facing life-changing circumstances struggle with: “What can I do to remain productive and useful?” One practice I have is to list the things I can still do and then ask how these might be used to help others. I would encourage you to start your own list, keeping in mind that no ability is too small or insignificant to make the cut. Now, how might you deploy these to put a smile on someone’s face or ease their burden?
When we take the time to draw up an inventory of our lives, we find that things may not be as bleak, we may not be as barren in ability, as we thought. We can choose to accept our shortcomings and embrace what we can do.
Our lives are finite. We all know we’ve been given a certain number of days; it’s just that we rarely like to think about it. Parkinson’s has driven this reality home. It has encouraged me to make good use of my time, knowing that it could be taken from me. It’s a matter of being courageous enough to acknowledge that truth—and to recognize that our time is also infinite in the sense that every day we can choose innumerable ways in which we might live our best. The options before us are limited only by our imagination and our willingness to dream new dreams.
Early this spring, an arborist came by and inspected the magnificent old elm tree that had stood in our yard for as long as we’ve lived here. It was a truly beautiful tree, the largest for blocks, its branches extending into our neighbor’s yard and creating a canopy over the street. We were told that the tree had a major split down the center of its huge, bifurcated trunk and would need to be cut down. It was hard to believe: the tree looked healthy and strong, with no visible sign of disease. Nonetheless, it stood on city property and had to go.
We were dreading that day. Now Sheryl was in tears as we witnessed the speed and cold efficiency with which our tree was brought down. Giant branches came thudding to the ground; they were thrown into the chipper and all but vaporized. In short order our mighty elm was reduced to sawdust and chips, our yard left with nothing but little mounds of dust dotting the newly fallen snow. When our daughters arrived home from school they cried.
We’ll mourn the loss of this beautiful tree, but in time we’ll move on. It’s inevitable. And it’s necessary, even healthy that we do so. But that doesn’t mean we’ll forget; rather, we’ll plant a new tree where the old one has fallen. This is what it is to Live Your Best—this is contentment in the living. We can’t change the fact that the tree had become unsafe. So in its place we’ll plant anew, begin a new season of growth. And that tree will bloom with a beauty that couldn’t have existed had the old one not come down.
Parkinson’s has brought a certain closure to my past life—you could say that it has felled it. But I can plant anew; I too can experience new growth and new beauty. When I accept limits and practice contentment, I can look forward to all that will be as I learn to grow in this new life I’ve been given. It won’t look the way I had imagined, but I’m confident that it will be all that it should be.
As a nurse I’ve watched as individuals and families fight hard against illness and even death. I’ve seen the frustration, the anger, the hardness that comes over people when they realize that they won’t have their way over their ailment. I’ve watched them leave this life with sour, bitter souls, angry at the hand they’d been dealt. But I’ve also witnessed what happens with those who are content with the life they’ve been given: rather than feeling resentful about what they didn’t have, they leave this world full of gratitude for all they did. The difference is striking, and it’s compelled me to continually weigh my own life. And when its totality is placed in the balance, there’s no reasonable response other than contentment.
That doesn’t come easily to someone who’s often been described as a Type A personality. I like to know where I’m going, to control the pace and the course. I’ve always had the sense that there are more challenges to be taken on and tasks to be accomplished. So learning to simplify my life is a daily struggle that involves all aspects of my being.
It helps to learn the boundaries of control—that I can still do many things, but in a more thoughtful manner. For example, because I think better early in the day, mornings are best for higher-level cognitive work. But that’s also when I have more physical energy. And since I can’t go to the gym every morning and get other things done as well, I need to stagger my morning activities over the week. So I do have some measure of control; it just looks different than it used to. And a big part of accepting limits is setting reasonable goals for myself each day. The choice is never easy, but it is simple.
This blog post is an excerpt from the book
Perseverance: The Seven Skills You Need to Survive, Thrive, and Accomplish More Than You Ever Imagined.
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