My dad recently got diagnosed with lung cancer. More test results come in this week, but indications are that it is advanced. He lives in California and since I am in Connecticut, I won’t be able to casually pop in and out to talk, be in his physical presence, or appreciate the small moments that comprise his final days. Instead, I face a trip across country right after Thanksgiving to say goodbye.
The news also triggered grief (again) over my marriage that ended in March. My family is shrinking at a rapid rate. My God, I thought, life is so bleak! It is during these dark periods, that we need to be intentional about finding the light.
In my case, it began with Chinese take-out. I opened a fortune cookie and read: it can’t rain all the time. I interpreted this perfectly timed message as coming from the Universe telling me to keep moving ahead with hope.
Life is a mixture of sunshine and storm clouds. There are times when we bask in the light, when our lives appear to be moving according to plan. But there are other periods during which clouds eclipse the sun. So how can we keep in the sunlight during the darkest days?
Make a choice, commit to it and recognize within that decision what you control.
Live Life by Design
Create a life by design not by default is the mantra of the consulting firm for whom I contract. Self-efficacy is the belief that you can master your life and handle the obstacles and disappointments that you will inevitably encounter. This belief starts with your outlook – is it optimistic or pessimistic?
Choosing to be optimistic isn’t passive. Consider that you make this choice every day, but may not be aware. For example, two friends may call you. One of them always makes you laugh and the other is constantly embroiled in some drama. Who do you choose to call back?
The choices you make run the gamut from who to hang out with to how you rebound from huge life transitions. But each day to varying degrees, you are making choices in accordance with an optimistic or a pessimistic outlook. The key is to be intentional about how you decide, and choose in alignment with a commitment to keep in the light.
1. Seek Optimistic People
Surround yourself with people who are light—not in the sense of flaky and shallow—but people who look for and see the good. Embrace people who don’t dwell in drama. These are the friends who are supportive and genuinely want you to be happy. You have encountered the other type—the complainers who live in a storm cloud. They like the victim role, or at least they refuse to budge from it.
2. Look For The Good
Take it day by day. Each day (including the darkest) presents something that, if it isn’t good, at least isn’t bad. During down times when you don’t feel grateful for anything, reflect on the peaceful moments in the day. There might be an hour, or a half hour, during which the anxiety lifted. These moments are gifts. If you can feel that for five minutes, you know you can feel it for increasingly longer periods of times and that engenders hope.
3. Commit to Self-Care
Sleep and exercise are crucial to mental outlook. It has been well documented about the release of chemicals in the brain that act as opiates in the body following exercise. Exercise even if it means putting off some chores. Program it in. Pamper yourself when possible. If you can, get a massage, opt to read a good book, or soak in the tub. Regardless of what your treat may look like, choose one.
4. Maintain a Positive Image of The Future
Revisit what gives your life meaning and purpose. This includes your goals, important relationships, and spiritual beliefs. If you haven’t spent time envisioning what a life well-lived looks like, create some intentional space each day to do this. Tap into your talents and identify which you need to use in order to feel fulfilled. Create some goals big or small that will inspire you. I focus on the work that I do that gives my life meaning and the incredible clients and colleagues with whom I work.
5. Check Your Story
How we explain the bad things that happen in our lives is integral to our ability to hold hope. A leading psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman defines our explanatory style as consisting of two key elements: permanence and pervasiveness.
People who find temporary and specific causes for their unhappiness avoid feelings of helplessness which leads to hopelessness and despair (as opposed to grief). When facing huge life events such as death, illness or divorce, it is easy to become overwhelmed and feel hopeless. Disciplined self-talk that disputes the idea that you will always feel miserable, out of control or alone is critical.
Know What You Can Control
Choosing to stay in the light does not mean denying the grief that accompanies any loss. It doesn’t necessarily mean feeling happy either. It means holding onto hope while acknowledging grief. It means recognizing what you can control in your life and finding peace in letting go of the rest. You can control your responses to any situation, and your ability to believe that it is within your power to create a good life. It can’t rain all the time.
What is one small thing you can do to hold onto hope?