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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

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  • Kim Nebel

    The love that encircles you is truly unconditional. It shines from many beacons upon you, and will never dim or fade. Many of those beacons are tapped into that light because of you. In the beginning, in the journey, and in the end, that love truly is all that really matters, and that love is always yours. Thank you for having the dignity and grace to face and share your wisdom and trials with the rest of us. It is, and will continue to be something I as many others will hold on to when we need to summon that dignity and grace to move us through a part of our own journey. and we will, none of us get out of here easily. My mom is 92 and faces many physical trials I can do nothing to stop or prevent. She faces them with anger, bitterness, fury……..so often I wish she could just summon some dignity and grace. Your ability to do so is a gift to all those who love you so, but then that’s not surprising, because that’s what you do isn’t it? You give, and give, and give, lift up, enlighten, so that though the love you possess is unconditional, it is certainly also deserved. Let yourself bask in it, let yourself be on the receiving end , knowing full well that in doing so you will continue to give encouragement, faith, inspiration, and love to all those around you.

    • Wow. Beautiful words I do not feel worthy of, but I sure aspire to! Thank you for the time you took to write them, and I wish you the very best with your mom.

  • Dana Bougie

    This is an inspiring post. I am praying for you! Your words remind me that God wants us to get better … not bitter when facing adversity in his life. Thanks for being a gift to others when you are in a very tough time yourself. God’s Peace!!!!

  • Joy Arbor

    You blow my mind, man. You do. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through and wish you weren’t but am so grateful to know you and be inspired by your example. (What a crazy thing it is that we ever met, even.)

    I also really appreciate that you describe here how you became how you are — a path that others (even outsiders/non-Christians like me) can follow to peace. (I also like that it’s a path of study and meditation — those are things I know how to do.)

    I want to share this with you for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me: My childhood was hard and had some particular challenges, things I couldn’t control and just had to survive. One night, when I was not more than seven, I had an epiphany, which, obviously was a gift from God because this kind of realization could not really be earned through experience at that young age. It was that as bad as things were at the moment, things would get better because 1) I’d either get used to it and so things wouldn’t *feel* so bad, or 2) it would change. By hanging onto this, muddling through, and being able to see that at some point I’d be able to get out of my situation, I made it through to adulthood. (Though I had this epiphany as a child, it certainly did not stop me from being a wildly emotional child and adolescent. It was important in those worst moments, but did not stop the wild emotional volatile ride that has always been my experience of life. What I mean, perhaps, is that the epiphany kept me from being too suicidal or self-destructive — but it did not make me a kid full of inner peace or anything.)

    As an adult I’ve found it so hard to hold on to that epiphany, to apply it to other situations and maintain a sense of peace, to live in that awareness that I was given as a child. I’ve always been really volatile and dramatic. Just recently turned 40, I’m working on self-acceptance (so hard!!!), the power of no, and, with your example, remembering that maybe I’m stronger and have more control (rather than being tossed away by my fears) than I think. That somewhere in my bones is that awareness that I needed to survive things that were much harder than the things I face just now.

    I feel like maybe I wasn’t always a good vessel for that gift that God gave me as a kid, but that maybe I’m earning that back now by sharing it with you. (Just a feeling. Maybe this is more about me.)

    Thank you, Dave, as always, for being who you are and sharing yourself with us.

    • Thanks for your amazing and encouraging words. Just a different perspective on this gift God gave you. Consider that it’s not that you weren’t a good vessel. Consider that the gift was given and you used it the way you could use it at that time.

      When I was diagnosed with MS, I freaked out. I stopped believing in God and my life became all dark and negative. After I recovered, I felt like I had failed, but now I realize that was just part of my journey. It was a step I had to take in order to move past that step and into something more meaningful. We’re always learning and as long as learning is happening, everything that looks like failure just teaches us what we don’t want to do next time. Thanks for sharing this great story with my readers and me.

  • Joanna

    This reminds me of a picture God gave me years ago when I was battling to forgive someone. He gave me a picture of a bitter, old woman. I realized very clearly that I did not want to become that woman and if I didn’t then I it started in that moment of my life–in my 20’s. My choosing forgiveness at a young age would free me from becoming what I did not want to be in my old age. Thanks for the words and the train of thought you have provided for me this evening, friend. May God continue to give you strength to fight your battle with peace.

    • Love it. Fantastic word picture. Perfect complement to my post. Thank you!

  • Ruth

    Loved this post Dave. I hate that you’re going through this…but I love the way you’re handling it. Praying continued peace for you and your family, no matter what happens. I like the mental process of working back from what the worst case scenarios in life…I often think through the same kind of thing and in the end generally find that it frees me up to really live now and be less paralyzed by fear and worry.

    • Thanks for your kind words. I guess Covey’s words to “begin with the end in mind” apply in far more ways than one!