When my father-in-law found out he had terminal lung cancer, he asked for a party. At the time, Southern California was at its highest Coronavirus numbers. His fragile lungs were obviously immunocompromised, yet the threat was overruled by his desire to celebrate with all the people he loved most.
Surrounded by his grandchildren, his children and their spouses, his ex-wife and his current girlfriend and their expended families, he sipped cognac. He laughed. He moaned over well-cooked meats and a delicate chocolate tart. That night, he delighted in the experience of living. He cancer was inside him, invading his organs, uniting cells into an army that would take his life within the year. Still, he located joy.
In the The Book of Joy, a conversation with the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and writer Douglas Abrams, the Dalai Lama acknowledges the frustrations in life, and adds: “The question is not: How do I escape [frustrations]? It is: How can I use this as something positive?”
In the last months of his life, my father-in-law’s body was ravaged by disease. His motherland, Russia, was bombing his family in the Ukraine. Covid had sent family members and dear friends to the hospital. But throughout it all, he sought the positive. He took long ocean walks, gathered with family as often as possible, and spent hours on the phone reminiscing with old friends. At one point he whispered, “It’s hard to leave all this when everything is just so beautiful.” He didn’t let his troubled times stop him from living, rather, they opened him to loving.
Painting our troubles with gold
The week after my father-in-law died, my best friend was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. I called another friend, high performance coach Damon Valentino, and asked how to not be broken over the combined grief over the loss of my father-in-law and my best friend’s diagnosis.
Reframe the concept of being broken, Damon explained. “Instead let this moment crack you open and be like the Japanese wabi sabi artists and paint those cracks with gold.” When we are broken open, we can choose to infuse the fissures with something beautiful rather than letting ourselves be tossed to the rummage pile.