The days begin on a bad note. I’m annoyed by all matter of people and things: my son for stomping around the kitchen late at night and leaving a mess of pots in the sink; the clean laundry that sits in a towering heap waiting to be folded; and the public speaking career I’ve worked so hard to build that has essentially gone kaput thanks to COVID. 

Why does everything feel so hard? 

I’m asking because everywhere I turn, people are tapped out. Done. Exhausted. Fed up. 

When will the pandemic end? And, will it end? 

It would be great if we had some kind of roadmap for these unprecedented times, but this is a once-in-a-century event according to some estimates. No, the pandemic playbook is being written in real time, and, much as the world would like to move on, we are nowhere near done grappling with COVID and its life and death consequences. 

Like cancer, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Like cancer, we have to accept the unimaginable and not having all the answers. 

It’s enormously stressful to live with such long-term uncertainty, and this I believe, is the biggest lesson we can learn from both cancer and the COVID pandemic.

So, what then, is the solution?

 

Each of us has to mind our hearts, bodies, and minds. I’m tuning in to new ways of thinking, new perspectives that can help fill my empty bucket. One of these perspectives is Stoicism, an ancient philosophy born out of catastrophe in the 3rd century BC. Historians know little about what happened beyond a shipwreck that left the Greek philosopher Zeno stranded in Athens with his ship and personal belongings stuck at the bottom of the sea. Such desperate circumstances could have sunk Zeno’s spirits and will. Instead, he “assented to the reality of his situation,” a concept that future Stoics would come to practice and teach. 

What does it mean to assent to the reality of our situation? 

For starters, we have to let go of our stubborn determination to control the outcome. We also have to trust in forces bigger than ourselves, knowing that the universe is wider than our eyes can see and that maybe, maybe there’s a plan we aren’t yet meant to know. Think of surrender as a long, cleansing exhale. So calming. So grounding. Surrender isn’t about giving up. It’s the opposite. It’s about seeing what is and isn’t ours to hold, and being resilient enough to find new ways to adapt to our circumstances. In doing so, we keep pressing forward, like Zeno. 

I wish that I had the gentle, firm, trusting wisdom of Stoicism to guide me when navigating my husband Brett’s brain cancer and death. There’s no going back, of course, only forward. Here’s what Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest Stoics and leaders of all time, has to say: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” 

Wishing everyone the power of reason and the gifts of surrender and acceptance during these daunting times. 

Note: This post originally appeared as part of a series on Resilience for the Cancer Support Community. 

Nancy Sharp
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