What matters is not what life does to you, but rather how you deal with it. This is attributed to the Greek philosopher Epictetus.
I know of two people who came to a crucible point recently and here’s how they responded.
Rollie (not his real name) was an artist, and about 40 years ago we were co-employees in an ad agency. I remember him as a jolly fellow, always making jokes. I’ve lost touch with him but someone who was close to him told me that in recent years, Rollie was feeling distraught, gloomy and heavy-hearted, calling friends and asking, no begging, to be treated out. Nothing can be more pitiful than a person beseeching friends for warmth of company.
Anyway, one or two friends would oblige Rollie, and would fetch him at home and treat him to lunch and coffee. I was told that he seemed truly happy one moment and then agitated and anxious all of a sudden. It soon became a regular thing and friends began regarding him as a pesky nuisance.
Soon, even his own immediate family found his melancholy unbearable, and would go out on pretended errands to escape his presence, leaving him to brood and glumly watch TV all by his lonesome self.
There is a native expression “ang bigat niyang dalhin,” which would have applied to Rollie in his gloomy state. Everybody felt being sucked into his black hole of depression and avoided him.
Then just the other day, I got the news that he passed on. He must have been so forlorn and tired of feeling gloomy, he just gave up.
Depressing? Here’s the flip side of my friends-in-crisis story.
Early this year, we learned that Trina (not her real name), a dear lady friend of ours, was diagnosed with cancer in an advanced stage.
After finding out that visits would be allowed, we dropped by their house where she was staying while being treated.
Usually, people with cancer at an advanced stage are bed-ridden and look emaciated, wracked with pain, bald, having difficulty in breathing and so on.
But when we entered her room, what a surprise: Trina looked so different from what we anticipated. Seated on a chair she was all smiles, and warmly welcomed us. There were no tubes up her noses. She was breathing normally as she talked, never gasping for breath. All in all, she looked composed, at peace with herself, eliciting a kind of radiant warm feeling that we found so soothing and calming. Funny, Trina was the sick person and yet we who were supposedly healthy were the ones being consoled by her presence. We went home that day feeling lighthearted and filled with admiration for Trina.
These two contrasting stories bring us to this question: Why do so many elderly folks suddenly become anxious and plunge into deep depression while many others look so ebullient, cheery and full of life even when facing trials in the late stage of their lives?
My answer: It’s a matter of attitude.
Your attitude determines how you respond to what life deals you. It is an attitude that is anchored on your spirituality. By spirituality I don’t mean being religious or pious, although that’s one sign of spirituality. It is a belief that we are spiritual beings and that there is something greater than oneself, something more to being human.
A healthy spirituality can help us deal with stress by giving us a sense of peace, purpose, and forgiveness. It often becomes more important in times of emotional stress or illness.
What does our inner self need for a healthy spirituality?
In his book “Search for Meaning,” the famous concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl wrote: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” More succinctly: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
Each of us needs to feel as though we’re doing something that contributes to the greater good. This can be parenting, serving others, or anything else where we have a hand in making life better for those around us.
Sadly, the late Rollie was not able to latch on to a meaningful pursuit that would have added more life to his last years. As an artist, he could have devoted it to painting to his heart’s content. Or he could have been a teacher, sharing his artistic skills with young or old people.
Nobody thought of inviting him to a group with a common passion, be it biking, karaoke singing, or mountain climbing or urban farming. Maybe a group on a mission such as climate action education. He could have been asked to be part of the parish lay ministry in his local church.
Trina, on the other hand, nurtured her spiritual life early. As a pianist and music teacher, she imbibed the uplifting power of music and saw the transforming ability of music in her piano students. She is well connected to a community greater than herself. She has Catholic nuns as her friends and being in their company must have helped deepen her spirituality. Then later we found out she recently became part of a religious order as a tertiary member serving God outside the convent.
Thus, Trina possesses the wondrous gifts of inner strength and grace to accept that life has much suffering and joy. She knows her suffering isn’t in vain and instead it’s something she can grow from. There is meaning in her suffering. She also feels one with a community that provides her a great spiritual lift.
In contrast, Rollie saw only darkness in the remaining years of his life. His entreaties to be treated to lunch were a call for authentic connection. Avoided by friends who used to patronize and humor him, feeling alone and abandoned, Rollie found no more existential meaning, seeing only a dismal dead-end. Much like the characters of the play “No Exit” by Jean-Paul Sartre, he came to the conclusion that he no longer had control over his own existence and the only exit was to put an end to it.
One last important point. Encompassing our spiritual need for meaning, purpose and connection is our need to love and be loved. This is the ultimate wellspring that nourishes our spirituality. To quote Victor Frankl again: “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Rollie lacked love. Trina overflows with love. In the words of the poet: “If love isn’t all, what is?”