hands in gratitude Advice

by Erin Michaela Sweeney February 04, 2019

Alive with the Meaning of Purpose

Blood cancer tore me away from my 12-month-old son. Four days after my diagnosis, I checked into a local hospital for round-the-clock chemotherapy. I didn’t know when I’d leave that hospital room, much less what would be left of my family or career.
For some of us, a cancer diagnosis completely derails our lives. Cancer brings confusion — not just the chemo-brain kind — to our priorities. We thought we knew where we were headed. We had a sense of how we fit into our family, our work, our community, our world.
When cancer enters our lives, it’s shocking. Though so common, affecting half of men and a third of women in a 21st-century lifetime, cancer is abstract. Until it isn’t.
After we become internet experts on our cancer specifics or determine we mustn’t know everything to save our sanity, and once we sort out who looks after the kids, the house, the bills, etc., etc., of everyday life, there it is. The pause.
Wait for It
Maybe you picked up the still-empty water glass for another sip. Perhaps you read the same sentence in a book for the 14th time. Your mind won’t let you go through the motions of the mundane. Whether you recognize it consciously, you want meaning.
Ever since my diagnosis, I’ve wanted to make my life make sense. Whenever I get impatient, I say to myself, “Wait for it.” Sometimes I can’t just sit on my hands, so I search the interwebs  for revelation. (Deep, huh?)
While Googling, I stumbled on Emily Esfahani Smith’s TED talk, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” In her talk, Smith defines the four pillars of a meaningful life:
1) belonging
2) purpose
3) transcendence
4) storytelling
I’ve already written about, belonging, in the context of wabi-sabi and compassion. Next up, purpose.

What’s Your Color?

Of the four pillars, purpose may be the easiest for you to tick off the list. If you never missed a day of school or work, if you kept up with all the bills and household chores, if you enjoyed adventures with family and friends, perhaps cancer didn’t shake up your world like a 9.0 earthquake. Lucky ducky.
When I finished my cancer treatments in 2011, the blinding brilliance of a chance to live more days on this earth carried me forward for months. That lightness of life morphed over time into a heaviness because of questions spinning in my mind. I recalled feeling a similar anxiety when college graduation loomed. Back then, I’d read “What Color Is My Parachute?” (published annually since 1970 to help readers figure out career options). To help soothe me, I wanted a version of the book for cancer survivors. No dice. (I checked!)
During her TED talk, Smith shared her concept of purpose for a meaningful life: service. When we move beyond our own wants and desires, we can see how to serve others. Smith believes that finding a way to help others will bring meaning to our lives.
Intertwining Gratitude and Service
Some survivors — me included — have a hard time knowing how to serve others after enduring cancer treatments. Fatigue, often a contributing factor to moving forward, may seem insurmountable.
Start small. A couple of years ago, I began a practice with my son. Once we’re seated for dinner, we pause before eating. He and I hold each other’s hands and share from our day how we served someone, as well as something from our gratitude list. We complete the sentences “I was of service to…” and “I’m grateful for…” These reflections bring joy.
Grateful Service Practice*
  • Write three items on your gratitude bullet list.
  • Repeat for six days.
  • Review your 21 items, noting repeats or related items.
  • Circle one item to share with someone.
  • Be of service to someone.
  • Feel the joy!
  • Repeat.
    *Tweak the practice in whatever way works best for you.
Read more about Erin at ErinMichaelaSweeney.com
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