Ten Blessings of Adversity
Posted: Mar 22, 2020
Ten Blessings of Adversity image

I’d like to share an unusual series of articles, precisely because we are living in highly unusual times.

When I was diagnosed with the blood cancer multiple myeloma, it was a complete shock. I was 43 and in the middle of my mothering for 6 kids, ages 3-15. A cancer that was supposed to affect older people was throwing a wrench in my already busy and crazy life, spent in countless hours of meal prep, kid pickups and deliveries, homework, projects and support of my husband’s new startup. We had moved to Mexico the year before I was diagnosed and had the added complexity of helping our children adjust to a new country and language. There were dozens of irons in the fire and I was in such constant motion, I rarely had time to think or prioritize. I was too busy executing.

But cancer brought my “normal” life to a screeching halt. We decided that I would receive tandem stem cell transplants (two transplants back-to-back). As our hospital performed the transplants on an outpatient basis, I would need to be isolated at home most of the time. We evaluated our options for where to live and receive treatment. Because our young kids had already adjusted to life in a new country and posed a possible infection risk to me, we decided that it would be best if they stayed with Dad in Mexico while I stayed in the US with a caregiver (living with relatives). Because I would be significantly immunocompromised, Paul had made sure the house was completely sterile. I wouldn’t be in a condition to support the kids physically or emotionally, and I needed my own attention and care. That period of separation lasted a very long 6 months. I thought moving to Mexico was hard, but then the following two years became even harder for many reasons, not just because of my health.

In that time of relative self-isolation, I had a lot of time to be still and ponder. I decided that I would have to find blessings - not in spite of the challenges we were facing, but because of them. I set a stretch goal to find 10 blessings and then I kept my eyes, ears and heart open to find them wherever I could. It became easier in the quiet.

It became easier because I was looking.

I was trying to follow the advice of the wise mother who counseled a disappointed son to look at his challenges differently. She said, “Come what may and love it.”

Her son said, “I think she may have meant that every life has peaks and shadows and times when it seems that the birds don’t sing and bells don’t ring. Yet in spite of discouragement and adversity, those who are happiest seem to have a way of learning from difficult times, becoming stronger, wiser, and happier as a result.”

Almost ten years after that cancer diagnosis, our collective lives have been put on pause because of COVID-19. I see a repeat coming. It’s very likely that the virus will not only impact our physical health, but our work and financial life, family dynamics, mental/emotional wellbeing and our national psyche. Although it is early, there are foreboding long-term consequences for our economic future and our collective purpose.  

I have learned that there are four types of adversity:

  1. Adversity created by our own poor choices
  2. Adversity created by the poor choices of others
  3. Adversity that is the “common lot of man” like death and disease
  4. Adversity that is a personal tutorial for each of us individually

We are most wise if we can side-step the first category and spare ourselves some unnecessary pain. As a quote attributed to John Wayne goes -  “Life is hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.” But we certainly can’t control the actions of others (like diehard, unconcerned spring breakers) or prevent death and disease from happening at all. And the personal tutorials will always come.  

Adversity is here to stay as part of this mortal life experience. Better to acknowledge it as inevitable and anticipate it than to ignore it, deny it or curse it. And there are blessings to be had by living through it.  

If I had a formula for bypassing trouble, I would not pass it round.  Trouble creates a capacity to handle it.  I don’t embrace trouble; that’s as bad as treating it as an enemy.  But I do say meet it as a friend, for you’ll see a lot of it and had better be on speaking terms with it.  ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

There will be plenty of not-so-good things about the current crisis, but we needn’t dwell on those and we don’t need reminders. If we are to be in the refiner’s fire, we might as well notice and appreciate the shine.

For me, searching for Shakespeare’s “sermons in stones” changed my trajectory and my focus. I started with a family/friends blog. That led me to ask the Myeloma Beacon if I could submit articles for their website. I was promptly rejected. That rejection led to the creation of the Myeloma Crowd as a website and non-profit foundation built for patients by patients (thank you Myeloma Beacon!) I have had the great privilege of serving thousands of myeloma patients for the last 8 years and the work brings me indescribable joy every day. I have truly become stronger, wiser and happier as a result.

If you are a myeloma or cancer patient too, you are already on speaking terms with adversity. You are most likely well versed in some of these blessings. You may discover that out of everyone you know, you are the most prepared of all to navigate the current and future crises. I invite you to share your wisdom and strength with others during this time and become a source of inspiration. Let’s find and call out the 10 blessings (and more) of adversity together and discover hope and enlightenment in the process.

(Editor’s note: This is the beginning of an 11-article series)

©Jenny Ahlstrom

The author Jennifer Ahlstrom

about the author
Jennifer Ahlstrom

Myeloma survivor, patient advocate, wife, mom of 6. Believer that patients can help accelerate a cure by weighing in and participating in clinical research. Founder of Myeloma Crowd by HealthTree and the HealthTree Foundation.

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