In my previous post, “Why do we think life should be easy?,” I write about our unrealistic expectations of what our lives should be. Believing, “Why me?” makes it easier for us to see ourselves as victims, giving away our personal power.

Years ago, I served as the executive director for a local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I found that those we served fell into one of three categories.

  1. They’d turned themselves into a victim, blaming everyone (including themselves) and everything for a situation in which there was no one to blame.
  2. They’d become bitter because they mistakenly believed that life was fair and that they didn’t deserve chronic illness. They usually compared their existence to others who seemingly led perfect lives. They dwelt in envy. OR
  3. They’d recognized that how they faced MS, gave them control in choosing how to think about the disease in relation to their lives. They focused on how they could not only make their existence more rewarding, but also how they could serve others.

I’d observed that the first two groups did little to uplift their existence. Unwittingly, they suppressed their ability to improve their lives, because they’d given up: they’d let the disease win. Often, their negativity infiltrated everything in their life—some even pushed their loved ones away. It was heartbreaking to see them not be able to emotionally break free from their diagnoses. Essentially, the disease became their identity.

The third group, though, refused to let their physical limitations define them. They not only lived in gratitude for what they could still do, but they also recognized that they possessed a super power that all of us have: the power of controlling our minds. They understood that disease limits us, but that there are ways to grow and move forward despite it.

One such person was Bonnie, an amazing woman who became my role model. Confined to a wheelchair, she was vibrant and eager to help others. She loved skiing and when she heard there were programs elsewhere that did adaptive skiing, she brought it to the Sierra. She was back on the slopes and helping others do the same. She taught me that it’s more paralyzing to focus on what you can’t do than focusing on what you can.

Bonnie, as well as that job, profoundly prepared me for the health battle I was to face. When I fell ill a few years after leaving the MS Society, I often thought of her courage and determination to make life better for herself and others. Through her well-lived life, she taught me that controlling how we respond to challenges—no matter what type—is the most empowering gift we can give ourselves.

Adversity grows me.
I once attended a support group for chronically ill people. During one session, a man interrupted me when I said there was a purpose to me being sick and that one day I would be well. “Stop lying to yourself,” he said. “You’ll never get any better.”

I imagine this man found each day more difficult to pull himself out of the pit he dug for himself. How can we heal, how can we rise, when we mentally attach hefty weights to our body and our mind? When we convince ourself there is no point in trying, we deny our tremendous potential.

Now, let’s be clear. No one can live optimistically 24/7. We are human, after all. However, we can choose to live in hope and gratitude more frequently than the time we spend in the depths.

As for me, I got miraculously better for 10 years. I wrote a book, hiked, kayaked, snowshoed and traveled extensively. The experience of having a devastating, chronic illness for 18 years gave my life more depth, meaning and purpose than it had before I’d become ill.

If I hadn’t had those struggles, I wouldn’t have been as enthralled with the life I’m living. The Most Loving used illness to evolve me, and I allowed the divine to shape me into the person I needed to be. I came through this experience victorious, not as a victim.

Now, that I’m once again facing more difficult times, I find comfort knowing that everything I go through prepares me for my future. I am making profound realizations on how to improve my life. I may not be healed, but I can still live fully.

Rapid personal and spiritual growth comes from stretching ourselves in ways we wouldn’t attempt if life were easy. Challenges empower us: we don’t want to go through them, but there is victory when we focus on what we can do and recognize that all experiences shape us.