Taking Risks and Ospreys

Two years ago, I saw an osprey on a warm summer day. It landed squarely on a small tree right in front of a window in my family room. There couldn’t have been more than six feet between us. It should not have been there at all because these birds like water areas filled with fish. A small pond is located a stone’s throw from my home, but I have never seen anyone fish there. Yet, there on a very obvious branch perched an osprey for me to see it. It got my attention. Right away, I knew it wasn’t a red-tailed hawk or a peregrine falcon. I had no clue what it was, but it edged closer to my window for me to observe for around twenty beautiful seconds. We stared at one another. Moments later it spread its wings and flew away. I grabbed my bird book and took to the internet to find out what I saw and what the sighting meant.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I learned ospreys submerge their entire head underwater when preying on fish. They symbolize that you can be very much out of your comfort zone (or usual environment) . . . and survive. These birds teach us to take risks, not be frightened to take risks, even if opportunities seem out of reach. Although all birds are messengers, ospreys bring awareness that an important message is on its way.

They remind us:

YOU are ready.

YOU are skilled.

YOU are fearless.

The rest is up to us.

Like the osprey, I have been very much out of my comfort zone and survived.

I have survived many things. I have survived chickenpox, many flu viruses, and other illnesses. I have survived bullying. I have survived airports and air travel. I have survived chemo and a myriad of other treatments and side effects. I have survived tornado warnings and personal emotional storms. I have survived the pain and grief that follows the passing of loved ones. I have survived many challenging students in the classroom, and they have also survived me. Surviving cancer is just one thing I’m living with and doing my best to survive. I am so many things, as we all are. Being a survivor is just one part of me. I’ve changed, but I call myself a survivor because I am still here.

Taking risks is part of living a fulfilling life. Some look at risks as adventures. Some thrive on danger. Some choices in life don’t seem to be choices, but rather the only choice you could make at any given time. I felt like this when choosing my first round of chemotherapy. I felt it again each time I needed to move on to another treatment regiment. It seemed I didn’t have much choice because the alternative was an outcome that wouldn’t work well for me. I feel like the past seven years have been an exercise in risk. Each treatment is a risk.

I’m risking my life in order to stay alive.

It’s hard. I get tired. And yet, I know I’m worth the risks I take. I want to be healthy and happy.

There is something missing. I’m so focused on staying well that I don’t have much time for anything else. The risks of sky diving or strolling by my lonesome through prime lion habitat don’t appeal to me. Developing a gambling addiction also isn’t the kind of risk I want.

On the one hand, I’m torn between not wanting to do anything, go anywhere, or see anyone who may put my health at risk. Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children for flu or preventable diseases could have life-threatening consequences for me. I must be over cautious. I can’t afford to take much risk in regards to my health. I am always going to base health decisions on scenarios with the lowest risk aligned with the greatest outcomes. Nothing is a sure thing. It all carries risk.

We all take risks in hopes of gaining a desired result.

But there’s the other hand. I don’t want to pass up chances to go out and have fun! I don’t want to put self-imposed limits on myself because I am unsure what I’m capable of achieving. I want to live with passion and purpose, to continue to learn and to lead, to change and to grow for the better.

There is some element of calculated risk in every choice we make. Some have bigger impacts than others. There are people who interpret risk as an opportunity, and others who see it as an assured failure. These are not the same people.

Taking risks has benefits. The most obvious, of course, is being rewarded with your goal. People who take risks are said to be more adaptable and they try more new things. They do not see failure as failure. Failure is an opportunity. They learn from these opportunities and bounce back more quickly compared to those who view unsuccessful risks as failures.

Risk-taking involves moving past fear in pursuit of what you want.

Fear prevents you from taking chances. Fear keeps you stuck. Life continues to happen if you choose to stay stuck – that’s still a choice. Taking a risk involves ignoring possible judgments from others. It may mean standing on your own, pushing past self-imposed boundaries, and doing something outside of your comfort zone. I don’t think it’s so much of a “no pain, no gain” philosophy. It’s more of an “if you always go with the flow, you never grow” mentality.

How might someone incorporate a little more risk into his or her life?

Pick a few from the list or come up with your own:

  • Explore a new town.
  • Ask for what you need.
  • Sign up for a ropes course.
  • Give someone new a chance.
  • Take a class to develop an interest.
  • Order something different at your usual restaurant.
  • Write or talk about emotions you find hard to process.
  • Ask more questions at your next medical appointment.
  • Respectfully disagree if you are misrepresented on an issue.
  • Share an honest opinion in a place where your view may not popular.
  • Make an appointment with a therapist if you know you need extra support.
  • Risk being rejected, turned down, the possibility of failure, or hearing NO.
  • There’s always sky diving if that’s really something you need to do.

Sometimes the biggest risk we take is not taking one.

Back to the osprey.

My head is submerged most of the time as I keep exposing my body to ongoing treatment. I’m definitely out of my comfort zone. The outcome has surprised me. It is one more thing I have come to accept. The big risk with treatment is it may stop working. That risk is worth it to stay healthy. I’ve learned I can take these risks even when they frighten me down to my bones.

The opportunities I have to be healthy are not out of reach.

It is why I keep my head submerged.

A Moment in Amsterdam: Fear Alley and Stress

Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.

Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.

Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.

I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.

Where am I going with this?

Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.

From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.

I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.

Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.

Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.

What if we believed in hope instead?

What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.

Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.

Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.

Don’t let fear crush hope.

Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.

We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.

We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.

All the time.

 

Consider responding:

  • When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
  • How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?