“Our ability to handle life’s challenges is a measure of our strength of character.” ~ Les Brown
Life is challenging. Some folks seem to have more challenges than others, but we all have challenges. A lot has been thrown at me thus far that I’d rather not have dealt with at all. I’d like to think I have continued to grow for the better through challenging times. Chalk it up to an inherent teacher trait that I always need to learn something from situations, regardless of whether the situations are good or bad. I’ve become more hopeful, determined, and resilient over the past several years. I am grateful for these gifts and the opportunities I have had to use these strengths. These are amazing traits, but I am not sure I would have chosen them as main character strengths before my cancer diagnosis.
I would have put kindness, positivity, and a good sense of humor at the top of my list.
Being kind is what I try to show the world and what I expect from others. Our world needs more kindness. I can find a positive perspective in just about anything. Even if something sucks for me, I recognize it as truth and allow myself to be there for a while. My sense of humor has brought a smile to my face when I’ve needed it.
Not everyone gets my jokes.
How we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we truly are may all be the same or different. It’s natural to see ourselves how we want to be seen. Circumstances factor into how we are seen by others. I believe we are a mix of so many traits that are fluid and dependent on what is needed. My virtuous side may shine in the public eye, but I may need to channel my stealth if I were to plan the next great diamond heist. Luckily, I have more of an attraction to pearls. My theme here today is on character strengths rather than weaknesses, so I’m determined to stay on topic and not focus on unflattering qualities. I have those like we all do.
I stumbled across research on character strengths while doing some reading about happiness. A company that researches character strengths referred people to their website for anyone interested in identifying their top character strengths. The idea is to know your strengths so you can use them effectively. It takes about fifteen minutes to rate yourself on how much you fit various descriptions. Directions include responding to how you feel you are and not how you want to be, although I’m sure there is personal bias involved. How could there not be?
According to their research, they assert that people who use their strengths are 18 times more likely to be flourishing and happier than those who don’t know or use their strengths. Flourishing! I wanted to find out what they deemed my strengths and see if I agreed since I want to flourish as much as possible.
According to results, my top three character strengths are perspective, spirituality, and humor.
The ability to see the bigger picture and what is best for a situation was my top strength. I can see the big picture but am also detailed oriented. Some describe this as seeing the forest and the trees. I think being able to think mindfully about situations has helped me consider the advantages and disadvantages of a situation. Having made my share of mistakes and learning from them also has developed a sense of knowing that comes with looking at different viewpoints. Having different ways of looking at the world helps make sense of it.
Seeing alternate points of view is important. I can apply this to my own life in a way where I listen carefully and weigh all possible sides. It’s harder to do when there are heavy health decisions to be made. The best options moving forward may involve hard parts but still be in my best interests. How will treatment options and side effects affect my quality of life? What are the chances of success? Am I a good match for a proposed treatment? Why is it being suggested for me? I make a lot of pro and con lists. I weigh some factors more than others. I look at the facts I have. I consider my feelings. I ask the people I trust for input and their valued perspective.
Careful listening is needed to understand and value perspectives different from yours. Doing research so I can make informed decisions is important to me. Asking questions fits here too. I won’t discount intuition because even after all the research has been gathered and all the questions have been asked, there is a feeling about what the right choice is for me.
Spirituality was my second highest strength. It reflects a sense of meaning and purpose in the universe. It’s a search for the sacred whether that’s secular or nonsecular.
I was surprised this strength ranked so highly. I used to identify very strongly with spiritual ideology and concepts around faith. It’s been shaken. I don’t believe having cancer has shaken it as much as the rigidity of the religion that I’m a member. I question more and I believe questioning is good. I am not going to narrow the sphere of spirituality to religion. Spirit to me has become a much larger force and a person’s chosen religion or choice not to be religious doesn’t determine a person’s faith, spirit, or worth. There is no one way for everyone to be spiritual. We each find our own way.
How can I use spirituality as a strength living with cancer? I know I am more than this body where I currently reside. My views on the afterlife have evolved. I have pondered a great deal about the meaning of life that influence my choices and give me peace. There is some sort of transcendence at work that allows me to connect to something greater. I have a peace journal. I meditate. I pray. I engage in discussions about faith with close friends. I feel a connection to the universe when I’m in nature.
I can still talk to my parents and feel their presence. I talk to God daily. I let myself be quiet and I listen to the stillness.
I’ve always found situations amusing. Sometimes not at the time, but I could laugh at them later. It seems I can make other people laugh even if it’s not my intention. I will choose a comedy over a drama. Children and their natural shenanigans are gold mines for humor. Stephen Colbert and his writers craft a masterpiece nightly with his monologue that has made the past couple of years more bearable. I have become a fan of good political satire. I love being around people who can make me laugh. It’s a quality I look for in strong relationships.
How can I further use my sense of humor as I live with cancer? It’s very useful in dealing with stressful situations. Cancer is stressful. Seeing the lighter side in a situation reduces stress. A person living with metastatic breast cancer faces a lot of adversity ranging from medical obstacles, social relationships, and navigating through it all off road because it is a wilderness. A good sense of humor has the potential for transforming something negative into something positive because of a shift in perspective. My former oncologist and I had such a good chuckle over a theory a radiologist gave about why I had severe muscle cramping to the point of hospitalization. His theory was I wasn’t moving around enough in the MRI tube. It is just absurd! There isn’t ROOM to move around in there and you need to stay motionless for the imaging to be accurate. The radiologist knows a person can’t move around in there. I shared the story with my oncologist and he said, “What are you supposed to do – jog around in there?” The stupidity behind this utterly false theory is astounding, but the image of jogging in an MRI tube cracks me up every time. Being in good humor doesn’t necessarily mean you are laughing all the time. It’s more of an outlook you carry with you.
How a person handles life’s challenges certainly is an indicator of their character. I will strive to handle mine with a perspective that affords me meaning, a sense of humor, kindness, positivity, and a dash of grace if I can get it.
What do you feel are your top character strengths?
How do you apply your strengths so you flourish and make the most of them?
Click here (viacharacter.org) if you have an interest in completing the survey for yourself to learn about your top character strengths. It’s free to take and get results. I am not affiliated with them in any manner.
This is a tale of taking steps.
Step One: Failure and Recovery
It starts last September in a training session where my fitness coach was gathering baseline data to use for setting goals.
She wanted me to step up on a medium sized step up box without any help from my hands, other equipment, walls, etc. It was hard for me.
I can step up on a small step up box 12 inches high successfully without support.
The medium box is 18 inches high. I can do it if I am holding something for support. This means I am using leg muscles and relying on arm muscles for help. What counts in this setting is to not use arm muscles. My hamstrings, quads, glutes, and core need to do all the work.
I knew it wasn’t going to go well and I didn’t want to do it. My coach was there to hold on to me if I needed it. She’s great but I didn’t find her stabilizing. I fell backward, stumbled, but was able to right myself so I didn’t fall.
It was scary. There were tears. I moved to another part of my workout. We focused on all the things I was really good at. I don’t do well with fear or failure and couldn’t shake the voices in my head. Casting away those negative voices is also hard for me. It bugged me that I had trouble with the box because I knew I could do it. At home stepping up and down from a kitchen chair I had moved into a corner was part of my workout because it mimicked climbing hills and making big steps I climbed on hikes. I hold on to the top of the chair while I practice which is cheating, but it works for me.
Since I couldn’t get rid of the voices, I moved the medium box to a corner and did it confidently without issues, without hesitation, without fear. I felt a little better. It shut up the voices and I salvaged what I could.
Step Two: Approximated Movements and Muscle Building
Some time ago I bought a TRX suspension trainer to use at home. Entire workouts can be built around it. I love using it because it works so many different muscles and fits whatever level of difficulty I need. I can do pull-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, stretches, and modified yoga moves. Working with it makes my body feel quite good.
I hang on to the TRX when I’m practicing with the medium box at my weekly training session.
I have worked to isolate movements in my hips, glutes, and legs.
I climb my staircase at home with exaggerated movements pretending my regular steps are jumbo-sized.
I have turned on my abs repeatedly.
I have exhausted myself and felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all.
Step Three: Success
Muscle memory is mysterious yet strong.
Something happened at the end of November.
I felt like I wasn’t making any discernible progress. There was a minuscule lift of maybe an inch when I would try to push off from the ground with my foot. I didn’t have the needed strength.
My trainer set the small box next to the medium box. I stepped onto the small box, then the medium box easily. I took one big step backward from the medium box to lower myself to the floor. Even doing that terrified me the first time because it felt like such a big step down. I modified (cheated) and held onto something to make sure one foot was securely on the ground before letting go and step down with the other foot. It was doable. I repeated this exercise several times not using my hands.
I tried stepping up from the ground straight to the medium sized box. No dice. I was unable to piece it together moving forward. My trainer gave me the TRX to use while I stepped up. As an educator, I’m all for modification and chunking smaller steps together. I get it. I know that’s what I’ve been practicing. I don’t get why I haven’t progressed faster.
It was time for something different. What was next? Did I want to do arm pulls or push-ups? Neither. I wanted to use the punching bag. I like hitting. Beating up something other than myself feels good. Hitting works. It helps me focus. Other feelings fall away.
More practice on the box was next. No one expected a surprise. I was to practice a skill in isolation and work on pushing off with one foot.
I knew I felt different as I walked to the box. Let’s blame it on adrenaline. An insane idea entered my mind when I was just a couple of steps from the box that I was going to go for it and I’d make it this time. In hindsight, I should have announced my plans in case my plans didn’t work out and I needed help. I still had on the boxing gloves and wouldn’t be able to grab anything easily if I fell.
The momentum was there. I stepped up, pushed off, used my core, glutes, and leg strength, and just like that, I stood on the box.
Yes, I did it. Triumph was mine.
I did it several more times, giddy and confused with my success.
Step Four: Real Life
A step up is defined as when there is an increase in size or amount. There have been noticeable improvements in my strength and stamina where my fitness is concerned. Right now, I feel I struggle a bit more because I’ve moved up a level.
Quite often I find I am not making many strides living with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I go to the hospital for treatment, I am faced with at least one aggravation, usually several ranging from long wait times, people who don’t know who I am, insurance or billing absurdities, and of course health hurdles. I will step up to each of these with as much tenacity as I can muster. Persistence and doggedness paid off in the classroom when digging in my heels with teaching children. I do it well and I’m getting lots of opportunities to showcase how stubborn I can be. My life away from treatment days when I can do things the way I want without restraints (aka the right way) goes much more smoothly.
There have been changes I’ve noticed in myself. I’ve stepped up in my confidence. I carry myself with more assurance and I see it in how I talk to others and what I’m willing to take on myself. I am bolder when I stand up for myself and say what I need when I’m at an office visit or treatment. I plan events that go well. Each successful event moves me closer to a greater goal.
The Rockettes practice hours a day to ensure everyone is in the right step at the right time for a performance. Marching bands do the same. The moon landing and the first steps on the moon didn’t just happen. It took many people working together and many small steps over time that added up to a giant leap for mankind. Medical advancements, breakthroughs, and treatments used today are the result of research, trials, and carefully planned steps that led to medical successes.
In what areas of life do you need to step up? Success takes time. Moving forward takes time. Whatever it is that challenges you, keep at it one step (up) at a time. Use a TRX suspension trainer or boxing gloves if you need a hand. Keep working.