When I was in private practice, our office had a small wooden sign in the waiting room. It said: “Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”
And while there’s no true normal when it comes to navigating a personal storm, there are plenty of rhythms you can find to help stabilize your life amid a personal disaster.
Looking back over my time while being treated for stage 4 colon cancer (now in remission), I could see how these practices helped us find some “normal “ in our chaos.
In the midst of the storm, embracing your own version of “normal” is one choice you can make for life.
When I encourage survivors of disaster to return to what they were doing prior to impact, I don’t mean that everything will return to the way it was. It won’t. But I’m convinced that people do benefit from carving out calm in the chaos.
It buffers the roller-coaster effect inherent in so many disasters. For some, that will mean opting for rhythms in which they’ll see familiar faces—at church, a child’s school, or a neighborhood potluck.
For others, maintaining a bit of the schedule they’d once held can be grounding. For some, that means rising early for a walk or meditation. For others, it can mean meeting a jogging buddy for coffee instead of a run.
Others will carve out a short period of time each day for work or hobbies that are life-giving. When my own family chose to travel to be with extended family for Thanksgiving, we were choosing to be in places that fed our souls and offered comfort and stability. There can be healing and stability in returning to normal rhythms and routines.
In addition to maintaining normal rhythms and routines, you can also choose to fully embrace what’s new about the season you’re in even while you’re in it.
During the season we never would have chosen, we purposely adopted the mindset of a woman we knew. This woman — who was also fighting cancer — noticed how similar it was to other life seasons.
She remarked, “When you go to college, you ‘do’ school. When your kids are little, you ‘do’ childrearing. Now it’s time to ‘do’ cancer.”
I found her perspective helpful; it was a reminder that even in the midst of difficulty, you still have to “do.”
That “doing” took on a whole new meaning for me during this time period. As the type of person who loves creating to-do lists and crossing off tasks throughout the day, the tasks that weren’t accomplished — even the ones I held in my head that never made it to the list — became laden with meaning.
For instance, if doing the dishes was going to sap the energy I needed to snuggle with my girls when they got home from school, I could actively choose to not do the dishes. And other times doing the dishes felt like a small victory.
Similarly, because my body needed what felt like an inordinate amount of rest, I begrudged the time “wasted” by napping, when I wasn’t “accomplishing” anything. But when I began to see napping as an action, I learned to embrace it as an important life-giving part of my new routine.
Find ways to cultivate gratitude — especially when it feels like there’s little to be grateful about in your life.
— Jamie Aten (@drjamieaten) November 21, 2018
Our family also found life by creating new traditions. In the middle of a particularly difficult week for all of us, a few weeks after my treatments had begun, my wife, Kelly, suggested we go around the dinner table and answer the question, “What was the best part of your day?”
Kelly began, mentioning, “I had a good day at work.” Then, moving clockwise around the table, our daughters all shared, too.
Chloe said, “I had fun at art class. We tried painting fruit.”
Carlee chimed in next. “I had fun on the playground,” she said.
It had been a rough day for too many days. I would have loved to have offered a “best” as robust as having worked on a research paper or having a low-pain day, or better yet, having the energy to snuggle with my kids.
Colleen piped up, “Today was library day. I got to check out some new books.”
“Dad, how about you?” Colleen asked.
At first I struggled to find something positive to share. It had been a rough day for too many days. I would have loved to have offered a “best” as robust as having worked on a research paper, or having a low-pain day, or better yet, having the energy to snuggle with her and her sisters after school.
But it finally hit me. “Right now. The best part of my day is right now, hearing about each of your days and being able to spend time at dinner with my family.”
By doing the things we’d always done, by embracing what was new, by establishing a few new family rhythms, and by practicing gratitude, we experienced stability in the storm.
You can, too.
Dr. Jamie Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. This article was adapted from his newest book, “A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience” (Templeton Press, January 2019). In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House.
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