Could Good Come From This Disaster?

By Diane McDaniel

Something unexpected in the garden

Sometimes a disaster is just a disaster, and nothing good can come from it. Other times, a disaster is also an opportunity for something new that is good.

Finding something good that can come out of a disaster isn’t easy. It usually takes some time for opportunity to reveal itself. Before you get to the possibility of something new that is good, you have to deal with the loss that is the disaster.

My personal disaster is ovarian cancer. It’s been 18 months since a diagnosis of ovarian cancer overturned my certainty about life like a proverbial applecart.

After two surgeries and eight months of chemotherapy, I’m in complete remission. For the time being, my physical health is good.

As well, after a year of psychotherapy, my mental and emotional health is good enough. I’m ready to look at the opportunities that have emerged as a result of the personal earthquake that has altered my life.

Let me be clear: I’m not grateful for cancer. I’d give almost anything never to have had cancer. Cancer is a disaster, plain and simple. Not only was it a disaster in the past, it’s likely to be a disaster for me in the future. While I’m in good health now, there is a strong likelihood that my cancer will recur. This is a weight of which I am conscious everyday.

A bit of beauty in Central Park

Directly or indirectly, the weight of this likelihood also affects my children and husband, the rest of my family, and my circle of caring friends. It intrudes on my most cherished and intimate moments, such as when I’m snuggling with Eva while simultaneously conscious of how devastating it would be for her to lose her mother at this tender age.

While I’m not in the slightest grateful for having cancer, it’s clear that the disaster of my malady has presented me, as well as those in my circle of caring, with opportunities. The disaster of ovarian cancer and the threat it poses to my existence has honed my attention towards life at this moment. I’m present to the experience of every day in a way that I wasn’t before my diagnosis. I know that some who are traveling this journey with me have experienced this sense of immediacy, as well.

This is a contradiction of life known all too well by those who’ve experienced severe disruption: a catastrophe of almost any sort can heighten our attention and cause us to engage with life in a different way. A disaster forces us to separate the wheat of what is truly important to us from the chaff of daily existence. What emerges out of a catastrophe can make our lives feel more meaningful.

When our health, and that of our loved ones, is good and things are running smoothly enough, we are often on autopilot. When our lives are running along, things can feel routine and lacking the heightened experiences that give our existence meaning. We squabble with those closest to us over minor disorders: who took out the trash, washed the dishes, cleaned the bathroom sink.

Small disturbances to the smooth functioning of our daily individual experience can feel outsized. We are distracted and lose sight of the big picture. We stop focusing on what really matters.

When our health, or that of our loved ones, falls apart and nothing is running smoothly, our priorities are quickly reordered. When circumstances make us actively aware that there is no certainty of a future, we become intensely focused on the present.

The eternal wonder of sky and ocean

For me, being focused on the present means that I am paying close attention to the quality of my relationships with my circle of loved ones. What matters most to me boils down to two things: sharing the time of life that we have together and expressing the love that we have for each other.

One significant reaction that I’ve had to the disaster of cancer has been to tend and befriend. Emotional closeness and connection has sustained me and helped me to get through the difficult moments that accompany cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. The practices of tending and befriending have been a tremendous boon to my happiness and engagement. I’m more connected now to knitted together circles of family and friends. I hold my loved ones close in my mind and heart. I reach out for help and counsel when I need it.

The circle of help and caring that my community has created and nurtured enriches our connections and sustains our relationships.

Living in the midst of a catastrophe has also clarified what is meaningful and what is a drain in how I spend my time. How ironic that it has taken living my life on a razor’s edge for me to figure out how and with whom I should spend my time and energy. It is a gift to have had the opportunity for this insight, which may have eluded me otherwise.

Waves at Venice Beach

While some good has undoubtedly come out of the disaster in my life, my focus on the quality of the present and my greater attunement to my emotional state has brought its share of challenges. In particular, my sharpened perspective has exposed dissatisfactions in some relationships and interactions.

My increased need for engagement that is sustaining and meaningful has made it increasingly difficult for me to tolerate relationships that lack emotional closeness and connection. My one-sided efforts to manufacture connection without reciprocation leave me wiped out and empty.

Living through the disaster of ovarian cancer has revealed the extent to which I need care and nurturing. I can no longer cope with the lack of these qualities by maintaining a can-do spirit, being super competent, and propelling myself forward by focusing on external concerns. This change in my self-conception causes me significant apprehension.

Some of the opportunities that emerge from disaster are easy to embrace. Others are difficult.

The disaster in my life has helped me to experience my emotions in a more intense and more focused way. More than ever before I savor and value connection with others, especially emotional connection with my loved ones. In this way, the disaster has helped me to uncover meaning that makes my life worth living, regardless of how long or short it may be.

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