How to Cope With the Worst-Case Scenario
Lessons learned from a tragic diagnosis
We all have an idea of what our worst-case scenario would look like; that one thing that we would never want to happen and couldn’t ever imagine coping with.
In February, my fianceé was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. If somebody had asked me this time last year to envision my greatest fear, the result of that scan would have been it. Her diagnosis really was my worst-case scenario.
As you’d expect, the past twelve months have been a complete whirlwind of emotion — every new week filled with angst, fear and apprehension, all mixed together, each bout of feeling as equally as formidable as the next.
But, much to my surprise, a lot of positive things have come out of the wreckage. When the worst truly does come to the worst, you have no choice but to cope.
You have to play the hand you’ve been dealt. In the words of Bob Marley,
‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.’
In sorrow, you can learn an awful lot about yourself and the world around you — about pain, adversity, and staying sane along the way. Such moments can serve as a wake-up call; periods of realization and discovery.
It’s exactly these lessons that I’d like to share with you today.
Less to Lose, Everything to Gain
When Charlotte’s symptoms started crashing in, along with the terrifying series of consultations and tests that ensued, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Literally none.
I was torn between studying psychology at university, sticking with my part-time job as a cashier and working my way up, starting a business. Frankly, my mind was all over the place.
And yet, at the beginning of this year, everything became clear. When my worst nightmare became a reality, and everything I’d grown to love about my life started crumbling down, the fog lifted.
I wanted to write. Since my childhood, since the days I spent writing war stories and fantasy novels in my bedroom, I’d always hoped that that passion would turn into a career someday.
But life got in the way. The pressures of work, education, finances; relationships, status, parents — all that other stuff clouded my vision, to the point where I didn’t really know what I wanted from life, only what the world expected me to want.
When things really do take a turn for the worst, all of these pressures are thrown out of the window. None of it matters anymore. Money, popularity — they don’t mean a thing.
In times of turmoil, we no longer care for the safe, prestigious, respectable path in life.
With much less left to lose than before, we feel more open to take the riskier, yet ever-more fulfilling career choices — and that’s a beautiful thing.
The Friends That Count
Some of my closest friends, those that I thought would have my back through everything, have been entirely absent during this difficult year.
And some of those that I’ve only known for a few months haven’t left my side for one minute. In fact, even people that I’ve shared a few mere moments of conversation with have come crawling out of the woodwork to lend a shoulder to cry on.
In times of turmoil, you quickly learn which friends just say they’re there for you and which ones truly mean it.
The right friends are those that can see past your ruins, your social status, your appearance, simply loving the genuine you that lies beneath.
There are friends that will be there during the good times, and friends that will be there during the bad times. Only suffering can reveal the people that will be there through both.
It’s exactly these types of friends that I now surround myself with. They can pull you through anything, and the others aren’t really worth your time anyway.
Putting Things Into Perspective
A worst-case scenario is, as its name suggests, as bad as it can get. When the worst comes to the worst, you’re starting from rock bottom.
But something really interesting happens when you’re presented with such a terrible situation: it puts everything else into perspective. Every other little thing that bothered you before suddenly seems trivial and meaningless.
You realize that there are bigger things to worry about than the guy that cut you up on the motorway or an annoying customer.
Suddenly, you’re granted with this ability to distinguish between the things that truly matter, those that really are worth lamenting, and those that are only ever passing troubles, unworthy of our concern.
We’re gifted with a renewed sense of calmness and acceptance of every situation. Intense pain acts as a yardstick with which we can measure future pleasure.
We learn to become fearful of little, and thankful for a lot.
Everything is Impermanent
In moments of adversity, you’re hit with the realization that everything in life is impermanent. Nothing can, or will, last forever.
Like a cobbled-together construction, awash with imperfections, our terrestrial lives are ever-changing, ever-confusing and will never be perfect. They’re always crumbling, being built back up, reshaped. And that’s okay.
By acknowledging this fact, we can come to realize that suffering is, in fact, a completely natural process. We will encounter pain in the future, just as we have done in the past. But pain will only arise when we start clinging to things that aren’t going to be sticking around, like our jobs, partners and social statuses; pain is a result of an attachment to the impermanent.
It might sound bleak, but it isn’t. When we learn to accept the fact that everything is indeed ephemeral, suffering is inevitable and life is not perfect, only then can we feel truly content.
The one thing that we’ll have for as long as we live is ourselves. For the sake of our long-term happiness, we have no choice but to learn to find contentment within, not without.
Without having experienced the gigantic mess that the past twelve months have been, I’d never have learned that lesson. I’d still be chasing after money and material possessions to keep me happy. Now I know that none of those things will bring me true happiness.
Paulo Coelho put it best,
“Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realise that nothing really belongs to them.” — Paulo Coelho
In moments of suffering, you are reminded that the only way to cope is to accept your pain, release attachment and cultivate gratitude for everything.
Feel the Pain
In the back of our minds, many of us fear a lot of different things. We fear for our health, losing loved ones, death, and countless other frightening prospects.
As a means of coping with these trials and tribulations, we are often encouraged to ‘think about the positive,’ to ‘be optimistic’ — as if pushing our fears to the darker recesses of our mind will ever force them out of it for good.
While well-meaning, coercing ourselves to think positively rarely frees us from the vice of suffering. Rather, it only forces our terrors to fester and multiply in the blackness, reappearing ever-more threateningly in future.
My natural response to the plague of emotion of this past year has been to try and shut negative thoughts out completely. A little like playing whack-a-mole, when fear pops up, I’d just go ahead and strike it back down.
I guess it’s just instinct — to try and drive out that which causes us unhappiness. But emotions don’t work that way.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about pain, it’s that it has to be felt. You can’t avoid it, and if you try, you’ll only make it more difficult to bear. You have to learn to embrace struggle.
I remember when I was learning to drive, my father taught me how to deal with icy roads. He told me that if I ever I were to skid on a frosty patch, I should turn into the movement, not against it. If you move against the slide, you’ll only whirl out of control.
In much the same way, you have to move with sadness. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned.
Resisting negative emotions only makes them harder to deal with — and often, they come back with greater intensity. Instead, we have to embrace struggle. We have to let it take its natural course, pulling us here and there until it tires and releases us.
We have to learn to go with the flow; to let the wind carry us; to turn into the slide and regain our control.
And, like a piece of driftwood lost at sea, eventually you’ll wash back up on the shore — but only when you learn to move with the waves.