“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
~ Romans 5:3-4
Early in our relationship, Sandra showed her deep understanding of faith and hope with a strip of paper she lovingly put into the palm of my hand. She was just in her early-20s, but already endowed with precocious good judgment. I was a few years older with a swagger in my step, a chip on my shoulder, and determination in my eyes. I was confident that ambition and hard work would secure a successful future.
On that slip of paper were 15 words of wisdom: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it.” Sandra offered this wise advice as a tool to relieve the obsessive resolve that would consume me when someone or something posed a threat to my progress. She folded the ticket-sized document, placed it in my wallet, and encouraged me to reflect on it when anxiety reared its ugly head.
I cherished that piece of paper because Sandra gave it to me. But, I didn’t take the advice. For years it stayed in my wallet while my reaction to challenges remained unchanged. When my brothers-in-law playfully tossed me into a swimming pool fully clothed one summer, the fragile document disintegrated in the water. Nevertheless, Sandra’s gift stayed on my mind. Unfortunately, its lessons didn’t.
My spiritual journey inspired me to research where the quote came from. An American Christian evangelist named Charles Swindoll said it during a sermon on hope. It was his action-oriented response to St. Paul’s assertion that “suffering produces endurance.” In other words, we shouldn’t surrender to suffering by giving up. We should carry on by building character and giving ourselves hope.
St. Paul’s definition of hope and Swindoll’s guidance to persist positively in the face of hopelessness bring to mind the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Those Truths teach us that (1) suffering is a fact of life, (2) not getting what we want causes suffering, (3) removing the desire to get what we want can end suffering, and (4) living a meaningful life is the way to take away desire.
I got a chance to try out these ideas a couple of months ago. Doctors were concerned that I was developing an infection and admitted me into the hospital for preventive doses of antibiotics and additional testing (see “Hope=S+E+C, Part 1” https://esereport.com/2019/08/28/hope-sec-part-1/). Encouraging Sandra to go home and get some rest, I found myself in a dark hospital room alone with my thoughts.
Those who have spent any amount of time in a hospital know that it’s not a pleasant experience. In addition to the pain and discomfort caused by illness, a black cloud of worry and doubt hangs over you. It’s the anxiety of being confined and not knowing the outcome that cause people to say things like, “I hate hospitals. I wouldn’t be able to stay there very long. I just want to go home.”
That’s how I felt when the doctor told me that I could be in the hospital for an undetermined amount of time. The best case scenario was that I would be free of infection and go home after 3 days. The worst case was having a bad infection that would require surgery to cut out the contamination. That option would create a new set of issues. The prospect of surgery intensified my sense of uncertainty.
I had no desire to be in this situation. In the darkness of the room, I prayed on St. Paul’s meaning of hope, reflected on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, and thought about the words of wisdom Sandra shared with me on that slip of paper over 30 years ago. The facts were clear, though. I was in the hospital with a potential infection (10%), but it was my choice on how to react to it (90%).
I decided to concentrate on the 90%. I would make the best of the situation and just go with it. I knew the routine: lights out around 10:00 PM, shift change at 11:00 PM, IV medication change around 2:00 AM, blood draw for labs at 4:00 AM, morning medication at 6:00 AM, and doctor’s rounds between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM. Once the morning shift starts, it gets really busy. It sure sounds like a funny way to get rest.
Since I knew what was coming, I figured I could make the time pass by catching up with those who cared for me in November and getting to know the folks I hadn’t met yet. Seeing familiar faces, I retold the tall tales of 2010 and the previous fall, talked about politics, and learned more about my condition. I took several walks each day running into yet more people on the healthcare team. This might sound a little weird, but it was like a homecoming.
When I was alone in the room, I read, watched the news, and kept up with social media. Even though the place is more expensive than the Four Seasons, accommodations sucked, the food was lousy, and I didn’t feel all that well. Despite the downside, I stayed focused on the people. They’re consummate professionals and caring human beings.
They made me feel like the most important person in the world whenever they walked into the room. So much so, I wanted to do the same. The hours flew by. When Sandra came after work, we caught up on our days. I updated her on the doctor’s morning analysis and she shared war stories from her busy day at the office. If it wasn’t for the uncomfortable bed and the IV needle sticking out of my arm, the evenings were like any other we spent at home.
All in all, I spent 3 nights and 3 days in the cardiac unit at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center. When the smoked cleared, I was free of infection. Many people would say that God answered our prayers because it ended the way we wanted. Of course, that’s true. But it’s more than that. God answered my prayers by allowing me to focus on each moment as it passed, rather than worry about an unknown outcome.
Spending time alone gave me the opportunity to think about how chronic illness, a broken relationship, a job loss, a car crash, a natural disaster, or just about anything that goes against what we want can change everything in an instant. That’s the 10% of life Pastor Swindoll talks about. We don’t have much control over those things. Yet, we spend so much energy and time trying to control them.
I also spent much time thinking about St. Paul and the Buddha while in the hospital. Both spiritual leaders believe that life is all about how we respond to suffering. Paul tells us that it leads to endurance, character, and hope – the certainty that God does what’s just. Buddha tells us that suffering can be overcome by minimizing the desires that cause so much havoc in our lives.
Mick Jagger poetically put it this way, “you can’t always get what you want.” But that’s okay. That’s better than okay. It keeps us balanced in a world fraught with desire. We want our loved ones to live forever. We want that car, that partner, that bank account, that house, that job, we want that ad infinitum. When we don’t get what we want, we become angry, sad, disappointed, and frustrated. That’s why we suffer.
Armed with new tools to manage the unknown, I left the hospital with a sense of a relief and gratitude. I was joking around and saying goodbye to the amazing cardiac unit team as a volunteer pushed the wheelchair through the hallway to the elevator that would take me down to the first floor and out to the car. God willing, I will see everyone again soon when I return to recover from heart transplant surgery.
In the meantime, I’m taking it day by day. Although that slip of paper Sandra gave to me so many years ago is long gone, its words are forever seared in my heart and soul. “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it.” For 3 nights and 3 days that strategy worked for me in the hospital.
As usual, Sandra is right. I hate when that happens!