When adversity strikes, we are ready to listen to anyone who can help alleviate our pain and grief. And in fact, good advice can come to us from any source, even the most casual encounter with a stranger. There is a Zen saying walk around with our cup half full because then we leave room to learn from others. When I interviewed Dr. Bernie Siegel on my radio show and asked him who his greatest teacher was, without a moment’s hesitation he answered, “Death.” The threat of dying reminds us to enjoy this life fully and not carry around resentment or suppress our dreams. Why wait for a terminal illness to remind us how precious every day is?
When my mother became ill with Alzheimer’s, my family and friends worried about me. My father had died of Alzheimer’s two years earlier; they wondered how I would handle this new grief which was actually a reminder of an old grief, a new layer of hurt on top of an old layer. Then one day when I was buying a ticket at my local LIRR station, the Indian clerk who usually complimented me on my cheerfulness, or inquired about how my book was doing, noticed that I was a bit toned down. I smiled and greeted him as usual, but he saw something in my eyes. “What’s the matter?” Surprised, that he was such an astute observer of human nature, I decided to open up and briefly tell him about the diagnosis. There was no one else standing behind me and the train was not due for ten minutes. I blurted out, “I just can’t believe it! My mother was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my father recently died of it. Lightning has hit my house twice!” I will never forget the intense look in his eyes which burned through the glass partition: “You’ll see everything will be all right for awhile. You still have your mother. Lower your expectations.” “Thank you, thank you – wow I get it!” I ran to catch the train.
Those last three words lower your expectations profoundly changed my life. And all this said by the change-maker at the ticket booth, literally! Quite often we nag ourselves to death with huge goals, unreasonable conditions for happiness or ecstasy. Ultimately my mother passed away. However, while she was alive with Alzheimer’s for another eight years, we cultivated a deep connection which grew to include my daughter. There we were: Three generations tied together by a chain of genes, laughter and love. Alzheimer’s taught us to be in the moment and not to focus on what we no longer had or what we would ultimately lose. Alzheimer’s by definition is the ultimate disease of letting go. And believe me the three of us let ourselves go in a silly way! My mother had a great sense of humor and looked for opportunities to laugh.
Don’t wait for tragedy or serious illness to remind you to live happily and playfully. Begin now during those routine, ordinary days to practice cultivating an eye for fun and humor. When obstacles come your way, you will have a knee-jerk reaction to face them, using your positive energy to work through them or around them. Eight years later at my mother’s funeral sitting with my daughter in an ultra-orthodox Hassidic funeral chapel respecting my mother’s final wishes, my cell phone rang out through the sadness. Because I do many stress-management/fitness workshops for Dominican nuns, my cell phone is programmed to play Hallelujah (I thought that was kind of cute). Just imagine Hallelujah reverberating in the Hassidic chapel. My daughter, then fourteen years old, her biggest fear standing out in a crowd, cried out, “Shut the phone, ma, shut the phone.” Fumbling, “I’m trying to, but it’s buried deep down in my pocketbook and I can’t find it.” My pocket book reflected my mental state. As the phone kept ringing, we both started to laugh. We laughed so hard until we cried. To this day I believe that Hallelujah was a mystical signal from my mother to “lighten up!” to remember her in death the way I did in life: Feisty energy.
Here is a list of three-words that might change your life:
- Lower your expectations
- Be reasonably happy
- Flow with it
- Clean the clutter
- Don’t vent: Reinvent
- Nature will nurture
- Sing your song
- Laugh at yourself
- Activity Alleviates Anxiety
- Impossible is nothing
Debbie Mandel, MA is the author of Changing Habits: The Caregivers' Total Workout and Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-reduction specialist, motivational speaker, a personal trainer and mind/body lecturer. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WGBB AM1240 in New York City , produces a weekly wellness newsletter, and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com