When I was six years old, and my sister Pamela was four, she was diagnosed with what she called “Sixtyfive Roses” – Cystic Fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease. I promised to die with her, but as she struggled against the limits of her disease, she taught me how to live. And while she lost her battle with illness at the age of twenty-six, she left me with a set of core beliefs that have helped me survive her loss and become a warrior on behalf of my own life.
“Heather,” she would tell me, “you can’t control life by being afraid of it.” She knew that I often made decisions from a place of fear. “That won’t protect you,” she told me frankly, “and it won’t alter the outcome.” Eventually I learned that fear separates me from my abilities; that being afraid is natural, but acting out of fear was not the same as using my survival instincts. I’ve come to see that when I choose to move through my fear, my abilities are empowered, and I actually feel propelled forward by unseen forces I recognize as hope and faith.
“When we can’t change our circumstances, we’re challenged to change ourselves,” Pam reminded me constantly. In her view, the only true power we ever have is the power to choose our response to what life sets before us. She never allowed herself to be defined by the circumstances of her illness, but only by her possibilities, however tangential. I witnessed this even when her world shrunk to the size of her hospital bed. She made me see that at any given moment I could choose despair or hope, revenge or forgiveness, fear or faith. The choice was always mine to make, and therein lay my power.
The year before she died, she wrote to the editor of our hometown paper: “I enjoyed most every moment of my life, whether it was up or down…there was always something to learn from, and there was always something in the world that was beautiful that you could take from, and every experience could mean something if you looked at it that way. If we take the chance and opportunity of seeking out beauty in the world about us, every moment of every day can be treasured.” Now if I can’t find moments of beauty and joy in my day I’m inspired to create them, believing that however small, they can be powerful.
Pam’s last words were, “I’m not giving up.” It was in surrendering Pam to death, and my first marriage to its inevitable end, that I came to understand and believe there’s a difference between giving up and surrender. When giving up, I am acting out of despair and anger. When surrendering, I am acting out of compassion and forgiveness; I am letting go with grace.
In practicing these tenets, I believe the living of my life can be a conscious act of healing for me, and all whom I encounter.
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