Insights gained from loss and blessings during the past 18 months
I often walk with my heart on my sleeve.
How this has served me throughout my life is an intriguing narrative. During my grade one and two years, we attended a one-teacher, single-classroom school in Zambia. We resided in a mission station boarding school from where we would watch the hyenas from our hostel bedroom windows some nights—the 1960s were glorious years! Weekends were spent at home and Sunday evenings when the realization sunk in that the next morning I’d have to return to the boarding school, away from Mom and Dad and the younger siblings, my glasses would fill with menisci of tears.
Eighteen months ago, I stood at the open graves of my parents, ten days apart—first Father, then Mother. During the same ten days, I also lost a brother, emotionally. To lose three people dear to one is no simple matter. Added to that burden was the fact that we had emigrated eighteen years earlier and had lived sixteen thousand kilometers apart. It was fertile ground for guilt and regret to blossom and smother my soul. During the months that followed, I discovered the healing power of writing short-form fiction and poetry; it had a faster therapeutic impact than my usual long-form fiction writing. And, while writing, my glasses again would fill with menisci of tears. The loss was profound. Writing saved me. It served as healing and transforming balm.
Then, a year ago, overnight, I found myself unceremoniously without a job—for the first time in thirty years. It was a new kind of loss to adjust to—an acute loss of professional credibility, an immediate questioning of self-worth, and an abrupt loss of income and security. My ship got blown out of the water. Despair, shock, and disbelief remained close to the surface.
Many dark months followed. I became emotionally brittle. (And I had thought the previous year with my parents was hard.) It was brutal. It impacted and strained all my relationships. It made me doubt everything I believed in and had worked for my entire professional career—that of work ethics and integrity and purpose. I grappled with many questions. How could God desert me like this? How was it even possible? Many a day and night it felt I was drowning—exhaustion crept into my soul—with an overwhelming emotionally weariness.
Once the storm had calmed and I had reached the safety of shore, I had to make peace with myself, with my God, and my fellow men. I had to re-invent myself, and, in a way, re-invent the wheel. Since I was not yet making a living off of my writing, a replacement vocation and income was an urgent priority. Within a short few months, my savings ran dry while I learned the ropes of a new craft. During this time, I rediscovered the value of writing short stories and poetry, as I did six months earlier; to which I now added sketching and watercolor painting—it would all become part of my therapeutic toolbox, alongside vigorous exercise. Not only did I experience the therapeutic value of writing and creative art—I grew intrigued by the science behind it.
During those first uncertain months of 2018, I had to re-learn the value of trusted and loyal friends. (One gentle soul, in particular, stood out. Thank you, my friend! Ashkurk sadiqiun!) It is astounding how we often live a cozy life, (in spite of working hard) soothed asleep by the comfort of the status quo. Until it ends. I learned then as if for the first time, friends are precious. Thank you to all the friends and colleagues for the support!
Painfully slowly, I resurfaced and learned the value of the Seven F’s: Faith, Family and Friends, Food, Fitness, Focused Writing & Reading, and Fine Arts. (See below for more detail.)
We also found a haven in the community we encountered at the Oasis church. Not only did it become a safe place, but they also became our second family—we experienced acceptance, love, caring, and truth. My hungry and thirsty soul found nourishment. It has been a slow re-awakening—as if from long winter sleep. Thanks, Dustin! In tandem with this experience has been the often, daily, inspiration and challenges that I have found on Rick Warren’s website, pastorrick.com—it was indeed Daily Hope. Both became catalysts for change.
During the second half of 2017, I had joined Jeff Goin’s Tribe Writers—a community of writers, bloggers, and authors. This literary involvement helped ground me—I received feedback on my writing, where I poured my heart out. I learned a new appreciation for the importance and value of writer friends. Writing is often done in solitude—but isolation serves nobody, least of all writers. We need community; we need camaraderie, we need to challenge and help one another, writers and readers alike. In 2018, I joined the Tribe Writers Mastermind group—pushing hard to take my writing and accountability to the next level. It is busy leaving a lasting impact on my life—a tip of the hat to Jeff.
Without the patience and love of my family, especially, Isabella, this season would have been an impossible nightmare. Many were the days that I could not have been a pleasure to have around, wallowing in self-pity. Thank you for not writing me off!
I fell in love with books from the day I learned to read in Kindergarten. Reading has saved me on many occasions over the years—it did again so this time. Out of the more than fifty books read during this period, two stood out: What’s So Amazing About Grace? And, Where Is God When It Hurts? Both are by Philip Yancey. It became quite clear to me—from circumstances that should have destroyed one, it was possible to emerge with strength, but not of my own will power. “However deep the pit, God’s love is deeper still.” I am still learning this truth—and to embrace it more.
Exercise has been a saving grace my entire life. Its impact has been without par. It has remained a steadfast buoy, keeping my head above the waves during hard times, and, during the calm seasons, kept my mind and body sound. During the summer of 2017, I had the privilege of discovering land paddling. Think of a stand-up paddleboard on land. In essence, it is a 59-inch by 14-inch over-sized skateboard, on which one would stand with both feet, propelling forward with a 6-foot pole (paddle) with a rounded rubber tip. What a learning curve! But what a workout! For someone who had never been on a skateboard, it was a mountain to climb. Speak of living outside one’s comfort zone! It is as exhilarating as skydiving without the risk of a parachute that wouldn’t deploy. It has now become my official summer-activity of choice—landpaddling, soaking up the sun’s goodness! Paddling on a cycling path would give me ample time to think and process life in all its mystery and surprises.
As I look back at the losses and the hurts and blessings experienced during the past 18 months, and in particular the past 12 months, several truths and insights have stood out:
1. Success and security are fleeting. It’s great to have—but it’s often gone in a moment. So is life: Here today, gone tomorrow. All it takes is a single moment. We all know the phone call that changes everything.
When my brother phoned me in 2017 to tell me Mother had broken her hip, I anticipated what would happen. Forty-two days later she was dead.
Success can be a deceptive concept. We often measure it in terms of wealth, power, influence, and fame. And yet, it can disappear overnight. Obtaining it often fails to bring satisfaction or contentment or peace. It guarantees comfort and security—while it lasts.
I had to learn not to place my security in things. Not to cling too tightly. It is still hard.
2. Finding peace and joy is what grounds us, not fleeting happiness. Situational happiness is far too fickle; it depends on circumstances. The aftertaste and after-effect of superficial pleasures don’t last long. It cannot satisfy or sustain. It’s as tumultuous as a sugar rush—it begs for more, leaving us weak and listless.
Peace has to be cultivated; it is found and grows as we discover joy in the midst of turmoil and struggle. By learning to control our thoughts and choices, we can experience peace more often. It ties in closely with gratitude.
It was liberating to discover, pain and suffering and struggle is not meaningless—in of itself it was not beneficial, but as a transforming agent, it served a great purpose. From circumstances that should have destroyed, it is possible to emerge with strength. But this is not of my own accord.
It is humbling to learn to trust God (while taking action), and, also to depend on emotionally healthy people.
3. Take responsibility for your situation. It doesn’t matter who is at fault—own up. Many circumstances and conditions I have no control over—what I have control over are how I respond, how I react. Too often over the years, I have allowed circumstances to define who I was; I allowed it to determine and dictate my “happiness,” my state of mind.
I had to learn, and am still learning that I have power (the choice and responsibility) over how I (will) respond. I have to be intentional in stepping away from remaining the victim, clinging to a mindset of complaining and blaming, to one who takes control of my thoughts and emotions and attitude.
Growing from victim to survivor and victor does not condone the wrongs dished out, or the hurts inflicted but is a necessary process to escape the otherwise slow death of one’s soul.
4. Take care of your person. Don’t neglect your self-care and health. Whatever happens, put on your make up! Every day: get up, get dressed, and make your bed. Shower and shave. Weep—it is good for you (Parents who teach their children boys don’t cry are stunting their emotional growth.) A loss has to be mourned—grief is necessary—but still, take care of yourself. These small daily rituals will help keep you grounded and anchor your soul and emotions and mind—it will keep your vessel right-side-up, ready to be filled.
I have found The SEVEN F’s to be a lifesaver. These seven blessings sustained me during those turbulent months, time and again: Faith, Family & Friends, Food, Fitness, Focused writing, and Fine arts. But I have to be intentional.
4.1 Faith: I believe we were made with a purpose by a Creator God. This life is not the end. During our pain and suffering, God, as Savior, as Christ Jesus, speaks to our lives. We find meaning in the midst of beauty and sorrow. I found great benefit from reading, scripture, meditation, prayer, song & praise, and attending church services. Our souls need nourishment. Pastors and small groups can be of immense value.
4.2/4.3 Family & Friends: I would not have survived without them. Don’t neglect them—nurture the relationships. There is a friend that is closer than a brother—bask in their comfort and love. Do not isolate yourself. Get out of the house every day. Regular in-person contact is crucial. Avoid toxic relationships.
4.4 Food—I have learned that eating sensibly, and healthy, could help me recover faster, and if I didn’t, it would push me into despair. I strive to consume more plant-based foods, including as much color as possible. Limiting animal products is my goal—this is still a work in progress. On junk food and processed food, I place a limit. Dark chocolate is my definite weak spot! A small piece a day is (really) beneficial. I try to remember—sugar is the real poison.
4.5 Fitness—The best way I have found over the years to “de-stress” is to stay fit. It remains my “drug” of choice. It works—every time. Both cardio and resistance exercises are essential. In summer, I land paddle and cycle and in winter, I gym. I’m working on getting enough sleep, (6 – 7 hours), although this goal often evades me. I’m busy cultivating the habit of rising at 5:00 a.m., necessitating me to go to bed earlier. This is another work in progress. Thanks, Andy!
4.6 Focused Writing & Reading—As I’ve pointed out: writing and reading have saved my life on more than one occasion—it has also done so this time. I am only now learning the science behind how it works. Fitting for this new season in my life, I had my website redone with a narrowed down focus: Storytelling Changes Lives. Thanks, Caroline!
4.7 Fine Arts—Drawing has come naturally to me since grade school. But for decades I neglected the talent, only to start doing it again when I took up writing a couple of years ago. During the last eighteen months, I also began painting with watercolors again, exploring its therapeutic benefits, on top of the sheer enjoyment of the craft.
5. Forgiveness isn’t optional. I had to learn to forgive myself and those who had wronged me. I had to learn if I don’t—I’d remain stuck. The bile of bitterness and resentment, however, justified, would slowly choke my soul to death. I’d stay trapped in a cage to which only I have the key.
Past failures do not have to define me. Past mistakes don’t have to dictate today or tomorrow. I can change my life.
Second chances are real. I owe it to others; I owe it to myself.
6. Humility is crucial. I had to learn humility. It is a tricky endeavor at best, but necessary. I have often wondered whether I did not cease to be humble the moment I claimed to practice humility? Better is it for others to notice that than for me to blow my own horn.
I have been striving to be kinder and more considerate. I believe we often confuse meekness with weakness. It is a strong man, a strong woman, who can reach out with compassion and care to someone who can never repay one or return the favor.
7. Learning and mastering new skills are vital to our health and sanity.
I am by nature shy and introverted. Being brave and bold and daring does not come easily to me. I have learned, and keep learning, that to be intentional, and keep pushing beyond my comfort zone, is the only way I can get a different outcome, become better and change my life. For the past nine months, I had to learn new technical skills at my day job. In my writing career, I have dipped my toes in video recording and am busy putting together an online training course, titled: Tell your story—change your life. Oh, and there’s the land paddling—you should also try it! It’s a blast! (It costs a fraction of the price of a bicycle, a SUP board, or a kayak.)
In many regards, 2017 and 2018 was a rebirth—a painful process. And yet, also grand. Something new was born.
It is January 15, 2019: seven days into my second year of rebirth.
God is faithful and merciful. Life is good. (No, life is often not fair or easy or straightforward. Neither is life for the fainthearted.) But life is still good—a grand adventure.
Life is a gift. (I will do my best to cherish it. Respect it. Not waste opportunities. And to respect other people.)
Life is a blessing. (I will strive to be a blessing to others.)
There are ample sorrow and hurt and wrongs and devastation in the world. Suffering, pain, and struggle is part of being human. There is also much beauty and joy and hope and wonder in the world. I will strive to add to the latter.
I have control over how I respond every day.
With what will I occupy my mind? What will I feed it?
With what will I occupy my life? (I’ll try and remember: Things I gather are like early morning fog—it easily disappears. Much better is it to have people in our lives; and above all, to love them unconditionally, to accept them, forgive them, and value them—as God loves us.)
It is a choice.
As for me, on the doorstep of this new year: I choose life and truth. I also choose forgiveness and grace. I choose second chances and showing compassion—only then am I strong.
I will keep pushing beyond my comfort zones in every area of my life. I strive to bless and serve my fellow men. I know it won’t be easy. All of this doesn’t make me a smarter person—only someone who has experienced much mercy and grace, one who has received a second chance.
This life is not the end—it is only the beginning. Isn’t that exciting? I have much to learn still—about life and purpose and suffering and hope.
Live has meaning.
May we all be braver and bolder this year.
May you be blessed in 2019!
Thank you for reading! Thank you for sharing!
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