A Guide to Coping With Uncertainty

What terminal cancer has taught me about change

At the best of times, life is crazy. It’s like a rollercoaster — up, down, and it also has the occasional corkscrew to throw you completely out of whack.

We all crave stability and security, but in reality, life never operates quite as steadily as we’d like it do. We’re always being hit by curveballs, and no matter how many plans we try and make, things always seem to get muddled up.

This time two years ago, I was finally ready to enter the world of adulthood and leave home to study in a city I loved alongside my wonderful girlfriend.

Now, I’m working freelance in my hometown. That wonderful girlfriend, still just as wonderful, has terminal cancer. And, despite all of my reservations about going to university, I’m in the process of applying to enrol next year.

Everything has changed, and it’s still changing. Mulling over this year’s events with my good friend over a coffee shop yesterday morning, he came out with the following:

‘Man, things are going to be so different in a year from now. Think about how much can change in a year — how much has changed in a year. Isn’t it exciting?’

I hummed in silence, sipped my coffee and thought about it. Everything will be different, I thought. But I’m not sure if exciting is the right word.

Life Turbulence

For me, life has been pretty turbulent recently. All of our lives get turbulent from time-to-time — even for those amongst us with stable jobs, nuclear families and expensive pension schemes.

See, when we sit and imagine our futures, we tend to think of the progression of our lives as linear. First, we’ll study here. Then we’ll apply to work there. Then we’ll get married. And then we’ll work our way up until we have enough money to move our family to Sardinia and drink sangria until we’re old and grey.

In reality, though, life never quite pans out the way we imagine it to. This past year has certainly proven that to me.

I’ve been with my fiancé for more than six years. I’d always pictured us getting married at some point in our future, moving away to study, getting jobs and finally starting a family together in our own house. Now, that dream has been shattered into a million pieces.

And yet, despite all expectations, I’m okay. I’m coping well. I’ve accepted the situation, and I’ve accepted that this is all just part of the turbulence of life. Instead of jumping ship and drowning, I’ve learned to ride the waves.

As Leo Babauta put it,

‘If we can learn to ride the rolling uncertainty of our lives like a wave, staying open each moment to what unfolds, we can live without as much stress and anxiety, and just be present to what is happening.’

Riding the Waves of Life

When I received the news about Charlotte’s cancer, I was devastated. Crippled. Everything I’d ever cared about — my work, health and career prospects, dwindled into utter insignificance.

For the first two weeks of hospital visits, I was living on bacon sandwiches and espresso. Days before, I was a vegetarian that hated coffee.

Everything important to me paled into obscurity. Nothing else mattered. All I wanted was to return to the happy times when Charlotte was in full health and happily studying at university.

I lived in that dream for a long time. I’d stay up until 3am most nights researching cancer, nutrition and just about anything that might reverse the changes that life was imposing upon me.

While I believed wholeheartedly in what I was doing, and still do stand by the fact that there’s far more to cancer treatment than what our doctors have to offer, I couldn’t hide from the fact that I was living in denial. I was trying to save her.

It took me a long time to accept that change. Still now I cling to the hope that Charlotte will make it through all of this and that we can return to pursuing our happy future together. But I’ve also accepted that that might not happen. And instead of dwelling on it, or on our past, I’m focusing on now.

This Moment is All We Have

People often ask me how I’ve coped so well with the situation I’m in. My answer is that I don’t really think about coping. I don’t wake up each morning and decide to cope.

I wake up each morning and I get out of bed. I get dressed. I eat, shower and brush my teeth. I work. And I spend time with Charlotte doing the things we love.

The past and the future aren’t on my list of things to worry about. I no longer dwell on the prospect of losing my fiancé, but I accept that whatever will be will be, and wherever I am in a year from now, I’ll be ready to cope with that particular situation when the time comes.

See, in reality, this moment is the only moment that we have. The past and the future don’t really exist. The past is just a memory of previous versions of this moment, and the future is a projection of what future versions of this moment will look like.

Whatever is happening to us, we’re still the same pair of eyes. The same awareness. The same human being looking out at the world around us.

What most of us don’t realise is that life isn’t about our achievements. It isn’t about our future. It isn’t about our past. Our life, if we were to remove our thoughts, would only ever be this moment in its entirety. And becoming fully part of it is the key to staying sane amidst a world of constant change.

Alan Watts put it best,

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

How to Cope With Change

My friend’s father lost his dad to bowel cancer when he was around my age. After the event, he took to reading hundreds of books and studying the nature of cancer as much as possible so as to prevent it from consuming his life or that of his future family — much like myself.

The night of Charlotte’s diagnosis, I went straight to that friend’s house. His father and I sat talking until the early hours in the morning about everything I might be able to do to help my fiancé recover.

After some time, he stopped. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Adrian, as much as I encourage you to do all you can to help Charlotte, please try your best to accept the severity of the situation you’re in. It’s not looking good, and accepting that will allow you to cope. Denying it will only hurt more.’

Hearing that really put things in perspective. Rather than asking him how to cure cancer, I decided to ask him how he managed to cope with the situation he was in all those years ago.

He considered my question some time. Then, looking out of the rain-smattered window beside us, he said,

‘I’m not sure if I ever really did cope. I just kept living. I kept breathing. And eventually, like a piece of driftwood lost at sea, I washed up back on the shore.’

We’re all like pieces of driftwood, and life is like the sea. It has waves. Sometimes those waves are small, and sometimes they’re large enough to wipe us out entirely.

We can’t prevent those waves from breaking. No matter how much we think about them or plan for them, their impact will never soften. The waves of life will never stop flowing.

Knowing this — accepting that struggle is a fundamental part of life on earth, is a huge step that all of us need to take if ever we wish to handle change.

For as long as I continued denying Charlotte’s situation, I was miserable. I couldn’t cope. As soon as I accepted that rough seas may indeed be on the horizon, I wasn’t resisting anymore.

I wasn’t fighting the situation. I could just be present, allowing whatever would come to be to be and sailing through the turbulence of life.

The Takeaway

Many of us wish to become better at dealing with change, but the cause to our inability to do so lies in the question. We can’t ‘become better’ at dealing with change, we can only become better at focusing on this moment.

I know it sounds cliché, but often clichés are awarded their title because they deserve it.

When trying to focus on this moment, we’re forced to accept reality. We have no choice but to agree that things are the way they are, and that we might not be able to change that.

Sure, there are elements of our lives that we can change and should work to adjust — like our productivity levels, health and wellbeing. But we can’t change what happens to us. All we can do is change our response.

And, after a year of living what’s felt more like a nightmare than it has a life, I’ve realised that the best response we can have to the turbulence of life is to accept it. To accept the way things are and to root our awareness in this moment.

Unless we do that, the waves will continue to knock us off our feet. Mindfulness is like a surfboard, and the best way we can all begin to navigate change is by learning to surf.

Before You Leave

I run a daily newsletter The Daily Grind where I send out tips to creatives and entrepreneurs about success, wellbeing, goal-setting and honing their craft.

If that sounds like you, follow this link to sign up.

Owner of Mind Cafe | Let’s chat on Instagram: @adriandrew__

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