My wife and I had made a last-minute decision to go out for dinner. We had dressed up, driven down to a riverside dining precinct and somehow managed to secure a table for two on what looked like their busiest night. Afterwards, we planned to watch a movie and then take a late night stroll by the river. It was going to be a great night. But, just after the entre came out, I felt a sudden twinge of pain in my back as I leaned against my chair. A pain that was all too familiar.
“Oh no. Not again.” I pleaded inside my head. “Not now.”
I tried pretending as if the pain wasn’t there, squashing down the dread that had welled inside me, and hoping with every fibre of my body that it was nothing to worry about. Maybe it was just a muscular pain? But it wasn’t.
And that is how I ended up at the hospital emergency ward late on a Saturday night (as if I had nothing better to do) waiting for the official confirmation of what I already knew. My lung had collapsed. Again.
Less than three months earlier I had been in the exact same hospital, talking to the exact same emergency doctor, feeling the exact same symptoms. That time, my collapsed lung (pneumothorax for those playing at home) had been treated by inserting a pipe into my chest to drain the air and reinflate my lung. It succeeded, but the doctor warned me that I was now a 30% chance of suffering a recurrence, and if I did so that I would require surgery on my lung.
So as I sat in the emergency room for the second time in three months I felt deflated (literally and metaphorically). I knew that I had suffered another pneumothorax and I knew that meant that I was going to require lung surgery. I felt a level of sadness creep into my body that I had not felt in a long time.
The above story is all true. As I write this it just over three weeks since I had that surgery and my view on the world has certainly changed. The time spent recovering in hospital was a great time to think. I had many hours of silence and contemplation in which my mind could wander and explore possibilities about my life that I had previously ignored. As such, I learned a lot about myself and about life in general.
Here are the three biggest things I learned while I was recovering from lung surgery.
It is OK to be sad, but it is not OK to dwell on it
If you hadn’t already noticed, I’m a positive kind of person. I like to find the fun and happy side of every situation and I always try to maintain a positive outlook on life. Even when having surgery on a major internal organ...
Yes I had that initial jolt of sadness and negativity but I have since realised that feeling that is normal. It was a very negative situation and the natural response there is to feel those negative emotions. It is OK to feel sad about things.
Sadness is a good emotion to alert us that something is not right in our life, but it is only designed as an indicator for change. We are not supposed to dwell on it or use it as our main energy source in life. Sadness is there to show us that we don’t like something and that we need to do something about it.
Sometimes bad stuff just happens. It’s not the end of the world
When bad stuff happens we have a tendency to exaggerate just how bad it is. I didn’t like the fact that I had another collapsed lung but it certainly wasn’t the end of the world, or even the end of my life.
Bad things happen and sometimes we have no control over them. But that does not mean we should whinge and moan about them. Instead we can focus on what we can control and what positive changes we can make.
While I was in hospital a few friends came to see me, including a woman who works with kids that spend the majority of their time in hospital. She told me of this one kid, a small boy, who had a rare condition that affected his lungs and resulted in him constantly requiring a tube out the side of his chest. Here I was feeling annoyed about having the tube for 3 to 4 days and this poor kid had been in hospital for 3 to 4 months with it.
But you know what else that kid had? He still had fun. He played with the other kids, he ran around (with chest drain in hand), and he could still laugh and smile. He certainly didn’t enjoy having the chest tube in but he didn’t let it become a big deal either.
Bad stuff can happen just as randomly as good stuff. But one bad incident does not preclude us from future fun and happiness. One bad incident is not the end of the world.
Balance long-term gratification and instant gratification
Another insight I gained during my stay in hospital was the need to balance long-term satisfaction (or delayed gratification) with instant gratification. More importantly I realised the need for the attitude of being willing to sacrifice one for the other.
It is too easy to get caught up on only one form of gratification in our life without considering the other. Some people live their life just by focusing on what will make them happy in each instant. This can be a positive way to live in the short-term but with a complete lack of long-term thinking people in this category find it had to achieve big things in their life.
To achieve our goals and the success we dream of, we need to use delayed gratification. But living in a way where we focus completely on delayed gratification is not the answer either. We should not spend our time working so hard to achieve a future state of happiness that we miss out on opportunities to actually be happy now. There needs to be a balance.
My surgery is the perfect example of delayed gratification because it was always my choice to have it. I could have chosen to forgo the surgery and live with the constant possibility, and fear, that I would suffer a recurrence. Instead I chose to be proactive. I chose to experience some short-term pain and suffering (i.e. sacrifice my immediate happiness) in order to prevent it from happening again for the rest of my life. A few days of pain versus a lifetime of happiness…that’s the sacrifice and balance I’m talking about.
Sometimes the “quick win” of instant gratification can be what we need - living in the now, experiencing the injection of short-term happiness and the ability to forget about our worries and have fun. But at other times we need that long-term focus - the ability to delay our gratification, to push through short-term “suffering”, to work towards a greater goal, and achieve something that will ultimately provide much more happiness.
Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are. ~Arthur Golden,Memoirs of a Geisha
When experiencing adversity or hardship the key is to use it as a tool for reflection on our self. Adversity is the perfect excuse to think deeply about our life and create positive changes.
After all my thinking my head was hurting (maybe that was just the painkillers) but I felt good for it and I was back to my happy and positive self even in the face of adversity. I felt uplifted, having had the time to think about my life and coming to the conclusion that everything was still as good as I had thought. Except my lungs, but you can’t win them all.