Sitting in as a guest for some recent leadership training, I was invited to participate in an exercise to tell a story. I realized I hadn’t shared this here, and there’s no good reason not to.
Ten years ago I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. With the diagnosis, I received my fair share of the sort of the traditionally awkward condolences from those that know me. These condolences could perhaps be broken into two parts. First, none of us really know what to say. We fumble and we search for words. Second, we express remorse. We acknowledge that this is bad luck and the person is not as well off as they were.
I don’t really fault that. Given the reverse role in the situation, it’s what I’ve done, too.
When I received all these “bad luck” acknowledgments, they served to help justify my general apathy and lack of effort to improve things. “Well,” I thought, “I’ve been dealt this hand, so now I’m excused from whatever I was pursuing before.” This is all too typical a reaction for people that are diagnosed with a chronic illness. It seems almost normal that you should take on a bitter demeanor and wear a sign that says I was screwed.
That didn’t last a long time for me, but it was very real. I was diagnosed in the May, and through a combination of medication and lethargy I managed to gain 30 pounds by September.
Feeling sorry for myself, I was simply being a spectator, both literally and figuratively. My wife and I found ourselves watching as the runners of our city’s first ever marathon ran through the park. They were all shapes and sizes, and it began to dawn on me that I shouldn’t feel limited. I still had the ability to do things, lots of things, including run a marathon. If they could do it, I should be able to do it.
It was at this point that a blind man ran by being assisted over the course. That was a watershed moment for me. There was clearly no excuse that legitimized my current behaviour.
Life gives you lots of choices, but one of the fundamental ones is whether you’re going to select the role of victim or owner. This isn’t a one-time choice, by the way. It’s a choice presented to you every day, over and over. You have to choose each and every time.
I still don’t quite know what you’re supposed to say to someone who’s been dealt a bad hand. It’s an emotional moment, and I’m not sure there’s words for it. Given the invitation, though, I tell people recently diagnosed with MS that it can be a gift. They just have to choose that it is.