This year, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer.
He’s almost exactly my age, and last year at this time, he was in incredibly good physical condition — a fitness buff with the physique of a marathoner. This year, he’s struggling with challenges I can only begin to imagine.
I think of my friend often, and when I do, I’m frequently struck by how quickly our lives can change — how suddenly the things we’ve taken for granted are revealed to be incredibly fragile and almost terrifyingly precious. And how the things to which we’ve attributed immense importance can come to seem like inconsequential matters by comparison.
Thinking about the truly daunting troubles and losses with which any of us could be faced at almost any time is sobering. But it can also clarify just how small and trivial the majority of our daily trials and tribulations really are. And that can be inspiring and freeing beyond belief.
This is the power of perspective. I think it’s important for all of us to consider, on a regular basis, how what we judge to be bad or good on a given day is really very relative to the rest of what we are experiencing and focusing on at a given time.
Certainly, this is true of our health and fitness concerns. We may worry about whether we’re making fast enough progress toward our weight-loss or athletic goals. We may even resent our bodies for not looking the way we want, or we may bemoan the fact that we have to exercise at all.
But if we were unable, even for a day, to move our bodies freely, or if we found ourselves in constant and excruciating pain, our previous health and fitness concerns would lose all meaning for us. We’d quickly become focused purely on doing whatever it took to make our more agonizing problems recede — and if all it took was some moderate exercise, we’d count ourselves fortunate indeed.
The same basic concept applies to virtually every area of our lives: our career and finances, our family and social ties, our goals for personal achievement, and our desire to leave some kind of legacy. The perspectives by which we judge our relative success or failure, our relative level of satisfaction, our estimation of what is acceptable or “fair” — these things could all be changed in a moment by circumstances we can’t predict and by forces beyond our control.
I think we’d all do well to consider this reality a little more often. Because when we deem things to be going badly, it’s generally only in comparison to our arbitrary notions of how things “should be.” And when we deem things to be going well, we often have no real comprehension of how many truly fortuitous circumstances conspired to make them so.
By allowing ourselves to look at things from different perspectives — including the perspectives of others who are challenged by struggles we’ve thus far been spared, or that we’ve been fortunate to recover from more or less intact — we become better, more compassionate and more appreciative human beings. We become wiser at heart and broader of mind, and we become better stewards of the energy and capacity with which we are blessed. And we are all blessed.
I’m not suggesting that any of us should become obsessed with the potential for imminent misfortune or that we should wallow in the troubles of others. But I do think it benefits all of us to be cognizant that things could be different than they are, and that the circumstances of all our lives can and do change — hour by hour, day by day.
Let us be inspired by the opportunities in our own midst right now, and mindful of the very real challenges faced by others. And let us not take for granted the many small graces and blessings we enjoy: the moments of peace and pleasure, the kindnesses others bestow, the daily chances we have to express our highest choices and to make a positive difference in the world around us.