Lessons From The Walking Dead: How to Thrive Not Just Survive

I got word this week: I am cancer-free. Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.33.44 PMThe news is still sinking in. For anyone who has been through cancer, there is the magical five-year mark. If a cancer survivor can make it through the first five years from the original diagnosis, with no new cancer cells showing up anywhere in the body, then one’s declared cancer-free. The truth remains that for me, nothing has really changed. Doctors will still watch me like a hawk. Annual mammograms and MRI’s will always be in my future. But, is there a peace that comes from hitting that magical five-year mark?

At the risk of sounding defeatist, I would have to say, “No.” Each year, I am and will always be, reminded of that cancer. Each year, I will wring my hands with worry from the time I make the appointments through waiting to hear test results. And let’s face it, just because I’ve beaten one cancer doesn’t mean I won’t experience others.

BUT, I can’t let that kind of fear control, or even significantly influence, my life. I can’t live the present if I am in constant fear of the future. It is the same with my arthritis. I enjoyed thirty years of remission and having very little pain in most of my affected joints. The pain has returned in the old joints and even in some new ones over the last six months. And I can tell you that my hardest days are when I am thinking about a future that might be filled with chronic pain, while I am at the same time dealing with so much pain that I can hardly twist off a lid on a water bottle.

My husband and I enjoy watching The Walking Dead. The interesting thing about horror is it takes a morality or life question and blows it up to something truly terrifying or monumental all in an effort to enable us to at least learn the right questions to ask, if not better understand the answers.

Currently on The Walking Dead, the group that viewers have been following since the show’s inception have finally come into “paradise.” But they have fought for so long just to survive and have done some gruesome things just to stay alive, that now all of them are having trouble integrating into something of a normal life. The show, therefore, questions what happens to us when we face trauma, unspeakable horrors, or even worse, when we see the horrors we, ourselves, are capable of committing.

There are dark times in every person’s journey. Sometimes they last for moments or days, and sometimes they last years or decades. In the same week I was diagnosed with cancer, my husband faced the very real possibility of losing his eye—not “just” the eyesight, the eye. We began an arduous journey of monthly visits to the doctor for eye injections with no hard evidence that the injections would actually bring healing. We were floating through all of this on a wing and prayer for three years. The injections did finally work and Ted became one of the 0.5% of the people for which such treatment has ever worked.Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.35.59 PM

Nevertheless, given the trials we’ve faced over the last five years, some I won’t even mention, I have been thinking a lot about the difference between thriving and just surviving. I don’t want to be among the walking dead, simply governed by the basest of physical needs. I also don’t want to be so shell-shocked by the past that I can’t enjoy the paradise of the current moment. I want to THRIVE, not just survive. All humans have a survival instinct. That’s why it’s called instinct. Thriving on the other hand is a learned response. And holy crap do I have a long way to go in mastering it, but at least if I write about it here, then maybe it will help someone else along the way. And that is, I think, one of the major ways that we can help ourselves emotionally: by helping others.

Here are some other ways:

1. Recognize that you are not among the naïve and that’s a good thing. There are those people within Alexandria on The Walking Dead who have no idea how to survive. Their world has been too perfect and too easy. I’m not the same person I was when I entered the dark time of trials five years ago. I see beyond the superficial and long for something deeper and more meaningful for my life. This is self-actualization, and if you’re in the middle of something like this then count yourself among the blessed. Few people experience this.

2. Happiness and joy, peace and contentment take effort. That means that whenever those negative thoughts enter into our heads and drive our spirits into the ground, we have to decide to think differently. We have to challenge those perceptions when our negativity is getting the best of us. If the future is getting us down, we have to tell ourselves that we don’t know the future. The future is full of possibilities! We have to bring ourselves back to the present. If our current circumstances suck then we have to look for the positive. We have to count our blessings and be thankful for them.

One life hack I read recently said that if you want to change your way of thinking from pessimism to optimism, then spend twenty one days thinking of three things your thankful for each day. Does it work? I don’t know, but I’m trying it out and I’ll keep you posted.

3. Still it isn’t enough to challenge our interpretations or perceptions of the things we’re going through, we must also cultivate those positive experiences that will feed those good emotions. Optimism will thrive if it has something to feed on. It will die if starved.

  • Get your hands dirty for a cause you believe in. Don’t just throw money at a charity. Yes, there are many good charities out there that need your financial help and will benefit from it. I’m not saying to give up on financial giving. What I am saying is that nothing makes you feel better than getting directly involved in the effort to help others, be they human or animal.
  • Seek out people who feed your optimism and who energize you. Nothing can be more of downer than someone who feeds off of you like a zombie. My husband and I have always called these people Professional VNP’s, Very Needy People. They are the scary ones too. They suck you in when they come to you, playing on your sympathies, asking for help, and you do what you can to aid them, but all the while, they are devising three more hardships of their own creation to hit you with. These are the people who consistently ask for your advice and then don’t take it. They are also the people who are only happy when they and everyone around them are unhappy. They can make you think that you’re helping them, but they never change. Instead, they are nibbling at your time and effort while chowing down on your emotional state like you’re an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Give yourself the permission to walk away from these Walking Corpses. You might have to change your phone number. Do whatever you need to do to distance yourself from them.Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.12 PM
  • Take breaks for just pure fun and exercise. Studies have shown, getting outside boosts Vitamin D and makes us feel happier. It’s even better when you add exercise, playing with a pet, or walking with a friend.
  • Listen to uplifting music. Take a long luxurious bath. Get a massage. However, you do it, take care of yourself. Treat yourself. Love yourself. I don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair, if you’re missing a few limbs, if you have Down’s or Polio, if you can’t walk without a limp, or if you’re missing a breast to cancer. YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL! If the sum of who we are rested in our bodies, then I can just about guarantee you that they wouldn’t be destined for decay. The spirit is eternal. The soul is eternal. The marks we make on this world can be eternal. That is where true beauty lies. Believe that.
  • Remember to live large. Get out there and do the thing you’ve always wanted to do but were afraid to try. The only failure is in not trying. Everything else is just learning, and there is no shame in learning.

4. Finally, to gain inner peace, we must foster it. I can tell you, without embarrassment because I am learning, that I’ve prayed for peace for a long time. What I wanted were more peaceful times. In fact, I still want that. But what I have been getting instead is an incomprehensible inner peace. I’ve always admired those accomplished in the martial arts. The few that I have known seem to have an aura of peace that surrounds them. But they haven’t simply trained their bodies; they’ve trained their minds and their emotions. They’ve learned that chaos can surround them, but peace comes from within.

Meditation and prayer go along way in fostering that inner peace. I’ve never done meditation with any regularity, but I know that it works. Science shows that it works. And the times that I’ve done it, I have felt calmer, more positive, and more peaceful. I especially like this particular blog about meditation: 8 Way to Make Meditation Easy and Fun. Because lets face it, if it isn’t fun many of us aren’t even interested in investing the time.

It has been proven in many studies that prayer can bring healing for someone hospitalized. I don’t mean in the head banging, faith-healing, name it and claim it sense. What I have seen though is that the prayers of loved ones foster an assurance in the one who is sick that they are loved, that someone is standing in the gap for them. And our own prayers remind us of a bigger picture, a greater plan, a hope that will not disappoint, and a God who is merciful, who causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

So, this is where I am today. I am cancer-free. The sun is shining and spring is in the air. And I’m thankful that I have a beautiful and loving family who support my every endeavor. Give love, live loved, live large, and don’t be a zombie or the zombie’s manwich.Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.29.22 PM

3 Replies to “Lessons From The Walking Dead: How to Thrive Not Just Survive”

  1. Janice Sluder

    Your cancer fight has taught you many things about the human race. Your healer is God not chemicals or radiation. Only God is the real healer and HIS will is being done.Love you much, Janice Sluder

  2. Jerry Nelson

    Beautiful essay, thanks for sharing it with us! Cancer or no, your philosophy is a good one to live by.


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