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Carol Bysiek Headshot

My Unexpected Teacher

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It's been said that life can only be understood looking backward but must be lived forward. Implied in this bit of wisdom is the very uncomfortable notion that we must take steps forward in uncertainty, not knowing where they are headed, if they will deliver what we want and without a clear picture of where we will end up. This concept fascinates me, because we live in a world that is so heavily conditioned to reward intellect, planning, execution and perfection that it hardly leaves room for a messy, organic process such as this. And yet, experts, leaders, and great innovators past and present urge us to follow our hearts, to trust our intuition, and to take the courageous and less certain path. They tell us to dare, to risk, and to not be afraid of failure or loss.

Until two years ago, I secretly envied those who lived this way, and their happy and unexpected adventures. I was living completely inside the box, gazing out. I defined success by the metrics I knew: my home, my job, money, and many other outward identities and roles. But despite all the boxes were checked off, I felt empty, inside. On my 45th birthday, I wrote this as number one on my list of wishes for the year ahead: Rediscover who Carol is.

Then, my life took a sharp turn later that year, on May 3, 2012. I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, and I've been on my own unexpected adventure ever since. Now, approaching my two-year anniversary of survival, I am reflecting on what I have accomplished, and for the first time in a long, long while, I am fascinated. Not because I set out to do what I have done, but rather, because I didn't.

Frankly, the details of exactly what I have done or where it has led me are less important; it is the process that is significant. I did not lay out a plan with predictable steps and goals and a schedule. Instead, I followed my intuition, my gut, and I took action on what I felt drawn to, not what I thought I "should" do. I learned to distinguish the bossy voice of my intellect from the quieter voice of my heart. I took steps that made no sense and yet felt absolutely right. Believe me, that was a scary risk for a 25-year veteran of living inside the box. But I was abuzz inside with an excitement I had not felt since, well, before I went in the box.

I could not have imagined ending up where I am, or even writing this to you, a year ago. It has all unfolded one beautiful page at a time. I took each step not knowing where it would lead or that it would later connect with something else. Many of the steps were entirely unrelated at the time, almost random. And yet, they have converged to form the beginning of something new and wonderful. Notice I said beginning, because it is not finished. I am not there yet. I have no idea what will be on the next page. But that is OK, because I have learned to live with uncertainty and fear. It keeps my sense of joy and gratitude very keen and my focus on what matters razor sharp. It also leaves room for happy and unexpected surprises, the kind I used to envy.

Don't get me wrong, this has not been a fun or light-hearted adventure. It was born from a place of deep pain and loss, from an intense grieving for a life and a person whose dreams, assumptions, beliefs and identities were shattered, stripped and torn apart. But it was there, in that pile of rubble that I found the best part of myself, and the courage to live by her wishes. This was the unexpected gift, and cancer was my unexpected teacher.

With my anniversary approaching, I sat down with my journal and read my words from a time when everything seemed darkest. I was in the middle of worst part of my treatment. I felt completely dismantled and I had no more illusions or expectations of what my life should, could or would be. I was at the bottom. With only my window connecting me to the world outside, this is what was in my heart, and these are the promises I made to myself:

I have no remembrance of life before, of what it was like to feel and to be well and carefree... but then, I did a terrible job of enjoying my life. I was never carefree. So when this is over:

1. Don't take one single day feeling good for granted.
2. Be good to the people in your life.
3. Give more. Do more for others.
4. Know that you do make a difference in other people's lives.
5. Keep things in perspective, know what's important.
6. Own your life -- it is yours, decided by you, not by others.
7. Love your life and those in it.
8. Seek no validation of your self-worth, especially at work.
9. Let things go.
10. Take action -- do the things you want to do.
11. Pray -- for guidance to find my true self.
12. Don't try to do it all yourself -- don't go it alone... you need others.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I had written a new creed, a 12-step program all my own (they weren't numbered in my journal, so I've only now discovered that coincidence). I have kept these promises, and I am learning everyday to live by these principles. While I would never suggest, recommend or wish on anyone the journey I have had, I can say, it isn't all bad. Much good can come from loss. Don't be afraid of the rubble, or of things falling apart... you may find some great treasures buried there.

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