The Silver Lining

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‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.’ I have read this line somewhere and I thought I knew what it meant. This year, two film projects brought me face to face with raw courage. One was for the Singapore Cancer Society, which involved interviewing cancer survivors, cancer patients, care givers and loved ones. I remember talking to this lady in her fifties, with a face that is virtually on the verge of a smile. She has battled cancer, not once, not twice, but three times. I cleared my mind before talking to her, giving her my full attention and not assuming anything. She started with a startling statement, “The way to love anything is to realise that it may be lost.”

There was a long silence before she resumed, “When I was healthy, I thought all these talk about staying positive in the face of adversity is new-age horseshit. When I was sick, I told myself, ‘Why don’t you try it? Really get into it? You have nothing to lose’. So I started with the discipline of a warrior. Each morning, I got up with a determination to practice my mind such that when I went to bed, I was satisfied with my progress”.

She paused and looked at a distance before continuing, “We only have a limited amount of focus, so when you are able to be appreciative of what you have, your brain is unable to give life and energy to thoughts about what you don’t have. Seeing events in your life as gifts allow you to perceive how they may help you grow, heal, become a better person, and the application of this attitude during tough times is the hallmark of resilience. I didn’t just mull over, sit back in reflection. I got up and started doing what was necessary, then what was possible, and suddenly I was doing what I always wanted to do, things I thought were impossible when I was healthy. They say inaction breeds doubt and fear, while action breeds confidence and courage. This is more than true. I started to live it and I am still living it now.”

Listening intently, I was surprised when she broke into a wide smile. It transformed her face. “And you have to keep it light. If you are too busy to laugh, you are too busy. Laugh at your own lapses, knowing the brain is a muscle of habits. Breaking habits takes time. Joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savour. When I was sick, I knew self-pity was my worst enemy. There are more things to alarm you than harm you, and you suffer more often in apprehension than reality.

Which is why, as social creatures, you need to surround yourself with people who see the goodness in you, even when you don’t see it yourself. Negative company corrupts good character. I know now that positive thinking is not a slogan or tagline. It not only makes you better, it also makes those around you better. A powerful attitude awakens inner strength, energy, motivation and initiative. Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.”

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It was not a short interview and she was quite happy she was filmed sharing her experience, principally about positivity. Many of us are negative because it is easier to just give up instead of trying. Because being positive takes effort. And from what she was saying, it also takes discipline, determination and focus. As she was packing up to leave, I thought of a friend, about the same age, same background. She is healthy. In recent years she rarely smiles, and like this lady when she was healthy, thinks such positive talk is all philosophical nonsense. I hope she can see, along with the rest of us, that a positive attitude can recreate reality. That it’s not just a metaphor, it’s a physiological fact.

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