Extreme positive situations are wonderful--joyful, fun, and exhilarating.  They provide a "high" that leaves us feeling on top of our game.  There is no upper limit as to how many extreme positive situations are good for us; the more the merrier. Although these situations are energizing, they don't provide us with our most useful and meaningful life lessons.  It is the extreme negative situations that strip us bare of our "clutter," leaving us to examine our values and how well we are living them.

No one wants bad things to occur, but as the expression goes, s*** happens.  People get sick.  Some die.  Others lose their jobs.  Hurricanes hit.  Flood waters rise.  No one would choose these events, and we expend a great deal of effort in preventing illness and disasters from striking.  Regardless of our best efforts, negative situations occur.  Are there any blessings to come of such crises?  Yes.

We all know people who are grateful for having had a debilitating and life threatening illness.  Obviously, they would never have opted for the illness, but they focus on the insights and clarity gained from the process.  They concentrate less on the "why" of their situation and more on the "what now."

I've been "fortunate" enough to have experienced a few extreme negative situations, none more life changing than right now.  My son, Ethan, got sick the first week of his freshman year at college and had emergency surgery (see August 26, 2008 post "Bittersweet").  We all thought the surgery fixed the problem and Ethan would resume being a college student.  Wrong.  Four weeks later, Ethan had a second surgery, and a week after that he withdrew for the semester to come home and get well.  After spending only one night in his own bed, he was back in the hospital having his third surgery in seven weeks.  He is slowly recovering, but not without enduring a great deal of pain, weakness and weight loss (if only there was a fat transplant procedure).

Clearly, this was not Ethan's plan.  Parties, frisbee, basketball, tutoring younger kids, attending football games, and enjoying concerts were the staples of his agenda.  He was supposed to be improving his Spanish, experimenting in chemistry lab, and learning about game theory in math class.  Nowhere did he imagine operating rooms, IVs, and pain medications.  As Ethan's unbiased mother (ha!), I see how much he has grown from his current situation.  While never having been immature, Ethan has been forced to grow up quite a bit in the last two months.  Some of what he thought was important a few months ago has diminished in priority, and the parts of his life that he took for granted have taken on new meaning.  I won't give examples because it's Ethan's story to tell if he so chooses.

I can, however, tell my story.  There is nothing more arduous than seeing your child in pain.  I've been through extreme medical situations with adults in my life, including my father and husband.  As difficult and stressful as those were, nothing compares to watching your child wheeled into another surgery or writhing in pain.  If I had a magic wand, I would have used it long ago to free Ethan from his ordeal.  If I could have absorbed his illness from him, I would have turned myself into a sponge.

I can't change events, but I can find meaningful lessons in all this.  Some lessons are new.  Others reinforce values I already try to live by.  Here are two of my favorites:

1. Live simply.  I like having a full, rich life of work, family, friends and community activities.  Right before Ethan got sick, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by how many different hats I was wearing.  They all seemed important to me and I wasn't willing to give up anything.  Having a sick child has forced me to focus like a laser on what should stay (very little) and what should go (a lot) from my life.  Other than the stress of Ethan's illness, I feel I can breathe again.  In the future, it won't take an extreme negative situation to keep my life appropriately simple.

2. Be grateful.  People who know me well say I generally live my life with gratitude.  I tend to see the glass half full and, as I'm doing now, see any good that can be gleaned from a bad situation.  However, sometimes I need a reminder.  For example, before Ethan got sick, I was a bit whiny about my house and was thinking about moving.  Now that my husband and I don't have to concern ourselves with good public schools, we are free to live anywhere we please.  I've always wanted to live on water and drool over beautiful beachfront homes that far exceed my price range.  My small three bedroom house was feeling tinier and tinier, and I wanted a large house with two beautiful home offices and a spacious craft room.  Blah, blah, blah.  Ethan's illness shifted my focus to the abundance that is my house, including the fabulous natural light that streams in throughout the day, the beautiful neighborhood in which I live, and the terrific neighbors I have all around me (one of whom was instrumental in helping me find the best doctors for Ethan).  Want to live on water?  I'll build a pond in my huge back yard.  Want more space in my house?  Toss out half the stuff I don't need or even like.

I am a very lucky mom.  My son will recover and go on to live a full life.  These months of illness will become a blip on the large screen of his life.  (He and) I get to learn these lessons AND look forward to his bright and hopeful future.

Extreme negative situations teach extreme positive lessons.  We just have to be open to learning them.