Looking for the Helpers

His name was Aaron Feis. He was the school’s assistant football coach and a security guard.

His name was Scott Beigel. He was a history teacher and the cross country coach.

In a moment of terror and fear, they were heroes.

Of the many somber and angry posts that fly around the Internet after tragedies like yesterday’s Florida school shooting, the most comforting to me is always a quote from Mr. Rogers. In his inimitably calming way, he encourages us to “look for the helpers” as a way of finding something hopeful in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

Unfortunately for us, the number of times we need to look for the helpers seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Something’s gotta give, and I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, so for now let’s concentrate on the helpers again.

This tragedy’s helpers are Aaron and Scott — and I’m sure they represent other school staff members and police officers who acted as heroically as they did, but whose stories have not yet been retweeted as widely.

Aaron Feis and Scott Beigel

These people are heroic not just for their actions, but also for their poise under pressure and their choice to combat the ultimate act of hatred — murder, with the ultimate act of love — self-sacrifice.

The alarming number of school and church and concert shootings leaves me imagining myself in these situations. It’s hard to ride a public train to work without pondering what would happen if someone started shooting at it or on it. It’s hard to work across the street from one of the most famous skyscrapers in Chicago without thinking about what would happen if there were a terrorist attack. It’s hard to comprehend sending my beautiful daughter to school in a few years knowing that a shooting could happen anywhere that a troubled kid has hateful ambitions and access to weapons.
It’s terrible to admit, but the world is becoming a scarier place every day, and we should all wrestle with the question: What would you do?
Would you run for the exits? Would you try to hide? Would you play dead? Would you be a human shield for your family members and friends? Would you shield the strangers around you? Would fear paralyze you? Would adrenaline take over? Would you live or die?

I’m not sure I can say how I would react in such a situation. But Scott and Aaron answered these questions in an instant, under the most extreme conditions. They chose to give their lives to save the kids around them who were entrusted to their care. Tonight, some parents are hugging their children who would otherwise have been murdered. Tonight Aaron and Scott’s families are grieving, but I hope their grief is also mixed with healthy doses of admiration and pride. On Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, these men showed us the purest form of selfless love — laying down their own lives so that others might survive.

Even when it’s not a life or death situation, we need more helpers like Scott and Aaron, who put the needs of others above their own.

We all need to be more helpful.


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Living Lean in 2018

The start of a new year is the perfect time to start shedding the fat in your life…and not just around your waist.

Do you ever think about how much time you waste on a given day? Now compound that into the wasted time of weeks, months and years. If you really examine the way you spend your days, it’s both astonishing and shameful.

How much of your time do you spend doing things that are productive and how much is just spent on distractions or relatively meaningless activities to which you have somehow assigned increasing (and unearned) value?

Guilty as charged. As I considered New Year’s resolutions, I thought a lot about self-improvement and how much time it would take to actually implement some of the things that will make me the person I want to be. My mind immediately defaulted to my usual excuse: I’m so busy. How can I possibly find the time to work these new habits into my life and routine?

A bit more soul-searching led me to realize that before I can implement any new habits, I first need to break a bad habit.

For years, I’ve been perpetuating a lie to myself that I am a good steward of my time.

Spoiler alert: I’m not.

So Job #1 is conducting an honest audit of my free time and figuring out why it disappears so easily and what I’m spending it on. Then I can move on to setting goals of how I actually want to spend it. Then I can make a realistic plan about how to accomplish those goals. So let’s give it a whirl. Hopefully it will be time well spent.

What are you doing?

It’s a basic question, but it’s worth asking if you’re trying to figure out how you’re wasting your time. For me, the answer is probably “looking at my phone.” Much as I hate to admit it, this device that can add so much to my life when used properly more often than not simply takes and takes.

In the past, I’ve made a concerted effort to use it less when I’m in the company of other people (to varying degrees of success), but I’ve never thought much about the importance of putting it down when it’s just me. With every swiped refresh of my social media feeds, I waste another five minutes that easily turns into 10 or 20, as a video or article intrigues me.

You could argue — and, oh, how I’ve tried — that some of this content is enriching. I’m catching up on the doings of old friends or reading about current events. While that is sometimes true, I’m more likely watching an Honest Trailer or reading something about a new movie that’s coming out.

This has gotten particularly monstrous when I’m about to go to bed and engage in what I mentally call one last check. I cycle through each of my drugs — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, work email, regular email, etc. — and willingly fall down whatever rabbit hole lies in my path. Now that I’ve switched to a Pixel, I’ve started swiping to the right to get my customized newsfeed of content — an AI-powered stream of stories that computer algorithms think I would be interested in. And am I ever!

via Wait But Why (you have to read this)

When my bloodshot eyes finally begin to bother me, I realize that I have been sitting in my darkened bedroom staring at the screen for sometimes as long as 45 minutes — wasting my precious sleep time and coming away with little more than bits of trivia that I won’t even remember by the morning. (Seriously…I have no memory of what I read last night.)

A few nights ago, I was startled awake by the sound of my one-year-old daughter crying in her room. I had completed my one last check and had been asleep for about 15 minutes. I groggily picked up my phone to check out the video baby monitor and make sure she was OK. Reassured that all was well, I couldn’t help but notice a notification and spent the next 10 minutes doing one more one last check. I have a problem.

Combined with my multitudinous social media fixes and the ensuing daytime rabbit holes, this is not an insignificant amount of time being wasted almost every single day. This has to stop.

What do you want to do?

Now comes the fun part. If you had unlimited time, what would you want to do with it? It’s frustrating that I don’t realize how much time I’m wasting until after I’ve wasted it, and I don’t think about how that time could be so easily reallocated when I wistfully ponder how busy I am and how impossible it is to accomplish some of my dreams and goals.

So what am I hoping to do? Well, I’m going to start with three wishes, Aladdin-style.

I want to exercise regularly. I want to write daily. I want to (re)learn Spanish.

Exercise has been a nearly annual New Year’s or Lenten or summer commitment, er, intention of mine for as long as I can remember. Par for the course, I eventually fall off the wagon and never seem to find the time for regular exercise, even though I have plenty of time to stay caught up on the weekly melodrama of This Is Us.

Thanks to some good genes, I’ve been blessed to be able to eat pretty much whatever I want and not worry too much about significantly tipping the scale. Thanks to my advancing age and a few bad genes, spending my days sedentarily sitting in a cube is adding to both my gut and my risk of hypertension. I’m a proud Dad, but I am in no rush to continue developing a Dad Bod or missing out on a few extra years of life because of poor health choices. It’s time for some regular exercise (and some portion control!) to help whip me into shape.

Writing is a skill and a passion that I have enjoyed from a very young age. It’s also a muscle that grows weak from disuse. Writing Instagram captions and witty tweets is a far cry from taking her to sea in a Medium-length blog post. My numerous blogging outlets have stalled recently due to my quote-unquote lack of time and my quote-unquote writer’s block. These are both excuses that I’m hoping my new time-sensitive zeal can overcome.

Brushing up on Spanish just seems like a challenging, useful idea. It would benefit me professionally to speak the language (or at least be a bit more fluent) and it would do my brain some good to be actively learning something again. Besides, maybe my one-year-old will learn to speak it with me! I started using Duolingo last January and it lasted for about a month and a half. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, it’s just that I once again excused myself from the commitment.

Stop doing what you’re doing and do what you really want to do.

Tim Urban, the genius behind Wait But Why, wrote a thought-provoking piece on how little time you actually have left with your parents and other loved ones by the time you reach your 30s. My musings here are greatly informed by what he wrote, but I am applying his sense of urgency to self-improvement rather than relationships. Tim said:

Priorities matter. Your remaining face time with any person depends largely on where that person falls on your list of life priorities. Make sure this list is set by you — not by unconscious inertia.

I’ve realized that much of my free time is gobbled up by similar unconscious inertia — or rather a conscious decision to waste time on something that leads to unconscious inertia. I desperately need to reclaim my free time, declare my priorities and accomplish my goals.

The other aspect of all this is that I need to pursue these activities in a way that is not detrimental to my relationships and responsibilities. I am a faithful husband, father and employee. Any extracurricular self-improvement must be relegated to “me time,” and not impinge on quality time or other pressing duties of daily life.

Fortunately, I have already identified several pockets of such time in my day that could be put to more productive use: my morning and evening commutes, my lunch break at work (which I really need to take with more regularity), and any time I choose to create by staying up late or getting up early (responsibly, of course).

All that’s left is to make a realistic plan and commitment to fill this time with the activities I described above. However, I believe the success of my mission hinges more on my ability to police myself from engaging in the time-wasting activities, so I can revert to something more productive during those times. I also need to be realistic about letting myself have some mindless free time — I’m not interested in a complete fast from social media and Netflix binges.

Well, I guess I got my writing in for the day. Even if I fail at this ambitious enterprise, at least I can say that this was my most long-winded New Year’s resolution.

Here’s hoping everything else about 2018 is a whole lot leaner. And if you’re embarking on a similar journey this year, buena suerte!

On Two Years of Remission

They need to invent a new tense for talking about cancer.

Tense is a good word for it. It’s a tense tense. It’s an intense tense. It’s a past tense and a present tense. It’s an imperfect tense.

I had cancer. It’s gone now, by the grace of God. No evidence of disease. That’s the past tense.

But it’s never forgotten. Every time I get out of the shower, I see the fading scars on my chest and neck, and I remember. Every time something is out of the ordinary with my health—an innocuous cyst on my face or a prolonged mouth sore or an enlarged gland in my neck—I feel a creeping uncertainty and fear. Every time I hear a story about someone else who is receiving treatment or has lost the battle, I feel an overwhelming gratitude for the blessing of my continued life and my two years of remission.

That’s all present tense. This is how I live with cancer even after the cancer is gone: I remember the past. I value the present. And sometimes I fear for the future. No matter how much time goes by, a part of me will always be living cancer.

Cancer is an epic disruption. It disrupts your immune system and your plans. It disrupts your appetite and your mood. It disrupts your work and your play. It disrupts your priorities and your prayers. It disrupts the lives of everyone around you. It disrupted my life as a newlywed—first haunting me on my honeymoon and ultimately shaping the first year of my marriage.

It’s still disrupting me. First every three months, then every six months and now once a year, cancer bursts on the scene in the form of a CT scan. As I enter the machine, I’m instructed to hold my breath in order to get a clear reading. I don’t fully exhale until I get the results back days later, and I can be assured that the cancer itself remains in the past tense.

Getting a fully clear scan seems to be a struggle for me, as tiny ambiguities always seem to pop up, pulling me back into present tense. One time it was mysterious activity in my throat that could have been a cold or could have been something else. It was a cold. Another time it was an enlarged spleen that could have been something else but turned out to just be my larger-than-average spleen. For my most recent annual scan, the ambiguity still remains too tensely ambiguous for my tastes. A couple lymph nodes in my neck measured at 3.1 mm instead of within the safety of the 3.0 mark. One-tenth of a millimeter is enough to potentially blur the lines between past and present tense.

It was hard not to think about that while I waited for the doctor’s call with the results. When it comes to getting results from a doctor, voicemail is the enemy of good news. I missed his first call—both on my cell phone and my office phone—and he left a voicemail saying that he wanted to discuss my results. No rush, just wanted to chat about them. I missed his second call and had to wait a full 24 hours before I would hear from him again. Those 24 hours were spent in frenzied future tense, playing out terrifying scenarios in my mind and rhetorically asking questions of “what if?” and “what then?” and “why me?” and “how come?”

My doctor assures me that everything is fine, that my blood work is pristine and that the one-tenth of a millimeter could have numerous non-cancerous causes. I’m choosing to believe him. I recently had the aforementioned innocuous cyst removed from the side of my head. The lymph nodes could be reacting to that. I don’t feel like I’ve had a cold or illness, but my oncologist said I could be fighting something off and the lymph nodes were helping. He also said that if it was cancer, I would have other symptoms and the nodes probably would have grown a lot more than one-tenth of a millimeter in the year’s time between my scans. He said he will order another scan of my neck region when I see him for my usual checkup in four months, and we’ll see what that shows.

But today is the anniversary of my remission and there is still technically no evidence of disease. So I want to celebrate in the present tense. Cancer made me a better person. It made me more empathetic to the suffering of others—especially the invisible suffering that the stranger next to you might be experiencing before their hair falls out from chemo. I’m more attuned to the physical suffering that comes with side effects from treatment as well as the mental and emotional suffering that comes from being diagnosed with a terrible disease and all the side effects of uncertainty. I proudly wear the banner of a cancer survivor, but I know that so many others have endured or succumbed to so much worse.

IMG_20170811_162101_015

I am grateful every day for the fact that post-cancer life has returned me not just to normalcy but frequently to unqualified bliss. I’m married to a beautiful woman who lifted me up and made me smile during the most difficult moments of my life. We together conquered a challenge that most newly married couples cannot imagine, and

enduring that experience together has reduced many of the usual mountains of marriage to mere molehills.  We are now blessed with a beautiful daughter who is changing our lives in new ways every day and who represents a future for our family that is filled with boundless love and endless possibility.

Cancer will always be a part of my history and reality. But despite the wounds of the past and occasional fears for the future, the greatest takeaway from my cancer experience will always be a better understanding of the gift of the present.

Hope for 3: Marriage, Cancer and Pregnancy

When I first got the text from my friend Emily, I felt an immediate physical sensation of fear mixed with shock—the feeling of an instantaneous cold shower for all the blood in my veins.

The text asked for prayers for a friend of hers who had recently gotten married, recently become pregnant and recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This woman—Mary—had inadvertently become the living embodiment of three of my greatest passions in life. Since getting married in 2014, my commitment to my wife has been the defining relationship in my life and something that I take an immense interest in nurturing. Since being diagnosed with Hodgkins and fighting it into remission throughout 2015, supporting cancer patients and sharing my experience as a survivor has become another personal mission. When my daughter was born in August 2016, becoming a father was the final life change to further refine my identity, goals and life purpose.

In a single text asking for my prayers—and without ever having met them or even yet knowing their names—I felt an instant kinship to Mary and her husband Tom and their growing baby Isla Rose. Since the day I learned of their story, they have been on my mind repeatedly and on my lips in prayer unceasingly.

I often talk about what a whirlwind the last three years of my life have been, with a marriage, a new house, a new job, a cancer fight, and a baby. As a firm believer in the axiom that God will never give you more than you can handle, I know this must be a pretty special family. If God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to throw them so many curve balls in rapid succession, they must be excellent hitters with a superb coaching staff.

That coaching staff is where the real miracle happens—when you realize that God didn’t give you more than you could handle precisely because He also gave you a strong network of people who will support you through these challenges. My post-cancer goal has been to join the coaching staff of anyone I encounter who is going through something similar.

If you are reading this, chances are that you were on my coaching staff, and I can never thank you enough. But the work isn’t done now that I’m in remission. I’m asking you to please spring back into action and help the Doherty family. There’s no denying they have a tough road ahead of them. Whether financially or spiritually or in another way you might think of, please join me in lifting up this family as they embark on an undeniably difficult journey. Pray for the health of their baby and a safe delivery. Pray that the cancer has not continued to spread within Mary. Pray that the treatment will be a success. Pray that Tom, with the difficult job of simultaneous caretaker to a newborn and a cancer patient, will get the support he needs and have the strength to persevere with a positive attitude. Just generally keep them in your prayers and consider making a donation to their GoFundMe account.

Reading their story makes me feel incredibly blessed for the way mine worked out and for the oodles of love and support I had along the way. Please help me to spread the word about their situation so that they can share my happy ending and recognize the enormous blessings that are ultimately born of suffering.

Combating My Gratitude Deficit

Why is gratitude so fleeting?

This thought always seems to not-so-coincidentally occur to me around the time of my once-every-four-months oncologist checkups. How sad that it takes the specter of cancer to make me once again realize how truly blessed I am.

The timing of this week’s appointment was particularly compelling, as Lumpy was already back on my mind for a variety of reasons.

First of all, I had just read the story of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a Chicago area writer who knew she was dying of ovarian cancer and penned a touching love letter to her soon-to-be-widowed husband for Valentine’s Day in the form of an online dating profile for any woman who would be lucky enough to be with him after she had passed. She was diagnosed in September 2015 and died this week at the age of 51. As always, epically sad stories like this one leave me reeling with grateful thoughts about the fact that my Lumpy was the beatable kind. By simply adding “non-” to the beginning of my Hodgkin’s diagnosis, it could have easily gone another way. Why was I chosen to live?

Secondly, I received an email last week from a new health site called Bright Bod that is seeking to interview patients of various cancers and post their answers to experiential questions online as a somewhat crowd-sourced version of Web MD. Always eager to share my cancer experience in any way that would be helpful to Lumpy’s future victims, I jumped at the chance and walked through my cancer fight via a 45-minute Skype interview. (Incidentally, if there are any other cancer patients reading this, I can send you the site’s contact info if you would like to participate…they will pay you for your time!) Going over the timeline and symptoms and side effects of treatment, I realized how infrequently I think about it on a daily basis. Being a cancer survivor will always be a big part of my identity, but my full return to good health more often than not makes it a footnote instead of a headline. What a blessing.

Thirdly, a few weeks ago a friend texted me asking for prayers for a couple who found out they were pregnant…and then found out the mother has Hodgkin’s. I have written many blog posts here and elsewhere chronicling the joys and sorrows of both cancer and pregnancy—but going through both of those medical events simultaneously is simply unfathomable to me. Please stop reading this for a moment and offer a prayer for that couple and their baby. They must be a very special husband and wife to be given such a tremendous trial.

The final reminder that my gratitudinal attitude could use some adjusting came from looking back at one of my own cancer posts. Since Facebook now delivers a daily “This Is Your Life” digest of what I was doing on this day in previous years, I am able to relive the 2015 Lumpy battle as it recedes into the social media version of the history of my life. I wrote this post almost exactly two years ago, as I struggled with neutropenic fever and an unwillingness to endure more chemo treatments that I knew would make me feel even worse. I was reading the comments on the post and saw one from a woman whose blog site was titled “Livingly Dying.” I clicked over to the site and saw that she had indeed passed away on June 10, 2015—less than three months after commenting on my blog. Recent posts were dedicated to memorial services and a charitable event in her honor. The blog lives on as a testament to her more than four-year fight against ovarian cancer. Once again, it becomes impossible not to be extraordinarily grateful for my current situation and rather ashamed of my frequent lack of gratitude.

Now you might say, “Matt, don’t be so hard on yourself.” But why shouldn’t I start every day with a prayer of gratitude that I am still alive? My ability to write this post right now is a product of early detection, modern medicine and the support and prayers of everyone in my life. I am no more worthy of getting to live my life, love my wife and raise my children than any of the countless people who have succumbed to terminal versions of the disease. And neither are you, my cancer-free friend.

But it’s so hard to remember all of this during the day-to-day frustrations of daily life that nevertheless are still moments of a life that we are blessed to continue living! We should live in full and constant thanksgiving for all the awesomeness in our lives, and seek out joy even in the beautifully mundane moments. I’m striving to shed the skin of entitled indifference that starts building up every time I get another all-clear from my doctor. I got that call today. I’m four healthy months closer to total remission and a declaration of “cured.”

But I know the real cure is unmitigated gratitude, and I need to increase my dosage.