Sooner or later, every person among us faces what seems like an impossible challenge: the loss of a job, the death of a family member or close friend, a business deal gone south. Often, the challenge arrives through no fault of one’s own, as more than 800,000 federal workers recently discovered.
At times like these, our true character gets tested. Do we retreat into a shell of self-pity and lost optimism? Do we lash out in hopes that blaming others will somehow make things right? Or do we accept that whatever tribulation has arisen forms just one more step on life’s journey and set ourselves on a path to a new, different and, hopefully, better future?
As the Bible tells us, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Nearly 20 years ago, I learned this lesson the hard way. During my annual physical, my doctor ran the usual battery of tests and informed me that everything seemed fine. A few days later, however, he called to inform me that my bloodwork had revealed a possible presence of cancer. The result was inconclusive, he said, and he needed to do more tests.
Like anyone who has ever received that kind of call, I was scared, confused and nervous. After all, I was only 38 years old, with a young wife and an even younger family. I was way too young to have cancer. I was emotionally too weak to walk. I fell apart and began to cry. Clearly, my life was over, and I couldn’t get any assurance from my doctor that everything would be all right.
I drove straight home and shared the terrible news with my wife. I remain forever grateful for her response. She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me as if to drive the fear out of me. “It’s not over,” she said. “We’re going to beat this.”
And then she uttered the words that have stayed with me ever since: “You’re too scared to die. You’ve got much more to do. It’s going to be all right.”
Fortunately, the follow-up tests proved I was, in fact, cancer-free. But the experience has stayed with me, and I try to remember every day that we’re all here on earth for a relatively short time, and so it’s our obligation to try to make the best of that time. We cannot allow other people or other situations to dictate what our life should be like. The future belongs to those who can see it.
Life provides so many challenges – some good and some terrifying. It’s up to us to find the strength and the will to triumph over adversity. Don’t be afraid. Don’t stand still. Be bold and have courage. Live life fully by focusing on the important things – family, empowering others, lifting people up.
That’s exactly what I’ve been doing since that doctor’s visit 18 years ago. It took my wife to shake me out of my state of paralysis back then, but I’ve promised myself that I’ll never let tomorrow’s challenges deter me from the things that really matter.
As Tim Robbins’ character in The Shawshank Redemption, the classic 1994 movie, explained: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Whatever challenges may come your way, know that there are still those who love you and have your back. So take a deep breath – and get busy.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the senior advisor to the chancellor and director of the Africa Initiative at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.