This piece is not mine but my son’s. It is about his spiritual and healing journey. If you feel it can help someone navigate a chronic illness, please feel free to share. Thank you.
Last December, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. For those who don’t know, ulcerative colitis is a chronic illness for which there is, as of yet, no cure. What it means is that if you are a little too stressed out or you eat the wrong food, you will have to deal with an inflamed colon, which is as bad as it sounds. At the time of the diagnosis, I was 17 years old and midway through my senior year of high school. Like many high schoolers, I thought I had life all figured out: social media, party, lift weights. I was cruising through my last year in high school with all my friends and I knew life was going to be smooth sailing into college. So it posed a few problems for me when I learned that, with ulcerative colitis, I could not drink, I would have to take time off from the gym, and, as I would later realize, I did not have life figured out at all. As it played out, I wasn’t well enough to go to school for a while. I stayed at home recovering for the second half of my senior year. I slept, ate the same low-inflammatory foods all day long, played video games, and repeated. I was a kid who wanted to party and get other people’s approval who couldn’t party or go out to get other people’s approval. So aside from beating a few challenging video games, it was not what I’d call a good time. A part of myself that I seriously valued could no longer exist, something that took a few miserable months to come to terms with.
But sometime, months later, a part of me realized that if I was willing to give up my high school ideals and commit myself completely to getting better, it was possible to not live the rest of my life as a victim of some disease. I didn’t know it at the time, but this idea would completely change the way I live my life. Around the time of my 18th birthday, my parents finally got me a dog, which I had wanted my whole life. Walking out of my room every morning to find a little animal celebrating my arrival always put a smile on my face. Those small, happy moments gave me the energy to start getting myself back together over the next few weeks. I started accepting my new diet and lifestyle. I began exercising lightly and stretching daily so that I could slowly work my way back into the gym.
One day, one of these stretches left me in a position where I was looking at a bookshelf upside down. There directly ahead of me, upside down, was a book I had never seen before: Courage by Osho. It seemed interesting, so I read it over the following week, hoping to find out what someone could possibly say in a whole book about courage. In the pages of that book, written by an Indian man who passed away in 1990, were the same thoughts that had been running through my head for the past few weeks. He described the thrill of the unknown, exactly what I had been feeling since I had committed myself to changing and accepting myself. He was someone who knew exactly what I had been through, yet our lives had never even mutually existed. This book, written by a spiritual guru, inspired me to explore what spirituality and religion actually were. For the first time in years, I had a deep sense that I was on the right track in life, which was the only thing that mattered. Shortly after, I found a book by Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, that compared every myth and religion and showed that they all shared a common structure. They were all the same story, written in different ways by different people since the beginning of human civilization. Reading Campbell’s work helped me truly understand the significance of spirituality, because for the first time, I could personally relate to myths and religions. Their messages made sense to me. Viewing religion in this way was liberating for me, and it changed the way I saw life itself. I began to see and feel an underlying order in the chaos of life. I was no longer afraid of failure, because I realized that in every failure there was a lesson to be learned and room to grow. I felt like I had the power and freedom to do anything, and, more amazingly, that I’d had it all along.
I’ve always liked science, so testing this new mindset, this new hypothesis about how life works, was my next step. I couldn’t do that alone in my house, so I first had to get better and get back out into the world. From then on, instead of feeling sorry for myself and worrying about how this illness could ruin my life, my thoughts and attention stayed in the present moment. Instead of getting upset about them, I recognized any symptoms or problems as temporary challenges to overcome, and focused on staying calm and not letting them control me. It took one month of thinking this way, after 6 months of little progress, to get back on my feet, out of my house, and back into school in time for final exams. I now knew that my new view on life could guide me through being sick, but the real test was when I finally got to test it outside of my house. And it worked. In every situation. Every time. The night I successfully graduated high school, a night that hadn’t been guaranteed just a few months earlier, I sat on my deck and watched the sunrise. In this moment I realized I was a completely different person from the kid who left high school in December. That kid could never have done the things I had in those short few weeks. I felt like a new person, but I had never felt more like myself. It didn’t seem real or possible; it felt like I was living in a dream. After having pulled an all nighter, I fell asleep on my deck at 6:00 AM, as my dad was preparing his breakfast. Later that morning I woke up to the same dream. From that day on, my life wasn’t about getting out of bed and getting through the day anymore. I realized that my life is temporary, and feeling like it is a dream is not crazy, it is the truth. Every time I woke up I was ready to put myself into new situations from which I could grow stronger.
Now, as I sit writing this, months later, I believe that attitude is the essence of really living. If you can find a way to see every day, every month, every moment as a new adventure with a new lesson to teach you, it will completely transform the way you live and set you free from all the limits you consciously or unconsciously place on yourself. When I realized this, what I wanted the most was to share my new excitement for life with everyone. I quickly realized that it wasn’t that easy. Telling people to live in the moment and follow their hearts is anything but effective. I know if someone had told me those things when I was in high school, I would have responded with “I don’t know, yeah, sure.” I came to understand that everyone has their own unique way of finding this state of mind, where anything is possible. Every life is a story that can only be written by the person living it. The common theme being that every great story includes facing fears or overcoming challenges or slaying dragons. Without these struggles to break us down, there is no room for greatness to grow out of what remains. Life can be heaven and life can be hell. But every time hell is at your doorstep and you choose to say “try me” instead of “why me?” you develop something that nobody can ever take away from you: a deep sense of purpose and the knowledge that you’re living your own life on your own terms, and no matter how horrible things seem to be, it is always worth fighting until the end. Not for some reward, not because it feels good, but for what you will learn and who you will become. I have found that this idea has been around since the first civilizations, and is at the core of what makes us human. My invitation to anyone that reads this would be to honestly try and figure out what makes their life an adventure worth living. Right now. There is no tomorrow or next month or next year, there will only ever be a right now. So go out and seek your adventure. It isn’t easy, success is never guaranteed, and no, everything won’t always be fine and dandy, but if you can own and accept your life, you’ll never doubt whether or not you’re worthy of living it. Life is one mysterious eternal moment where there will always be good and bad, pleasure and pain, light and dark. I believe that every individual has the capacity to accept it and dive in head first. If an 18 year old from Westchester can do it, so can you. And by doing so, you will realize the significance of your life and the true freedom and power you hold in any situation, and that sense of purpose will guide you through anything life throws at you.
Jonathan Copans © 2015