No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse. ~ Randy Pausch

But, as Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, also pointed out, “at the same time, it is often within your power to make them better.”

When things are not going well, what makes them worse?

  • Moving too quickly. Quick resolution of an issue can be a wonderful thing. Our cinema action heroes are known for their lightning-fast responses to terrible situations. And while they rarely make situations worse in the movies, in real life, making a decision when tired, overwhelmed, or scared often does.
  • Isolating. Research on coping behaviors in a severe crisis points out the danger in retreating from support. In isolation, fears often grow. So do depression and loneliness. It is normal to pull in to process or deal with the flood of emotions and information that can come our way during a crisis. But staying in that bunker of withdrawal can ultimately make the tough times even more difficult to navigate.
  • Letting the negative overwhelm everything else. When a disaster occurs in our lives, we can be engulfed by the emotions, logistics, and disruption. None of it is likely to feel positive. Yet spending our time thinking or talking about how unfair the situation is yields only more negative feelings.

For several months, I had the improbable opportunity to take both my husband and son to their respective weekly chemotherapy treatments. Waiting for my husband to be called for his chemotherapy infusion, I sat in the waiting room where the mood was somber, quiet, and depressing. In contrast, the children’s oncology waiting room was full of young cancer patients, also with bald heads, missing limbs, IVs and laughter. The children, unlike most of the adults I observed, found a way to engage with one another, and with life, despite their diagnoses.

Where, then, is our power to make them better? It’s not like we chose the crises or tough times.

Pausch shared the story of their first child’s birth — a panic-stricken, impossibly fast drive to the hospital, his wife in danger of going into shock, emergency surgery, and terrified first-time parents. Yet despite the crisis, Pausch pointed out that we still have some power in our trajectories through trauma.

Dylan’s birth was a reminder to me of the roles we get to play in our destinies. Jai and I could have made things worse by falling into pieces. She could have gotten so hysterical that she’d thrown herself into shock. I could have been so stricken that I’d have been no help in the operating room.

Through the whole ordeal, I don’t think we ever said to each other: “This isn’t fair.” We just kept going. We recognized that there were things we could do that might help the outcome in positive ways … and we did them. Without saying it in words, our attitude was, “Let’s saddle up and ride.”

So how do you make things better rather than worse?

  • Get grounded before you make any decisions. Find the space between the crisis and action before you decide what to do next.
  • Reach out and let others in. Decide who can help you navigate this challenge well and who you need to keep at arm’s length for a while.
  • Manage the mind monkeys. Be conscious of the negative, critical, and terrifying thoughts that your brain may be throwing your way. And, as Byron Katie would add, don’t be willing to believe everything you think.
  • Focus on the positive rather than the negative. Stay attuned to moments of beauty, acts of kindness, and any moments, however brief, of peace.