I am now reaching the age when people assume that I have achieved a certain amount of wisdom. I admit that I usually enjoy playing the role of the sage as a professor, but at times it definitely has its downside. For example, a new faculty member once said to me, “Hey, Lennie, you’re the silverback gorilla in our department. What’s your advice about this proposed new policy?” I was so irritated that I wanted to hit him with a banana.
For me personally, a more serious downside of aging is that I am now facing a threat to my health, well-being and life. Two years ago, I was notified that I have cancer. A biopsy that I had fully expected to be benign instead turned out to be malignant. I received the call in my office, just before leaving to teach my crisis counseling class. Ironically, after decades of responding to the crises of others, I suddenly became my own case study.
When I entered the classroom late and out of breath, still reeling from the shock of the cancer diagnosis, I realized that I had taught my students well — they immediately sensed that I was troubled and kindly invited me to talk about it. Touched by their sensitivity and concern, I decided to take a risk and openly share with them my bad news.
As I told my story, I began to feel a mixture of profound emotional relief as a person and immense pride as a teacher because my students intervened in my personal crisis with empathy, skill and compassion. It turned out to be a powerful lesson, both for my students and for me. I believe that my students learned to trust the process of counseling, no matter when, where and with whom an intervention suddenly is required. The lesson I learned was to accept the gifts that others generously offer me in my own times of turmoil. That is the essence of counselor education — to practice our craft with one another to promote professional growth and personal healing.
Four principles of thriving
As counseling students, supervisors, teachers and practitioners, we all will have our share of personal, professional and family crises. So, I offer here four principles of thriving that emerged from my own life lessons in dealing with times of turmoil, threat and adversity.
The first principle of thriving is to be resilient. Resilience comes from the Latin word resilire. To resile means to bounce back. In physics, resilience refers to the elasticity of material that can endure strain. For each and every one of us, personal resilience involves not only surviving those inevitable crises ahead, but also truly thriving in our lives.
As I reflect on my two years of cancer treatment, I find that my personal experience has mirrored the typical reactions to a life-threatening situation. I appreciate now more than ever how adaptive negative emotions such as fear and anxiety can be because they focus our attention on the threat and press us to take appropriate action rapidly. But during this time, I also have been discovering deep and abiding positive emotions such as hope, compassion and heartfelt gratitude. Those emotions have broadened and enriched my ways of being. The truth is that both negative and positive feelings are essential for surviving and thriving in times of crisis.
My second principle for thriving is a reminder that you are not alone (and neither am I). Every culture has its folk tales and myths that portray a hero on a quest. No matter how talented and strong this protagonist may be, the person neither travels nor triumphs alone. Jason, the ancient Greek mythological hero, counted on his Argonauts in his search for the Golden Fleece. Somewhere over the rainbow, Dorothy was gifted with the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow to help her find the Wizard of Oz. And in his Star Wars adventures, Luke Skywalker relied on Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia and Han Solo.
Like the protagonists in those archetypal stories, we also will encounter others who will have a profound impact on our life’s journey. To thrive in our future endeavors, we must accept the gifts that others offer us. To flourish in our personal lives and professional careers, we need to join with others to engage in the collaborative work of supporting, inspiring, challenging and encouraging one another. We are not islands unto ourselves in achieving our potential. We cannot succeed as completely, or as joyfully, on our own.
Third, thriving in our future involves remaining committed to learning throughout our lives. Our graduate training is not a mere dress rehearsal. It is an integral part of our lifelong dedication to continued professional development. A mind is like a parachute — it works best when it’s open. And actions do speak louder than words, so we must seek out mentors who exemplify what we aspire to become, because the most important lessons in life are not taught but caught. Passion, commitment and curiosity are highly contagious. For that reason, I regularly take a close look at my colleagues and my students. What do I want to catch from them?
The counseling profession is like a fidgety kid who is never still — it is constantly on the move as students and practitioners contribute to its vitality. The Mbuti of Africa have a ritualized song that offers a wonderful example of what every professional community should aspire to achieve. In the song, individual singers are responsible for specific notes, but no one carries the entire melody. As a result, only the community can sing the song.
My fourth and final principle for thriving is to make the journey your destination. In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” I am neither the person who originally entered my own training program nor the beginning counselor who launched my counseling career. Along the way, I have gained a sense of confidence and trust in my own abilities. I have questioned my old assumptions and, as a result, made new discoveries that guide my work. I aspire to continue going with the flow of my career and to be open to the enormous possibilities of future transformations.
Decades ago, as I was immersed in my own graduate education, I was fortunate to develop lifelong friendships with members of my cohort. We brought to our training a similar mixture of rough edges and fine potential, nagging doubts and yearning dreams, neurotic hang-ups and transformational hopes. We told our life stories to one another and threw ourselves into heartfelt discussions that lasted late into the night. Along the way, we would party together. My fellow students taught me how essential it is not only to work hard with your colleagues but also to celebrate with them.
More lessons to learn
Six months ago, lab results revealed a recurrence of my cancer. After completing 15 more radiation sessions, my skin was a raw and painful reminder of my vulnerability and mortality. I continue to Google for any innovative breakthroughs for my cancer, to remain committed to practicing a healthier lifestyle and to explore complementary approaches. I now face a regimen of medications, phototherapy sessions, appointments and lab tests.
I have become accustomed to the role of the patient, but I endeavor to thrive throughout the process. I cherish my loved ones. I give extra hugs to my family and dear friends. And I take every opportunity to show my gratitude for the countless acts of kindness that others bestow on me every single day. My hopes and dreams for the future, which serve as the personal beacons that light my way, are to savor and cherish all the meaningful, loving and joyful moments that remain in my life. I have many more lessons to learn from my students.
Lennis G. Echterling is a professor of counseling at James Madison University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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