I remember the day like it was yesterday, the giddy schoolgirl excitement tinged with anxiety deep in my stomach as I approached my office building. I was getting my life back, another shot, but would he even remember me let alone how I like my coffee? Then, still 100 metres away, my swirling thoughts and emotions were interrupted with a booming Taaaaaanya!! I looked up to see him waving vehemently and smiling the most heart-warming smile. A smile now etched permanently into my heart. I felt a tear start to well as I approached the cafe…I hadn’t been forgotten. George, my lovely ‘coffee guy’ who had been a crucial part of my morning routine before the diagnosis stood eagerly awaiting me, beaming that huge George smile. Oh how I had missed our morning ritual of reflecting on the world and life events, large and small, as he made me my morning ‘happy juice’. “How are you?” George asked. “I’ve been thinking of you so much. My wife and I went to the hospital, but we couldn’t get through to see you because all I knew about you was that your name was Tanya, you’re a lawyer who drinks long blacks, and you were being treated for cancer.“
It was this simple but powerful interaction between George, the kind barista who made me my coffee each morning at the cafe near my office, that I recall fondly when people ask me if, and how, cancer changed my outlook on life. You see, it was my first day back in the office after many months of recovery from a double mastectomy. A corporate lawyer in one of Australia’s top firms, the hours were often long and the work, whilst rewarding, could be equally challenging and highly demanding. My morning coffee ritual was one of the highlights of my long and busy days, not just because of my love of coffee or the conversations that would flow with George, but because without fail, George would remember how I like my coffee, what my children were up to, what I was reading at the time. George listened, he connected, he cared. George did this with everyone who came into his cafe. But I didn’t fully appreciate just how significant this simple but special morning ritual played in my life before my diagnosis. I would often take it for granted in the rush and stress of everyday life. It wasn’t until I was walking the familiar path toward the cafe on that first day back, realising George would probably have forgotten me and what coffee I like – given the hundreds of new faces he sees each week, that I began to appreciate it a little more deeply.
Then as George told me of his and his wife’s attempt to visit me in hospital, I was hit by the impact that we have in each other’s lives, often without ever even realising it. How lucky was I to have had the darkness that revealed the light. They say that trauma helps one to re-prioritise. That you stop sweating the small stuff when you’ve faced some of the ‘big stuff’. For me, it wasn’t so much about not sweating the small stuff anymore. It was about discovering and appreciating just how much of the small stuff, the positive ‘little things’ present in our every day, that is actually the big stuff!
Life without adversity is an illusion and adversity doesn’t discriminate – we all encounter stressful, traumatic, painful times in life. It’s unfortunate but it’s a fact. It is precisely when we are going through difficult times that we need to find and focus on all the ‘seemingly small’ things that are good in our life…and the stark contrast that a truly traumatic period provides, can help us to see these little ‘big’ things more clearly – if we allow it. A morning coffee, a rainbow, a hug from a loved one, a walk in nature, the small, soft hand of a young child snug within yours, a nap in the sunshine, the soft fur and warmth of a puppy resting on your lap…take a moment, close your eyes, and think of 6 little ‘big’ things in your life right now. Reflect on how you feel just thinking about them – powerful hey! That’s because they really are the big stuff…and they can work magic if we let them, to keep us moving forward through the darker days.
2020 has seen us all thrust into a battle with another C-word. We are experiencing stress and trauma on unprecedented levels globally…but if we let it, perhaps it is through the very darkness this pandemic is casting across the globe, that the light of the little ‘big’ things we each have in our life will shine through more brightly. Perhaps it can help us see and connect more fully to the people and things that we might have been taking for granted before COVID-19, or perhaps are at risk of losing sight of now, consumed instead by stress, fear and uncertainty. I wish that we had a cure for COVID-19 but in lieu of fulfilment of that dream, I hope that we can use its darkness to shine a light on all the little ‘big’ things in our life that bring us happiness and joy, because we need to focus on and feed those right now, not lose sight of them or neglect them.
So much of what is happening due to COVID-19 is outside of our control, and feeding the stress and uncertainty hurts, not helps us. If we are going to get through each difficult day during this pandemic, we need to tap into all the good things we do still have in our lives. No, it won’t make COVID go away, it won’t bring back lost loved ones or open borders, save lost businesses or replenish dwindling finances and struggling economies…but then again neither will focusing on all these things constantly and creating further stress and strain in our bodies and minds that can blind us to the good little ‘big’ things we have available to us every day! I’m not suggesting we can or should just ignore what’s going on around us, there are absolutely times we do have to focus on the C-word to find ways to minimise its impact on our loves ones, our businesses, our lives. Chronic stress though, has many adverse effects on our brain, including impaired cognitive functioning in our pre-frontal cortex and hindrance of the functioning of our hippocampus. This means things like our planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control and memory, all of which we need if we’re to navigate a positive path out of the COVID-19 chaos, will be impaired by chronic stress. When we’re stressed, our thinking processes are reduced. Continuing to recognise and savour our little ‘big’ things, acts as a daily antidote to the chronic stress because positive thoughts and emotions actually fuel our brain – triggering neurochemicals that give us the energy to think and function at our best.
Studies on the effect of gratitude on the human body and brain have found overwhelming evidence that actions involving the giving and receiving of gratitude can :
• Reduce pain
• Release toxic emotions
• Improve sleep quality
• Aid in stress regulation
• Reduce anxiety and depression
• Increase resilience
• Increase happiness and wellbeing,
so, let’s grow our little ‘big’ things with regular doses of attention and gratitude instead of letting them be suffocated by stress.
Not only did George remember me on that first day back, he remembered what coffee I liked and had it ready and waiting for me by the time our conversation finished. He made me feel seen and appreciated and helped me to see and appreciate the power of connection and the joy that morning ritual and so many other seemingly little things actually brought to my life. Whilst these experiences didn’t take away the pain of the preceding months, they helped me through it – and they helped me to realise that the C-word was simply a (really) difficult period in my life, but it wasn’t one of my big things. So if there is anything positive that might possibly come out of the current global trauma, and indeed any adversity that crosses our path, I hope it’s that more people will begin to see with greater clarity and appreciation, that those little things in life, really are the big things, and we need to find them and focus on them more than ever when things get tough.