Living with chronic illness is living with uncontrollable circumstancesA recent article  in the Huffington Post The Third Metric, “The 9 Essential Habits Of Mentally Strong People,” included the quote:

“In a world that we don’t control, tolerance is obviously an asset,” Ryan Holiday, author of the forthcoming The Obstacle Is The Way, told The Huffington Post. “But the ability to find energy and power from what we don’t control is an immense competitive advantage.”

Like a Zen koan, this is a sentence that doesn’t make sense at first. How can we get energy from what we can’t control?

Living with chronic illness is a graduate course in living with uncontrollable circumstances. Most of my clients feel depleted, not energized by the demands of constantly recalibrating their life.

Can I go to the grocery store today?  Will I have the stamina to finish the project?

I want to go to that event; what do I need to let go of beforehand so I know I’ll feel well? Should I stay up an hour later to be with my partner, or is it better to get (or try to get) some sleep?

It seems endless – not empowering – to live with so little control. What can Holiday mean by his statement?

“The idea is that you don’t just have to tolerate the things you can’t control — they could be the greatest things that ever happen to you,” says Holiday. “You can find the joy in not just accepting, but in embracing the things that happen to you.”

How do we do that?

I think of my client, Sue, who continues to have trouble walking.  It is clearly an obstacle in her life.

Yet she views this difficulty as a way to test herself every day.

“When I don’t feel like walking, I ask myself – what do you most want to do., “ she tells me.

“I challenge myself and give myself a treat when I get to my destination.”

“Seeing my life as a series of these challenges has become almost a game. I don’t know how I’m going to feel on any given day, but I decide that on most days – I don’t want to be rigid and say all days – I will see how far I can go – and then give myself a pat and some chocolate.’

This is what Holiday is describing I realize. This spirit of using what is there as a way to grow and become stronger in mind – if not body.

Sue is an inspiration to me, but I know she would be dismissive if I told her that. She just thinks her response is ordinary.

She finds “immense power in what she cannot control” – because she lets it be a meaningful challenge. Maybe she even embraces this challenge, as it is helping her grow deeper and stronger, more compassionate, and more aware of who she is and what she can do.

How about you? Where do you find energy in what you cannot control? How do you use the obstacles in your life so that they don’t control you?

Let me know how you experience “mental strength.”