AT some point in our lives we have all known or heard about people whose lives are never quite the same again after facing something totally unexpected and which they have no control over.
We read stories about people who have had to face unexpected adversity or shocking misfortunes and feel a mixture of sympathy and admiration for their courage and fortitude in facing these giant challenges.
Some of us have actually been there ourselves and looking back, wonder how we managed to stay afloat and survive those darkest hours.
To those of us whose lives have been pretty smooth sailing so far, hearing about such things may cause us to pause a minute or two to wonder what it would be like if we had to go through that same trying situation.
But with so many other things to think about and a million other duties, we may give a little shrug and move on after making a mental note to visit, call or send a short message of comfort and encouragement.
After all, it can’t be very healthy for your mental state to wallow in morbid thoughts about things that you really don’t want to happen to you.
Three months ago when I had to undergo an emergency eye surgery I had no time to think about anything else apart from getting the surgery over and done with.
But later, in the weeks that followed there was plenty of time to think. There were in fact, considerable periods of time when I could do nothing much besides think, reflect, take stock of what had happened, and where it was all heading.
I have read that we learn so much more from experiences of pain compared to pleasure. Lying in bed those first few days, I learnt the truth of those words.
Being unable to do even simple things for myself and having to depend on someone else to bring me my meals, do my laundry and administer my medication, made me realise how significant these seemingly mundane tasks really were.
With my vision suddenly diminished I began to wonder if I would ever be able to do the things I loved – reading and writing – as freely as before.
I had to cancel certain engagements, reschedule appointments, deadlines and wrestle with doubts and fears that kept rising within me whispering that life as I knew it was over.
The fears were exaggerated to be sure and mostly unsubstantiated but nevertheless they were there.
It was more evident especially when I had to go for a second surgery and more follow-up procedures.
But it was during this time also that many things became so real to me.
I was not reading about someone else’s experience, I was going through it myself.
I remember the feeling of gladness when after a period of uncertainty, I could detect movement and colour in my operated eye.
I remember how good it felt to be able to do the simplest of household chores again and the feeling of fulfilment when I could actually write an email.
When the time came to go back to work I had to take on “smaller” jobs that didn’t require reading, writing or computer related work too much.
It was during one of these moments when I was stapling strips of paper together and feeling good about being able to contribute that I remembered the well-known phrase in theatre by Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski who said: “There are no small parts, only small actors.”
Although there has been much argument about the truth of the phrase, sitting at my desk doing a seemingly meaningless task, I realised that if you thought about it, there were also no “small” jobs really, only “small” attitudes.
I remembered my inner protest and griping in school when faced with the unavoidable task of stapling hundreds of student examination scripts; a task that almost every teacher has to do at different times in the teaching year.
I remembered my thoughts during those times – why did I have to spend hours on this mundane, meaningless task when I could do something really “important”.
But now I had to eat my own words. The simple and repetitive task of cutting strips of paper meant so much to me because it was all that I was able to do at that time.
During my process of recovery I recalled also the times that I had been inwardly critical or condescending towards someone who was slower at doing a particular job in school, or who failed to understand a learning concept quickly.
Now here I was, in the same position, taking three times as long as anyone else to do the basic things.
It made me think of how it may have been like for my own students. Some of them had to take a longer time to do things, to complete an assignment, solve a problem, or grasp a learning fact, and how at times I had been impatient with them.
There must have been scores of times when I had mentally compartmentalised them as “slow” and “not very likely to succeed”.
And yet I was deeply touched and humbled when people went out of their way to be patient with my slowness and even came forward to offer help.
I realise also how important words of support, comfort and encouragement can be; how at times we need to shoulder the responsibilities of our colleagues who are suddenly unable to perform their duties.
I am extremely grateful to people who have and are continuing to help me even as I try to get back to my usual pace.
There are times of course when I wonder if things will ever be the same again but even if they aren’t, it’s okay.
Things are still blurry and hazy for now but I am confident they will keep improving.
To an extent I feel I can see things a lot more clearly now, especially those that deal with my own attitudes and perception of others.
In some ways I feel stronger. As clichéd as it may be, it is really not the things that happen to us that determine our happiness, but our responses to them.
Perhaps we need to include that more in our curriculum or classroom teaching and learning experiences.
We need to let our students know that despite their best efforts, life is not always smooth and sometimes things happen.
But it is during these times that they grow as their characters are moulded and shaped.
For now I take life one day at a time and sometimes quite literally one step at a time.
I am content if I have fulfilled what the day requires of me. But more than anything I rely completely on God’s strength for each day and rest in the assurance that I am not alone.
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