by Joanie Butman
Years ago I went on a trip to Texas to escort my son to camp. The trip followed a difficult winter during which I learned I had a child-size malignant tumor in my gut. I underwent surgery to remove it along with a kidney. At the time, I was so relieved to discover it wasn’t another child giving me all the agita that the full impact of the diagnosis didn’t hit me until later. This excursion was going to be a chance to relax and reflect on my experience. For ten days I traveled solo through the Lone Star State. Coming from Connecticut, the culture was as foreign to me as if I had landed in another country. The only goal I had during that trip was to ride a mechanical bull, which I did with gusto. Shortly after that ride, I discovered a lump on my side indicating a recurrent liposarcoma and was not given much hope from the medical community. You may think this morbid, but before I went in for surgery, I decided to plan my own funeral. What can I say? I like to organize things. Trust me, you will never hold people’s attention more raptly than at your funeral. Regardless of who you are, this will be your 15 minutes of fame. On the cover of the funeral booklet I put a photo of me on the bull with this caption, “Choose to Enjoy the Ride in ALL Circumstances.” It was also part of what I chose for my headstone. Personally, this statement embodies the key to a happy life. Given the same opportunity, what legacy of wisdom would you choose to share? This was mine, and being given an extra portion of the fun gene has helped me along somewhat in that pursuit. Obviously, I haven’t had the need for the booklet yet, but that doesn’t make the statement any less powerful or the pursuit any less noble.
Sadly, since the doctors put Humpty Dumpty back together again, I can no longer enjoy riding the bull, but it doesn’t hinder the amusement I derive from watching others. Living vicariously at a recent Hoe Down brought the memory flooding back in Technicolor. I don’t know if it was the beer I regrettably consumed that evening, but when a number of people mentioned, “It’s really hard,” I couldn’t help but nod in agreement, wonder why they would expect it to be otherwise, and reflect on how similar it is to life in general. “Yes. Life IS really hard.” Despite our best efforts to stay in control, we are constantly being thrown off the bull. The duration of our time in the saddle varies widely, but it is the willingness to pick ourselves up and get back on that defines us. Each fall is a teaching opportunity to learn and improve life skills which help us going forward. It’s a life-long process, and if we don’t practice those skills by climbing back on, what we’ve learned will be meaningless suffering and wasted tears. Sometimes we have to be thrown off balance in order to refocus our attention.
I’ve been told that the most successful riders lean into the bull and move with it, which prevents them from being tossed. Bribing the person at the controls has also proven quite effective. However, that does not apply in life. You can’t make deals with destiny or God. Sometimes the thing you try to hold onto the hardest – that which you value most – is the very thing you need to release, but only by getting knocked off are you forced to let go and recognize that reality. It could be children, a spouse, your career, beauty and youth, a skill or ability that brought you great joy (singer losing her voice, an athlete losing a limb, a musician losing his hearing). Or there are times when we cling to fears and past hurts: fear of failing health, of professional failure, of loss, of embarrassment or rejection, of emotional pain or bitterness, maybe even an addiction. Whatever it is, the fact that it is taken away either liberates you or forces you in a new direction, offering an opportunity to discover something new about yourself; and, more importantly, how God can take any situation and create beauty out of the ashes, blessing us even amidst our pain.
When you lean into life’s twists and turns instead of fighting them, their power to throw you is weakened and you stay in the saddle longer. Everyone gets on the bull already knowing the result. It isn’t a matter of if, but when. So why are we so surprised when it happens in life? We need to expect challenges – no one is immune. The secret is choosing to enjoy the ride even, or especially, when life gets rough. Life is less about the destination than the journey, because the one thing I’ve learned for sure is that your original direction will rarely be your last. The destination may or may not change, but the route you take to get there will be full of twists and turns – sometimes for the better, often not – each bringing their own wisdom to either correct our path or reveal an entirely new one we didn’t even know existed. Isn’t that the challenge in climbing on the bull, to discover the amount of time you can hang on? Where would the adventure be if we already knew the answer to that question? It would take all the fun out of the competition, because by rising to that challenge we always learn something in the process.
I can attest to the fact that being tossed by the bull leaves bruises on your body and your pride – and it is in the latter where the wisdom lies. What challenge are you facing? And what about it is causing you to lose your balance and your grip? An interesting thing to consider when you find yourself on your back, dazed and wondering how you got there. Even though my “official” bull-riding days are just a distant memory, I spend as much time as anyone else being thrown by life in the most unexpected ways; but above all else, I can say with conviction, “I choose to enjoy the ride in ALL circumstances,” and why not? It’s so much more fun than the alternative. LIFE IS A WILD RIDE and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I will share my most painful fall as an example of one of my life-defining moments. When I was in my late twenties, without warning (though in hindsight that’s really not true) my husband of six years told me he wanted a divorce. He had fallen in love with someone in his office. I was stunned, broken almost beyond repair. After a year-long, ugly divorce, one of the men in my office was given the unpleasant task of telling me that if I didn’t pull myself together, I would be adding unemployment to my long list of grievances. I can just see the three men I worked for out having a beer deciding who was going to do it, drawing straws. It would be equivalent of volunteering to go into the lion’s den. I am sure the other two convinced Bob (with a logic that only comes with alcohol) that since I already didn’t like him, he had the least to lose, and they were right. Like a lamb being led to the slaughter, they sent him off on his mission. He was such an innocent. I would have felt sorry for him; but when you are drowning in self-pity, it is difficult to think about anyone but yourself.
As gently as anyone could deliver such a message, Bob told me I could wallow in bitterness and self-pity; but if that was my choice, I’d have to do it somewhere else as I was taking up valuable space. That conversation was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given. I thought I had good reasons to dislike this man, and here he was giving me the mother of all reasons! He always made fun of me, which was a dangerous pastime teasing a bitter woman. I don’t know why I didn’t take these particular comments defensively as I did with all his jokes; perhaps because I recognized the truth in them. Or maybe it was because I desperately needed the job. I had a mortgage to pay, another failure would have been the final blow, and the loss of the support system in that office would have been my undoing. With a calm I didn’t necessarily feel at the moment, I thanked him and walked out of the office on a new course. There was no quick fix. Even with my bearings recalibrated, the healing process was slow and laborious, like turning the Titanic. It took a year or so before my joy and humor returned, and even longer to warm up to Bob. All I know is the happier I became, the funnier his jokes got. In any case, I chose to act happy before I felt it, and that’s a conscious decision. Once I made that choice, the healing began. More often than not, you have no control over life’s jolts, but your response is always a matter of personal choice.
Bob’s comments forced me to face the hurt, which had been masked as hatred, learn from it, and either choose to get back on the bull or get out of the ring. It suddenly became so clear to me. The hurt was easier to deal with as hatred, but it had been consuming the best parts of me and destroying anything and anyone in its path. Of course, I hated Bob. He was no exception. I hated everyone, including myself. Don’t underestimate the power of the adage, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” I had lost my capacity to love or laugh – probably my two strongest assets. I was never a scholar or an athlete. My SAT scores will go to the grave with me, and I am the only person I know who has ever failed gym consistently. People were my major, and I alone was ruining the only thing I had to offer, myself. It was one of the most defining moments of my life. I could either view the conversation with the scorn that had taken over my heart, or I could open myself up to God’s grace and begin an entirely new journey. I could give up my right to be angry and get even, but then I would also have to give up my new favorite pastime: fantasizing about various methods of inflicting a slow, painful death. I settled on something more sublime – a singing telegram sent to his office to the tune of Zippity Do Dah. It was all about cheating hearts and how “he’d done me wrong” – it could have been a country music hit. I guess I hadn’t totally lost my sense of humor after all. Having finally satisfied my need to have the last word and my flair for the dramatic, I then decided to refocus my energy on reinventing a new and improved version of my former self and an entirely new life.
The defining choice I made at that moment – to stop seeing myself as a victim – had a life-long impact on how I have approached every trial since. Never again did I allow myself to be a victim of my circumstances. I made a conscious decision to choose joy in all circumstances. It has served me well when facing subsequent hardships, but none more poignant than being handed a cancer diagnosis. In fact, my theme song at that time became one called I Choose.
I never forgot the pain because it would have lost its value. There is a difference between living with pain and living in pain. Take my word for it, in both the physical and emotional sense, you can peacefully coexist with pain. Living in pain is anything but peaceful. No, I was never the same person and thank God – literally. Aside from some of the most horrendous hairdos you can imagine (and I have the photos to prove it), I was definitely at my worst physically and emotionally during that painful year. But God’s amazing grace took that ugly duckling and transformed her from the inside out. Thankfully, I found a decent hairdo; but truthfully, the beauty that people now see has nothing to do with what’s on the outside - and good thing as it is fading fast.
Did I ever reconcile with John? Not really, but I reconciled with myself. I forgave him, which freed me from the prison of my own pain and opened the door to a whole new world beyond anything I had ever imagined. I also forgave myself because no one gets to the point of divorce alone. I had to recognize what part I played in the disintegration of the marriage and relinquish my role as victim.
I’ll never know if John came to terms with his role in the divorce. He didn’t regret his choice, and in hindsight, it was the right decision for both of us though it took me years to realize it. John died in 9/11. My family and I attended his funeral even though the man we all loved died years before.
Ironically, the one person I disliked most did more for me in one conversation than all my so-called friends had during that painful year. Despite my obvious disdain for him, Bob was the only one with the courage to choose to hold up the mirror for me to see who I had become. Little did he know that choice would change both our destinies. We have now been married for over 20 years. He still teases me all the time, but the reflection I see in his loving eyes is a woman I wouldn’t have imagined all those years ago.
Do you remember that surgery I mentioned earlier? Even though it was painful, it didn’t compare to the removal of the bitterness in my soul which caused more damage than the basketball-size tumor they found in my belly. You are numb during the operation, blissfully asleep while they cut out the very thing that is threatening your survival. Following the procedure, they gently slap the side of your face prodding you back to consciousness, “It’s over. You can wake up now.” Don’t ever believe them; it’s just the beginning. I fell for that the first time, but the second time I was in no rush to wake up. I knew what was waiting for me. They call it healing pain, and it is very real physically and emotionally. No wonder so many people try to avoid it. But you can’t anesthetize yourself against the emotional pain in life though many try, and I am no exception. Healing can only be achieved through the excruciating pain of seeing what needs to be removed and going about the process of doing it, which can only be done when you are fully conscious. Both kinds of surgery leave scars, not as reminders of the pain but of the lessons we learned from reaching the other side.
There is no doubt that bulls—like life—are a wild ride, which is what makes both so much fun…but only when you choose to enjoy the ride, bumps and all.