Life lessons

Life lesson number nine: It’s not what happens to us that defines us; it’s how we choose to respond

If you haven’t heard the heading before, then you haven’t heard of Viktor Frankl and his utterly moving book called Man’s search for meaning.

Before you rush out to grab a copy, I should start by saying it isn’t easy reading. What it is, is one man’s account of why, when you put a group of strangers into a concentration camp during the Holocaust, only some of those strangers survive. 

It’s not always the strongest that make it through. It’s the ones with hope and a reason to live. 

And, while bad things can – and do – happen, they need not define you. You always have a choice about how you respond. 

Cancer taught me this lesson. But, it was a lady interviewing me about my experiences who showed me that this lesson is one that Viktor tried hard to share with the world. And it’s one I heard again only last week when a man was talking about breaking his neck in an accident many years ago. (I love the fact TED has a clip of Viktor speaking on their site because, I think Viktor, were he alive today, could have taught us a lot about finding meaning in our over-commercialised world.) 

So it was an absolute delight to hear legendary Bob Wilson, co-founder of the brilliant charity Willow, use that phrase to describe me when I was lucky enough to be interviewed on BBC Radio Five in December about my upcoming marathon wedding.

I say that I am the sum of my imperfections. By this, I don’t mean the physical scarring or the rearranged body parts. I mean the bits that life didn’t get right first time. It’s because of those imperfections that I have been forced to look in the mirror and really see whether I like the person looking back. It’s because of those imperfections that I know that while I’m sensitive, I am also strong. It’s because of those imperfections that I try and fill every day with a little bit of meaning.

I didn’t let cancer define me. I chose to make serious illness a force for good. 

I haven't changed my job or my career. I've changed my attitude.

I thought I didn't have time. Now I make time. Sometimes the last thing I feel like after a long day at work is writing a charity blog or drumming up support or cash for a volunteering event, but I can guarantee it's the meaningful and purpose-driven acts that feature most in the gratitude diary I write every night.

In some ways, you could say I am one of the lucky ones. I didn't need to find a cause. My cause crept up behind me and then hit me over the head.

Knowing just how important having a little bit of meaning woven into the fabric of every day is one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned. And it's a lesson I want to share with the world.

I started this year with one clear aim: to make it meaningful. I learned back in 2013 that a life without meaning is no life at all. But, this year, I really want to make it count. And the wedding is a big part of that.

If finding meaning makes your day, tweet me about it (@jackie8 #makeitmeaningful). 

Success isn’t a nice life, it’s a meaningful one. I know Viktor would agree. 

So, let’s go be successful! Starting now…

Life lesson number eight: Kind words are always worth sharing

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In November, I wrote to a friend who had sadly been taken into a hospice (last stages of breast cancer) and I told her how much she had touched my life – and the lives of those around her.  I wrote that she was, for me, the very definition of inspirational and that to give so much of herself even though she had little time left, was incredible.

Why am I telling you this? 

I’m telling you because her mother replied. My friend had passed away in the night and would never find out just how much I thought of her.

I should have known better really. Three years ago, I had my own lesson in kindness. It was for Christmas 2013 that I decided to make more than 200 handmade gifts for friends and family – an act that took me away from those friends and family for a good three months.

I thought that what I was doing was the ultimate gift of kindness.

Turns out, I didn’t really have a clue. Then cancer came along to make sure I'd really learned my lesson.

The kind words are the words I remember going through breast cancer treatment. And, by kind, I mean everything from shared memories to a paperclip and a message about helping me to hold it all together when times got tough. People told me how I’d helped them, changed them, made them laugh and made them smile. I guess they thought there was a chance I might not be around long enough to hear those words in the future.

Words moved me in the way they have the power to move us all. They forced me to reflect on just how little we tend to say to the people that inspire us or make us smile. 

So, I decided from that moment on, that words would be my currency. I started a pink hearts campaign while on active treatment, which involved writing a thank you and sharing the memories I treasure with the people who have touched my life. To this day I am still delivering them (and the accompanying hearts) to remind me of the pledge I made to myself. 

I don’t always get it right (as the above example demonstrates). But I start each day with a plan to reach out to someone and tell them I care.

So, as you reflect on the year, ask yourself this. When was the last time you turned to a friend and thanked them for just being there? When was the last time you contacted an old acquaintance and told them just how big an impression they have made on your life? When was the last time you thanked someone and meant it from the bottom of your heart? 

People can’t guess you’re your thinking unless you tell them. When the business of life gets in the way, it is hard to step back, reflect and not take all those you love and admire for granted. 

But, I can tell you now, there is so much I want to say to people while they are still around to hear it! 

People come and go in life, tucked away in chapters. But, their kindness will live on through you. I’d love to think that if someone were to cut me open (in a nice, non-cancer-surgery kind of way), I would be made up all of the brilliant people who have touched my life.

Make today the day you thank someone who matters to you. What is it about them that makes you smile? What it is you should have told them years ago, but never thought to mention? How have they helped make you the person you are today? 

I guarantee you’ll feel good saying it – but not as good as the person hearing it (especially if it’s for the first time).

Make today the day you start following your heart. Trust me, there’s no time to lose.

Life lesson number seven: Life is too short to save anything for best

I used to have a cupboard full of candles that were too important to burn. 

I used to save my favourite dresses for that one amazing day in the future that never came.

I used to keep the 'star baker' spoon (bought for me by a friend) out of the kitchen because it seemed too precious for the job for which it was intended.

I never touched the good pans (even for the good meals).

I used to have a pile of beautiful notebooks that were always too beautiful for my ideas. 

I spent so much time waiting for the right moment. But, even now, I’m not quite sure what I was actually waiting for.

I know I am not alone in my desire to put things in a ‘best’ category. But, the trouble is, when they achieve this coveted position, they are pretty much never seen again. 

When I was going through cancer treatment, I began to realise that the best may never actually come. ‘Best’ is a word that is almost impossible to define. Just saying it takes away the hope of there being something better in the future.

Good days can be great days if you fill them with your favourite things. Candles can bring light into cold winter evenings, if you just choose to light them. Notebooks can make ideas special if you just choose to use them. The clothes that fit best can make you feel more confident before you’ve even left the house. ‘Best’ things can make every day better – if you stop categorising them as such!

A special occasion isn’t something you wait for, it’s something you have to create – not just once in a while, but everyday. 

I remember a friend once telling me that she always wears good (and matching) knickers and bras just in case something happens to her and she ends up in hospital unexpectedly. Now, this might seem slightly macabre, but I like her thinking. What I like is the idea that matching underwear actually means something to her. And, by wearing it every day, she is celebrating that fact every day.

So whatever it is (pants, socks, pens, notebooks or even glasses), I challenge you to stop thinking that the best is yet to come, and start bringing a bit of your best into daily life. 

If you’re waiting for that moment, chances are you’ll never get it. And, if you aren’t, who knows what doors will open for you when you’ve injected a little more happiness into your day? Please do post and share your favourite things. I won’t be posting a pic of my favourite knickers, but I can tell you I have a ‘best’ mug, dress, hat, pan and notebook (for starters). I even have a ‘best’ dishcloth (knitted by my mum). 

I’m off to drink tea out of a special mug, eat my special chutney before it goes off and write on the first page of a special notebook (that’s about six years old). All while wearing a special top. Daring I know!

I actually wrote about this subject for Breast Cancer Care’s BECCA app, which has been designed to help people move forward after breast cancer. If you - or someone you know - could benefit from an app packed full of life hacks, why not send them the link. 

Life lesson number six: Say yes unless you really really should say no

It's not every day you post your Lycra running bra to a celebrity, so that she can sew it in to the running wedding dress she's making for you so you can run a marathon. 

But, today was one of those days.

I confess, three years ago, I could never have imagined writing that sentence, let alone living the life behind those words. 

But, when something challenges your life, you really do begin to think about what that life is all about. 

It's easy to say no. It's easy to stick with the routine that sits you firmly in your comfort zone. It's easy to think that tomorrow will be a better day. But, the truth is, today is the only day that matters.

Of course, saying yes to everything is not the answer (unless you wish to feel constantly guilty and never able to relax). But, saying yes to things that might push you, that might take you in different directions and encourage you to meet new people is a yes worth saying!

That little word has had a huge impact on my life these last three years. I have spent quality time with friends (rather than worrying about the laundry). I have appeared on the TV. I have met my MP to talk about breast cancer and the absence of data collection. I have seen the sun set over parts of the world I never thought I'd see. I have won an award for me (not my work). I have made crumpets. I have found my voice and the things that make me smile. 

So, when the amazing charity Willow said Frankie Seaman (professional figure skater and Dancing on Ice star) would like to chat to me about my running wedding dress plans, I said yes. 

And, when that same charity asked me to stand on a stage at a ball and tell hundreds of people about how they helped give me back my smile at a time when my body had other ideas, I said yes too. 

I live a life in technicolour because of the decisions I have made. The good 'yeses' not the ones I almost feel obliged to take. 

And, the great thing is, so can you. 

My house isn't clean, but then having a clean house is not something I'd be proud to put on my gravestone. 

All I know is, I am ready to walk through the right doors as they open.

Life lesson number five: There is fun in failure

One of the things I loved most about growing up was gymnastics.

This has nothing to do with skill (I frequently came last in competitions and was a bit clumsy). This has nothing to do with fitness (I remember falling from the asymmetric bars at 8 and breaking my arm so badly I needed two operations).

This has nothing to do with the 80s shell suit (red, white, blue and slippery) or the fact that I once appeared in our local newspaper vaulting in a very ungrateful spread eagled position. (Yes, sadly the photo below is me and not the beautiful lady on the beach.)

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This has everything to do with the fact I could turn up, enjoy the company of friends, get some exercise and never expect too much from myself. People loved it when I entered competitions because they never came last. People cheered when I cleared the vault because I wasn't ever going to make Olympian. To many, I was invisible - and I loved it. Every little bit of success meant so much, because it was so hard won. 

Now, I confess if my life imitated gymnastics I'd probably be less than pleased. But, for a self-confessed perfectionist, not being great - or, more importantly, not needing to be great - was hugely liberating. 

So why not try embracing the things that don't go well? 

Because, when things do go well, you'll appreciate them all the more.

Maybe start with something that doesn't involve a beam, strange hand guards and Lycra though...