No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”

Randy Pausch

But, as Randy, author of the book“The Last Lecture,” also pointed out, “at the same time, it is often within your power to make them better.”

When things are going badly, what do people do that makes things worse?

They move too quickly—Quick resolution of an issue can be a wonderful thing. Our cinema action heroes are known for their lightning fast responses to terrible situations. And while they rarely make situations worse in the movies, in real life making a decision when tired, overwhelmed, or scared often does.

They isolate—Research on coping behaviors in a severe crisis points out the danger in retreating from support. In isolation, fears often grow as does depression and loneliness. While it is normal to pull in to process or deal with the flood of emotions and information that can come our way during a crisis, staying in that bunker of withdrawal can ultimately make the tough times even more difficult to navigate.

They let the negative overwhelm everything else. When a disaster occurs in our lives, we can be engulfed by the emotions, logistics, and disruption—none of which is likely to feel positive. Yet spending our time thinking or talking about how unfair the situation is yields only more negative feelings. For several months, I had the improbable opportunity to take both my husband and son to their respective weekly chemotherapy treatments. As I sat in the waiting room with my husband, I noticed how rarely the adult cancer patients made contact with one another other than the barest of civilities. All of their energy seemed to be taken up by their illness; the mood was somber, quiet, and depressing. In contrast, the children’s oncology waiting room was full of young cancer patients, also with bald heads, missing limbs, and hooked up to IVs. Yet most of them played games, created art with the adult volunteers, giggled, and explored the world around them. Unlike the majority of the adults I observed, they found a way to engage in with each other, and with life, despite their diagnosis.

Where, then, is our power to make them better? It’s not like we chose the crises or tough times.

Pausch shared the story of their first child’s birth—a panic stricken, impossibly fast drive to the hospital, his wife in danger of going into shock, emergency surgery, and terrified first time parents. Yet despite the crisis, Randy recognized that he and his wife still had some power in their trajectories through that trauma.

Dylan’s birth was a reminder to me of the roles we get to play in our destinies. Jai and I could have made things worse by falling into pieces. She could have gotten so hysterical that she’d thrown herself into shock. I could have been so stricken that I’d have been no help in the operating room.

Through the whole ordeal, I don’t think we ever said to each other: “This isn’t fair.” We just kept going. We recognized that there were things we could do that might help the outcome in positive ways. ..and we did them. Without saying it in words, our attitude was, “Let’s saddle up and ride.”

The Last Lecture

So how do you make things better rather than worse?

I’ll cover these in more detail in my next blog, “Going From Bad to Better” but for now, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Get grounded before you make any decisions—find the space between the crisis and action before you decide what to do next.

  • Reach out and let others in—decide who can help you navigate this challenge well and who you need to keep at arm’s length for awhile.

  • Manage the mind monkeys—be conscious of the negative, critical, and terrifying thoughts that your brain may be throwing your way. And, as Byron Katie would add, don’t be willing to believe everything you think.

  • Make your brain velcro for the positive rather than the negative—stay attuned to moments of beauty, acts of kindness, and any moments, however brief, of peace.