Life’s uninvited challenges, like illness and loss, can help us find deeper fulfillment in the present moment.
When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2015, I was initially shocked. Eventually, I noticed something even deeper show up: a sense of reverence for the preciousness of the time I have on this earth.
I was faced head-on with the reality that none of us have all the time in the world — so why put meaning and fulfillment on hold?
Setting up new goals and dreams for yourself when your world has changed in a big way can seem daunting.
Going through major loss — like the loss of physical abilities due to illness, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job — or other life-altering challenges (a global pandemic, perhaps), can make us feel “stuck” in terms of building a positive relationship with our future.
However, life-altering loss and change gives us a chance to reckon with our deeper sense of purpose.
What do you do when the life you’ve planned for yourself no longer seems possible?
I’m happy to report that the time I’ve spent in the hard, confusing, and stuck periods of my life has always paid off. It inevitably fueled significant spiritual shifts in me, especially in terms of my definition of fulfillment.
Loss and tragedy, when combined with allowing ourselves to grieve, can be a time of tremendous alchemy and transformation. They may even be an invitation into finding a new way ahead and a time to drop deeper into what is meaningful to us so that we can clarify what we’re moving toward.
After my MS diagnosis, I could barely see past the end of the next week, let alone the years and lifetime ahead of me.
If you’re still feeling the shock of a new diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, job, or relationship, or some other life-altering challenge, be sure to give yourself some time and space to grieve and just be. Wherever you are in your process right now is important.
Now that I’m almost 6 years into living with my diagnosis, I can look back and see the ways that my vision for my life became clearer as I began to tune in to what truly matters to me, as opposed to what I used to think was important.
The two hardest pieces of my diagnosis were navigating an uncertain future in terms of mobility and physical range and managing fatigue. Both of these things turned out to be important keys to restructuring my approach to life.
Not knowing what my future held (of course, I still don’t) helped me realize that I didn’t want to spend my life in a state of worry and fear.
While I let myself feel those difficult emotions when they arise, I don’t live in that state permanently. I know that regardless of what happens next with my MS, I want to be enjoying what I have while I have it.
Having limited energy meant I needed to be picky about where I spent it. That led me to checking in with myself about what I truly want (versus what others, or the culture at large, told me I should want).
Soon, I began prioritizing what I was deeply passionate about. And I started doing things simply for joy’s sake. I also got comfortable saying “no” to things I would have otherwise dragged myself through but not truly desired.
The things that mattered to me got to take precedence because I let go of what wasn’t meaningful. I looked at my deepest values and discovered that working for racial justice, becoming a couple’s therapist, and building a chronic illness podcast were at the top of my list.
I wouldn’t have been able to truly dedicate myself to these things if I was too busy living by others’ priorities instead of my own.
My definition of “fulfillment” has been hugely impacted by my experience with MS.
I used to see it as a place I’d someday reach. Now, I see it as a daily practice that requires me to be here for life as it’s happening — no matter what it brings.
Moving from my old definition of fulfillment to my new one is a process I like to call “re-dreaming.”
We are always re-dreaming our lives, from daily planning to life path planning. Major life crisis or not, we are supposed to shift and rethink our desires and plans.
We are always growing and evolving. Our preferences, tastes, and joys change. What used to be exciting may now feel stale.
When was the last time you took stock of what brings you joy these days?
Over the past year, I started making lists of my favorite joy-triggers, like lighting my favorite candle, calling my brother to talk about nothing in particular, listening to music that makes me want to dance, and spending time near the ocean.
The items on the list may seem small and insignificant, but writing it down enabled me to more intentionally curate my days.
I started to notice a correlation between enjoying the little things in my day-to-day life and creating a more solid, authentic, and “deep-down” vision for what I truly want to live toward in my future.
Being in a state of fulfillment in the moment allows me to experience a level of creativity that gets me thinking of goals, projects, and other ideas that are imbued with the very same feelings I’m experiencing in this moment.
To put it simply: if I’m in a state of anxiety, I’ll likely create anxious ideas or goals based on fear. If I’m in a state of joy, this will likely expand my capacity for creativity and help me identify goals and projects that fill me with joy.
Here’s an exercise for cultivating more fulfillment in your daily life by building what I call a “joy library.”
- Open up a new document on the computer (or use good old-fashioned paper) and create several lists of joy-triggers (things that tend to bring you joy when you’re engaging with them). List titles can include activities, places, people, sounds, or anything else.
- Spend a few minutes on each list. Write down everything you can think of. Only you know what uniquely brings you joy.
- Keep this list available to you regularly, and use it to curate your days and weeks with even more little (but impactful) joys.
- Update this list regularly. Remove things that don’t bring you joy anymore, and add new joy-triggers.
I recommend referencing your lists before embarking on any creative project. This will allow you to cultivate the state of aliveness and joy before you set out creating — or serve as a brainstorm for your next dream for your life.
Fulfillment is an ongoing project, not a mountaintop goal we’ll “someday” achieve when we reach the summit.
It’s up to us to curate days filled with meaning, enjoyment, and connection to our aliveness.
I believe you have the capacity, one little joy at a time, to create a life of even deeper fulfillment than you may have imagined. As you do, I hope you let me know what you discover about yourself and your capacity for creating a new way.
Lauren Selfridge is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, working online with people living with chronic illness as well as couples. She hosts the interview podcast, “This Is Not What I Ordered,” focused on full-hearted living with chronic illness and health challenges. Lauren has lived with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis for over 5 years and has experienced her share of joyful and challenging moments along the way. You can learn more about Lauren’s work here, or follow her and her podcast on Instagram.