To the Graduating Class of 2017 or What I Know about Survival

To the Graduating Class of 2017 or What I Know about Survival

 

This year, you are graduating. Be it from high school, community college, four-year university, law school… You have reached some kind of pinnacle of your academic career and you are soon going to be celebrating this achievement. As someone who has recently celebrated this same milestone, I congratulate you. It is not an easy task to whisk through two, four, or even more years of life under the watchful eye of your GPA and exam scores.

One of the most common things I hear from graduates is the phrase “I survived.” Sometimes it’s “We survived the hardest part of our lives.” This focus seems to be on the word survival and comparing the educational pathway to other life events seems to suggest that life will be more easy from here on. The years of studying and stressing have paid their dividends and now it is time to reap the rewards.

I know quite a bit about survival. You might even say I’m a bit of a survivalist. I am an addiction survivor, overdose survivor, suicide survivor, cancer survivor, and even a hurricane survivor (shout out to all those who went through Hugo in 1989). I am living proof of a man who probably should have seen the end of the tunnel many times. Yet, here I am. I am still kicking, still going, still living. I am surviving. And with my track record for bouncing back and always moving forward, I want to share with you, the graduates of 2017, what I know about surviving.

 

Survival Tip Number 1: It Gets Harder

Graduating is not the hardest thing you are ever going to have to do. Often times I have found that survival welcomes hardship. It’s never as easy as you think it will be. Things don’t just get automatically better because you crossed one finish line. All of life is a series of races. Not one race, a series of races. You finish one and barely have time to finish your Gatorade before it’s time to start the next. You have to learn to pace yourself and not get into the trap of thinking that things get easier as you go.

The truth is, it doesn’t. I don’t say this to try to scare you. It is actually quite the opposite. I want you to be prepared for that. There is always something new that comes next. And when you can recognize that and be as prepared as you can be, the sky is the limit. Face what is coming with. Sure, you can be scared, and you can worry. You can check your email a thousand times a day hoping for the one that says you got the job. But be ready for when that inbox reads 0, when you ask the landlord if late rent is okay, and when you pay that three dollar late fee on your water bill. You will thank yourself for preparedness in the end.

Survival Tip Number 2: Thriving Means Risk

Survival is an act. It is a process. Surviving begins before it happens. It can be instant, or it can be a long drawn out fight. Surviving means making it through some bad hand that you have been dealt by life. Thriving means something quite different. It means doing things and accomplishing things that bring you true happiness, fulfillment, and acceptance. Thriving is something that a lot of people never experience. Some people fail to meet goals. I’ve done this more times than I have succeeded. Some people will work a miserable job the rest of their lives because they have to in order to provide the basics. Some people go through a mundane routine day in and day out. They may be satisfied, but they are not thriving. But thriving means more than being happy. Thriving, also means taking risks.

You won’t accomplish anything glorious in life without first taking a risk. That’s a scary thing to think about. Without risk, there is no advancement. Whether you risk reputation, or life, or limb, or friendships. There is no thriving without risk. Be a risk taker. Don’t be afraid to fail. Because you will. Many times. But for all of your failure, there will come a time where being the one to take the risk means being the one to thrive, and find yourself truly enjoying life. I’m not done failing yet, but I’m not done taking risks and trying to thrive.

Survival Tip Number 3: You Won’t Be Remembered for Surviving

This might be the most important thing I say in this whole concoction of words and phrases. When you die, when you have moved away after retirement, when you have faded into a memory someone has at the 30th high school reunion you decided not to go to, nobody will remember you for being a survivor. Hell, it’s only been 4 years since I was deemed cancer free, and except for family, nobody really remembers that. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When my time is at an end, that’s not what I will be remembered for. So don’t focus on surviving.

Focus on the things that will get you remembered. A kind spirit, a giving heart, and perseverance. People will remember you for the times that you fell, but more for the times you got back up and kept going. You don’t want to be remembered for merely surviving. Be remembered because you aspired to be something great, but became something admirable. Be remembered for the quality of the company you kept, not the quantity. When your time is up, lay your head to rest on the memories of a life that had purpose over prosperity.

Graduating class of 2017, remember these things as you move forward onto the next part of your life’s journey. Make it your purpose now to not just be a survivor. Drive yourself. Take risks, make mistakes, fall down, lay it all on the line. Then push yourself some more, take more risks, learn from your mistakes, get back up, and take it all in. You have already made it this far. Imagine how much farther you can make it. After all, you survived up to this point. What happens next, is up to you.

Cancer, College, and Continuation

Cancer, College, and Continuation

Cancer Cells

It was in the fall of 2012 that my life that cancer would turn my life upside down. At the age of 29, with two kids just five and three at the time, I would come face to face with my mortality, fight for my life, and watch the world around me evolve at a time when my life was at a standstill. 5 years later, I am a college graduate, and on to another new journey in life.

Cancer

Nobody sits around saying “I better start thinking about what I’ll do if I get cancer.” Especially when you are 29 years old. But as they say, testicular cancer is a young man’s disease, and if left untreated, it can get bad. I mean really bad. Like, it spread from my nuts to my lungs bad. My oncologist said I had probably had it for a while, but having ignored the symptoms I let it spread. I’ll never forget the ER doctor telling me that I had cancer. I was numb, defeated, and scared.

That fall we learned what it really meant to fight as a family. My parents made several trips from SC to VA to help out, my wife was breaking her back and her spirit working, handling the kids, and handling my disease. I was learning how to be a patient, a father, and a husband at the same time. It was hard. I won’t lie. In February of 2013 however, we would receive the most overwhelmingly relieving news: I had beaten it. I beat cancer, and was officially in remission.

Two years is what it took to get myself back on track. Handling the side effects from the cancer and the treatment that went with it was tougher than I had imagined it would be. It beat me up mentally and physically. I didn’t get better immediately like I thought I would. Physical symptoms left me exhausted and hurting quite often. I sat through deep depression, major anxiety issues, and sought counseling and medication for both.

College

College Garb

As I was recovering more and more, I started to feel a better sense of purpose, and more of a sense that I can do more with my life than work in the food service industry for the rest of my life. And in the spring of 2015, I decided to add another title to my profile and I become a college student. Prior to that, the last time I had sat in a classroom was the fall of 2001. 14 years before I would return to a classroom. The time in between had been spent mostly working 50+ hours a week. I was nervous. Can I do this again at 32 years old? Will chemo-brain affect my ability to retain information? Can I do well on tests?

Nonetheless, I challenged myself and I knew the subject matter. I was an IT major who grew up with a dad who has been a project manager, programmer, analyst, and just about every other IT employee position and know my way around hardware and software. So as I started, I challenged myself to graduate with a 3.5 GPA or higher. Magna Cum Laude.

I struggled to begin with. I had to take math courses again. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am terrible at math, especially algebra. I struggled with non-core courses. But I was doing it. I was back in college, determined to do something better for myself with this new life I had found after cancer. I had my struggles and a letdown here and there throughout the course of my studies. There’s no doubt of that. Failed tests, bad project grades, difficult presentations. I ran through the college experience with determination.

That brings us to May 11, 2017. Less than one month ago, when I put on the gown, honor chord, and stole, I walked across the stage in a humid, hot gymnasium on the college campus, and I received a cover that will soon hold an associate degree. 2 years of doubts and uncertainties, accomplishments and failures, and I still made it through along with 500+ fellow classmates.

A few days later, I would login to my college account, and check my transcripts. Scrolling down to the very bottom to view my cumulative GPA for my academic career, there sat the numbers: 3.507. I had reached my self-imposed goal. Sure, in college it’s easy to say “C’s get degrees” but I wasn’t going to settle for that. It brought up a pride in myself that I had not felt in a long time, and it was a good way to cap off that part of my life’s journey and move on to the next.

Continuation

What does the next part of my journey have in store? That’s the next part I will be figuring out in the very near future. I’ve never been a college graduate before so this is new territory for me. The goal is something new as well. I’m not just looking for jobs, but I’m looking for a career. I’m looking to provide better for my family, to advance us forward into the next phase of our lives together, and to advance myself as a person and as a professional. It’s not exactly a lighthearted undertaking.

It’s another scenario of being in unknown territory. A familiar unfamiliarity if you will. This is a place I’ve found myself many times in the past. Worried? A little bit. Scared? Just a tad. Trying to avoid it? Nope. This is the cycle of life that we all go through. My path is different from yours which is different from the person next to you.

What I do know is this: I will continue. I’ve continued for the last 34 years of my life despite the many times I probably shouldn’t have. I have adapted, and carried on, and always try to move forward. Moving backwards is not an option. Not anymore. Continuation of life. Continuation of spirit and of soul and of climbing upwards from what once seemed to be insurmountable odds. And who knows where this journey will take me next? I can’t wait to see how it turns out!