My mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1968. She was one of the first people to receive intensive chemotherapy. It was awful. But she asked her favorite question, “What good can we make of this?”
The way she made good of the cancer was to keep a daily record of how the chemotherapy affected her. She wrote out the details of the good days and the bad days. Before she died, she gave that record to the physician who guided her treatment.
I’m not sure when she started asking the question. It was well before I was born. My father told me he was sure she was asking it when they went to their first parish, shortly after they were married. She may have started asking it earlier.
Thanks to her, I’ve been asking that question my entire adult life. It’s helped me make more of a contribution than I might have otherwise. It’s helped me live a richer life. It might help you, too.
What good can we make of this?
Don’t mistake this question for optimism. It’s a call to action. Optimism is a judgment about how things will turn out. “What good can we make of this?” is a summons to figure out what you can do to make things better. You can use it in a variety of situations.
Ask it when bad things happen
When I got my own cancer diagnosis, I asked mom’s question. I wanted to know what opportunity the diagnosis offered.
It’s a lot like the Stoic view that, “the obstacle is the way.” What I love about the stoics is that they didn’t disengage from the world to seek virtue. Instead, they found it in the hurly-burly of daily life. The stoics also emphasize knowing what you can control and what you can’t.
When I was 19, I got my first copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It was one of the three books I got for a dollar when I joined the Walter J. Black Classics Club. Today I still go back to the Meditations but in a newer translation. The Meditations are an excellent companion to my Christian faith.
The challenge for mom and the stoics is to find the blessing. You don’t have to wait for some big bad thing to do that. Every calamity and every problem offers the opportunity to make something better.
This isn’t just for problems, either. Ask, “what good can I make of this?” before every encounter with another person. Figure out how you can move the relationship forward. Ask yourself how you intend things to be better after a meeting.
“What good can I make of this?” is a call to action. Figure out what you can do to make good of your situation. Then, do it.
What good can we make of this is a call to action.
Find the opportunity in any situation
Ask the question when bad things happen.
Ask the question when you face a problem.
Ask the question for every encounter with another person.
Ask the question and act on your answer.