Ancient Wisdom for Living from a Modern-day Saga of Suffering
What do seven years of suffering reveal to us about life and what matters most?
This episode is a firsthand report from the front lines of extraordinary suffering. My guest, Matt Wilks, invites us into some of the darkest moments--including his own dark night of the soul--the triumphant moments, and much more in between.
Matt’s story is, of course, uniquely his. In a way, though, his story is also OUR story--the story of humans sharing the same "blue marble" of a planet for a brief span of time in the vast timeline of humanity--with all its painful lows and thrilling highs.
And in Matt’s modern-day story, we find ancient wisdom for living our most fulfilling and meaningful lives as humans on planet earth.
Introducing Matt Wilks
Matt Wilks is a physical therapist by trade who today serves as VP and Chief Rehabilitation Officer for Sheltering Arms Institute --a cutting edge inpatient rehabilitation hospital in Richmond, VA. Matt and I met in college many moons ago, and we’ve reconnected in the past several years through a mutual friend. His wife, Amy Caroline, and their three kids live in the Richmond, VA area. Tune into the full episode to get to know Matt better; I think you’ll agree that he’s one high-quality human being.
A Staggering Timeline of Suffering
The Wilks’ family’s timeline of suffering began seven years ago, when Matt’s wife, Amy Caroline was diagnosed with melanoma. Then, his son, Hayes, was diagnosed with bone cancer and began a fierce fight for his life. Next, Matt began experiencing debilitating physical and neurological symptoms. His body was shutting down, and the possibility of ALS hung in the air. Then, almost unbelievably, Amy Caroline had another bout with melanoma, surgery to remove a benign thyroid tumor, and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, Matt’s dad (70) and one of Amy Caroline’s closest family members (54) received alzheimer’s diagnoses.
Let that sink in.
I still can’t quite wrap my brain around it. I do know, though, that this unfathomable degree of suffering brings (in my mind, at least) an immense amount of credibility to all of the lessons for living that Matt shares in this episode.
Tune in to the full episode to hear Matt fill in the finer brush strokes that bring that timeline to life in human terms.
Connecting Some Dots of Love and Mercy
In the course of recounting Hayes’ cancer battle--which Matt identifies as the central struggle for his family during the past seven years--Matt reminded me that he, Amy Caroline, and Hayes crossed paths with my sister and brother-in-law in the very earliest days of Hayes’ cancer battle and in the midst of my brother-in-law’s own cancer battle. Holly and Brian visited with Matt, Amy Caroline, and Hayes in NYC closely following one of Brian’s major cancer-removal and orthopedic reconstructive surgeries. The comfort and encouragement that Holly and Brian shared were so deeply meaningful for Matt and his family in that moment and helped them know that they weren’t alone.
Matt shares that this experience of receiving comfort from others who were suffering was repeated many times over in the course of Hayes’ cancer battle.
There’s Love Beneath the Waves
One of the most moving parts of this episode for me is Matt’s description of one of the darkest moments he experienced during Hayes’ cancer battle. He calls the experience his own “dark night of the soul”--lying in bed in the middle of the night, alone with his fears that Hayes’ cancer had come back.
And in those hours, Matt searched for something--anything--that was solid and he could cling onto. He found nothing, and eventually all he could do was lie there and breathe--and “that, only barely,” he recounts.
Then, he began to be aware of a presence with him, steady and unwavering, and enabling him to keep drawing breath. He found “Love beneath the waves.”
The discovery of this “Love beneath the waves” has given Matt the ability to live and love with greater guts, gusto, and abandon than ever before--no matter how choppy and storm-tossed the seas are on the surface.
The Beauty of Simple Moments
In the midst of all the suffering, Matt has developed the habit of lying in his hammock in a certain spot in his yard, with a good book and a favorite cocktail as his companions, the breeze on his face, and the dappled sunlight filtering through the tree above him. The suffering, Matt says, has helped him to truly relish life’s good things, life’s sweet moments.
In a way, even as the suffering has deepened Matt’s spiritual experience of life, it has also paradoxically amplified his appreciation for the material world.
This juxtaposition of the spiritual and the material in his own experience has made the book of Ecclesiastes one of Matt’s favorite sources for wisdom. He recognizes in its ancient lines the lessons he’s learned in his modern-day story of suffering.
Here are some other nuggets of ancient wisdom that bubble up for me from this modern-day tale:
Who am I, and whose am I? For Matt, the answers to these questions determine if we have a “rich” life or a “poor” life much more than our own interpretation of “rich” and “poor.”
Receive each moment as it comes to you and for what it is--no less and no more. Don’t cling to the moments or demand that good moments last forever.
Our individual stories are hid within a much larger and longer story. Our suffering connects us with the billions of humans that have suffered before us.
Tune in to the full episode to see what bubbles up for you.
All is Well!
I’m glad to report that Amy Caroline, Matt, and Hayes are all doing much better these days. Amy Caroline’s breast cancer treatment has gone well. Matt’s symptoms have dramatically improved. And Hayes has almost reached the 5-year mark since beginning treatment, a major milestone related to his longer-term outlook.
What About You?
If you’re above ground and breathing, you’ve already suffered in one way or another. Maybe you’re suffering right now. I hope Matt's story helps you know more deeply that you're not alone. If you’re not suffering in a particular way right now, let me be the bearer of bad news: Suffering will come again in one form or another, sooner or later. And then there’s Death--and as Coroner Rob Ryg reminded us in episode 018, it never comes when we’re expecting it. Life isn’t all suffering and death, but as Matt mentioned in this episode, our Western “developed” cultures don’t equip us to suffer or relate to Death very well. Which is one reason why here on Andrew Petty is Dying, we intentionally embrace our Mortality to find motivation to become the people we were made to be and live the lives we were made to live.
If you’re suffering now, how can Matt’s story help you persevere in your suffering and find the love beneath the waves? If you’re not suffering right now, how can Matt’s story motivate you to live with more guts, gusto, and abandon now?
Let’s add a little more heat: If you knew with 100% certainty that you would die 5 years from today, what would you start doing differently today? Whatever it is, DO. THAT. THING.
A Transformational Partnership for Your Journey
My purpose as a coach is to help you live the life you know you were made to live. I can help you leave it all out on the field of life. Connect with me on Facebook, email me, or visit my website to learn more. Check out Graveyard Group masterminds--where we make time each week to invest in your life's most important work.
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Remember, you are going to die. But you’re NOT DEAD YET. So get after it!
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