10 Life Lessons With Parkinson’s Disease

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Oscar Wilde

 “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Life lessons.  Life is a series of lessons we gather from start to finish.   We create our individual lesson-plan as we navigate our journey we call life. We all have lessons, codes and rules we follow for life, relationships, and work; they comprise the inner-lining of our human fabric. We learned the “Golden Rule” early in life; and no doubt, parents/extended family contributed many of our life-lessons/rules as we grew up. Even the popular TV show NCIS has always featured the lead character, Leroy Jethro Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon), living and working his life by rules (both numbered and unnumbered).

Life lessons from a Navy SEAL. It is typical for University commencement speakers to give advice to all of the new graduates, life-lessons to follow. Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL and ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, was the commencement speaker at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. Admiral McRaven shared the 10 most important life lessons that he took away from the Navy SEAL training program (A special forces unit for the US Navy who train for unconventional warfare on sea, air, and land). His ~20-minute speech was insightful, inspiration, and powerful. Below are my interpretations of his top-10 life lessons, especially as they relate to my journey with Parkinson’s; included here are also direct quotes from Admiral McRaven.

1. Start each day by making your bed.  Every day re-starts your life-story.  Little things add up to big things.  By making your bed each day says that little things still matter. With Parkinson’s, doing the daily tasks is a simple reminder you are still functioning and alive.

Admiral McRaven: “If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

2. Have good people around you. Many people tell me they could never be a scientist because they don’t like working alone. That opinion is so far from the truth.  Good science is like a team sport; the better synergy with the research team, the better your advances. Recruiting intelligent people is the first part; however, convincing the best-fit people to join a well-functioning research group is the real success story. Likewise, managing your Parkinson’s works well by assembling a good team with contributions from loved-ones, family, friends, colleagues and your healthcare providers.

Admiral McRaven: “You can’t change the world alone—you will need some help— and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.”

3. A big heart and good attitude matter a lot. For most of us, we need to bring a maximal effort to succeed; life is rarely easy.  However, bringing the right attitude focused on the goal makes a difference.  With Parkinson’s, staying positive and hopeful  matters every single second you are breathing.  Otherwise, the shadow underneath this disorder tries to swallow you.

Admiral McRaven: “SEAL training was a great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed. Not your color, not your ethnic background, not your education and not your social status.”

4. Life is not fair but keep moving forward. Sometimes life is not fair.  Get over it, you are still here; tomorrow renews your life-contract.  Sure, having Parkinson’s is not fair.  Life would be a lot worse by having Alzheimer’s, ALS, or Huntington’s instead of Parkinson’s. Stay persistent and keep moving forward as long as you are able.

Admiral McRaven: “Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.”
[“For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a ‘sugar cookie’. You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet and sandy. There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.”]

5. Failure is part of life. An innate part of life are our miscues, missteps, and failures.  But you learn and grow from these events.  From failure you can gain knowledge, strength and resilience. Having Parkinson’s is not failure; although doing nothing in response to its sinister grasp is like slipping when walking down a steep and wet rocky path.

Admiral McRaven: “You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.”

6. Being creative and resourceful allows you to challenge life’s difficulties. Being both a scientist and a medical educator allows me to take novel and new approaches.  Staying innovative may not always prove successful; but it does gives you the opportunity to confront your life-challenges. I am doing as much as I possibly can to challenge my Parkinson’s.  I read, learn, plan, and initiate actions to do whatever is reasonably possible to resist this disorder.

Admiral McRaven: “If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.”

7. Don’t back down from the sharks. The biggest shark in my life is named Parkinson’s.  It has black lifeless eyes, leads an unforgiving, relentless and slowly moving existence just like a shark; meeting it upfront and not backing down is my best chance for survival.

Admiral McRaven: “To pass SEAL training there are a series of long swims that must be completed. One—is the night swim.  You are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position—stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. There are a lot of sharks in the world. If you hope to complete the swim you will have to deal with them.”

8. Be your very best in your toughest times. Life is rarely that easy stroll in the park.  During the most difficult times, you need to be at your best, strongest in character, and you will come through just fine.  You likely are smarter, more creative, and better prepared to resist life’s obstacles then you give yourself credit for. Parkinson’s is one of those tough times; be cognizant of your abilities to accept this disorder and keep living.

Admiral McRaven: “At the darkest moment of the mission—is the time when you must be calm, composed—when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.”

9. Start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.  Your approach to life will influence those near you.  Stay positive, focus on hope, and don’t stray too far from your life-course,  Even with Parkinson’s, you and your life still matter a lot, really a lot.

Admiral McRaven: “My training class…was ordered into the mud. The mud consumed each man till there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit—just five men and we could get out of the oppressive cold…The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything and then, one voice began to echo through the night—one voice raised in song…One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.

If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela and even a young girl from Pakistan—Malala—one person can change the world by giving people hope.”

10. Never quit, never give up.  Life can present itself as an obstacle course.  It’s not the winning time that matters; what matters most is your effort to finish and not to give up. Life’s obstacle course is even more exaggerated and unfair to someone with Parkinson’s. Complete the course regardless of your time.  Life and love are still thriving inside of you; just don’t give up, ever. Stay hopeful because more effective treatment strategies for Parkinson’s are coming.

Admiral McRaven: “In SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”

The closing words: Live on, live on. Life with Parkinson’s is a constant nuisance; like having a nagging blister between your ankle/shoe that just won’t heal.  Modern medicine, CAM, exercise, mindfulness and the right attitude can make a difference.  Remain you, stay positive and hopeful.  Live on, please live on.

Admiral McRaven: “Start each day with a task completed. Find someone to help you through life. Respect everyone. Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up—if you do these things, then next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.”

Here is a link to his speech:

“We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.” Paulo Coelho

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Ralph Waldo Emerson


Other Resources:



10 Life Lessons from Basic SEAL Training from Admiral William H. McRaven



*Cover photo: 52_the-gentle-rays_by_trey-ratcliff_1280x1024.jpg

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