While I was tramping through the Kenyan bush some years ago with my new wife, our safari guide gave our small group specific instructions as to what to do if we encountered certain dangerous animals. “If an elephant charges our crew, everyone has to scatter—they won’t bother to chase a lone person.” In my head I mapped out what direction I would run and what I would do if my wife tried to team up with me. (Scold Laura nicely, and then run the other way.) “If a rhinoceros charges you, run in a zigzag pattern to confuse them—their eyesight is not so good.” I mentally prepared for the situation, virtually dashing right then left. “And finally, if a Cape buffalo turns on you, get down on your knees. And pray… that your last will and testament is up to date.” This was not so comforting.
The wild African buffalo, cheerily nicknamed “black death” or “widowmaker,” kills more people annually—some 200—than most any other animal on the continent. That meant no, a pride of lions was not going to clamor onto my back and drag me down for a mid-morning snack ala Planet Earth. I would instead meet my doom, and our honeymoon would come to an abrupt halt, at the end of the damp snout of an enraged bovine. At least, I reasoned, it would make for an unforgettable story. But then I noticed that our guide’s partner had a huge bolt-action rifle slung across his chest.
“So, wouldn’t a charging buffalo be a good reason to use that?” I asked, pointing to what assuredly was some version of a buffalo rifle. “Yes, that’s for just such emergencies,” said the guide. Ever since, I thought wouldn’t it be nice to have our own personal buffalo rifle for emergencies? I mean not an actual gun that fires actual bullets—I’m a pansy when it comes to shooting things—but something powerful enough to meet life’s most difficult challenges. It was only when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a dozen years later that I realized we all already have just such a weapon.
It’s called attitude.
Six years have passed since my diagnosis, and I’ve had to personally reload a number of times. When I lost most feeling below my neck. When I started wearing diapers. When I couldn’t cross my living room without a walker—at the age of 41. And when I signed the consent form to enter a risky clinical trial in a desperate attempt to halt my aggressive disease. But I was never without hope. I had my buffalo rifle.
No, attitude will not cure diseases nor fix the unfixable. But without it—without finding that right mental space to move forward—every encounter with life’s buffalos will be infinitely more difficult.
This May as the last ounces of sunlight spilled over a magical evening in Provence two years after my experimental stem cell transplant, I turned to my wife of now nearly 20 years. "Hold this," I said, offering up a forearm crutch. She was bemused; I was not going to get very far. And then I took Laura's free hand, interlaced our fingers, and began leading her through the romantic vineyard of our French inn.
For the first time in three years we were walking together, hand-in-hand… while over one shoulder my trusty buffalo rifle rested, forever at the ready.