Life Lessons from the Leaning Tower

October 20, 2017

zia marshall - life lessons from the leaning tower

“When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. When life is bitter, say thank you and grow.” ~ Shauna Niequist

Last summer I visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I hadn’t been expecting much, to be honest. Seeing the tower was the least exciting part of my otherwise much-anticipated trip to Italy. I went to Pisa with the thought that you can’t visit Italy and come away without seeing the Leaning Tower.

As I gazed up at the white edifice of the tower, I thought it was far more beautiful than I had imagined it to be. But the drive had tired me out and climbing the tower didn’t fill me with a great deal of enthusiasm. I watched amused as my daughter clowned around pretending to hold the tower up with her hands while my husband clicked pictures.

She turned around to look for me. I was standing a little apart gazing up at the tower.

“Shall we go up?” she asked with all the enthusiasm of her eighteen years.

I almost said no. Although we had been trekking almost 15 kilometers every day in the course of our trip, in that moment, the thought of climbing the 300 spiraling steps to reach the summit of the tower just wasn’t appealing. You see, I had been battling multiple sclerosis for the past three years and fatigue was my constant companion. And MS fatigue is a tough one to live with. It isn’t the regular tiredness that most people contend with. Instead it’s an almost numbing sense of immense fatigue that descends over you at times and makes you want to just sit down and not do one thing more. MS fatigue is chronic; it is one large overwhelming ball of nerve-wracking exhaustion, mental fog, difficulty in concentrating on things and a feeling that you will just collapse if you take a single step further.

“That’s when I gave myself a mental slap (I have given myself several mental slaps since I have been diagnosed with this condition). Of course I would climb the tower for the simple reason that today I could!”

Then my gaze rested on a person in a wheelchair staring up at the tower. I looked at the lady sitting in the wheelchair for a long moment. Then I looked down at my own two feet that were still doing everything they were supposed to do despite my condition. For MS hadn’t crept with its insidious tentacles into my spinal cord.

That’s when I gave myself a mental slap (I have given myself several mental slaps since I have been diagnosed with this condition). Of course I would climb the tower for the simple reason that today I could! Tomorrow if MS found its way into my spinal cord, I was aware that I could well be that person in the wheelchair looking longingly at something I couldn’t possibly climb. So I had to make today count for everything because my tomorrow was a large question mark.

I firmly told my daughter that we would climb the tower. My husband, sensing my tiredness, tried to dissuade me but I insisted. We bought the tickets and set off.

It wasn’t an easy climb. Although my regular routine involved evening walks and an occasional swim, I had had a relapse five months back. This time round, recovery had been slow and the summer had proved to be especially hard. I still wasn’t back to my regular exercise routine and was battling migraines, fatigue, blurred vision and vision loss. But as I climbed I was filled with a sense of exhilaration. Of course the steps grew narrower and steeper as we went up, but the view from the windows perched at the regular rest points was breathtaking. We stood at many of those windows, my daughter and I, enjoying the cool air wafting in as we chatted. And of course we clicked some great pictures of the view and the ubiquitous ‘selfies’ and giggled and generally enjoyed the moment.

At last we reached the top of the tower.  We walked along the circular path taking in the marvelous view. I stopped for a moment to admire the vast panorama of the city sprawled before us. Just then I noticed a man standing beside me. He was visually impaired and had managed the climb with a sighted guide. The sighted guide was describing the view to him as he listened with rapt attention. Standing next to the two men, I closed my eyes and listened as the guide described the various buildings before us at different clock positions. And all the while I stood next to them, eyes closed, visualizing the scene in my mind’s eye. Then I opened my eyes and saw the guide glancing in my direction. I didn’t wish to intrude so I moved on, marveling at the courage and die-hard spirit of the man who had made a difficult climb to experience a view he would never see.

“An overwhelming sense of gratitude flooded over me. I wasn’t sorry about the 2% vision I had lost; instead I was grateful for the 98% vision I had left with me. I wasn’t sorry about the many things I had to let go of in life in my journey with MS. Instead I was grateful for all the things I could still hold on to and do.”

I stood for a long moment taking in the magnificent view of the city. Far below, I could see the tourists milling around the tower. They seemed infinitesimally small and insignificant as they scurried about buying tickets, queued up to climb the tower or generally wandered around the grounds. I looked at the people around me. They all looked so normal and happy, chatting and laughing as they trailed along the path around the tower. I thought of the person far down below in the wheelchair who would probably never see this view. And I thought of the visually impaired person who had braved the climb but who would also never see this view. Then I glanced down at myself, seemingly normal to outward appearances while MS slowly and surely ravaged by insides. Some had it good, I thought, thinking of the happy tourists milling around me. Some had it not so good, like me. But then I had no reason to complain did I? For some had it really bad like the person in the wheelchair and the visually impaired person. My gaze traveled upwards taking in the vastness of the infinite blue sky above. In that moment, I realized how insignificant we all are in the grander scheme of things. An overwhelming sense of gratitude flooded over me. I wasn’t sorry about the 2% vision I had lost; instead I was grateful for the 98% vision I had left with me. I wasn’t sorry about the many things I had to let go of in life in my journey with MS. Instead I was grateful for all the things I could still hold on to and do.

Most importantly I am thankful for the gift of MS because it has given me such a different perceptive on life and living. It has taught me the things I need to cherish and value and the things that are best left alone. It has taught me to develop an attitude of gratitude. Living with MS means living each day to the fullest, living in the moment and making each moment count. I call it the “blessing of MS”. As Eckhart Tolle aptly puts it, “it is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”

Zia Marshall


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3 thoughts on ‘Life Lessons from the Leaning Tower

  1. Reading this beautiful description of such an amazing day, was like it was written by a beautiful young girl I know, who just this week has been diagnosed with MS, affecting her vision. She has just had a lumbar puncture, but the result is still unknown. (In my ignorance Ididnt realise the spinal cord could be affected). It was a Wake up call for me to be ever grateful for today, and the abilities we have, and not the abilities that we do not have.

    • Thanks Kerry… So true and beautiful what you have said… ‘to be ever grateful for today and the abilities we have…’ thoughts I center my life around

  2. Thanks Zia!!!
    Thanks for sharing your views…. thanks for sharing your experience…. thanks for your expression which makes it seem that the choice can be simple too!
    It is a choice that one makes. Simple or hard is defined by perspective too. Whilst not undermining the gravity of the choice… you make one realise, it is after all a choice!
    Kudos to you and kudos to the inspiration that you rendering to so many others, me included!

    Good luck!

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