The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. – Carl Rogers
I cannot think of a more powerful truth than one we experience personally. Perhaps this is obvious to everyone but me.
As the doctor spoke about what this, a second blood clot, meant to my physiology, I felt the outer boundaries of life scooch inward. I felt older, more breakable. I even felt, gulp, the urge to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Back in August, I was on a run in one of my favorite places. Bird Hills Nature Area is 160 acres of thickly-wooded, quiet trails sandwiched between M-14 and Huron River Drive in Ann Arbor. The woods comprise a lush collection of non-native Oak, Hickory, Maple, Beech, Hemlock and Tulip trees. They arch high to form a living canopy above.
As I ran comfortably in sync with the up and down of the trail, along a familiar route through the park, I glanced at my watch to check my heart rate. Bad timing, which is when unfortunate things happen, as I caught part of a tree root that snaked across the trail. My left ankle bent 90 degrees outward in a couple milliseconds then swiftly snapped back.
My left ankle bent 90 degrees outward in a couple milliseconds then swiftly snapped back.
Stopped. Suddenly lightheaded and a little nauseous. Bent at the waist, I tested it to see if I could support my weight. Pain like a spear.
Fast forward five days. Elin is rushing me to the hospital because walking the 10 feet from the couch to the kitchen causes me to breathe like my father, who is 85 and has emphysema. I have other symptoms that point, according to my quick internet search, to a blood clot. A couple hours in the ER and we get the official diagnosis: Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism. The doctor said if I hadn’t come into the ER, I’d be dead within eight hours.
This is how a previously unrealized yet powerful paradox was delivered to me, though it still took me several more weeks to grasp: In every mishap that befalls us, there is the chance for good also to arise if we allow ourselves to see it.
Each of us has the capacity to reframe the expectations and assumptions previously held on to as truths. Our challenge is to cast aside “why me?” for “what is this trying to teach me?”
In every mishap that befalls us, there is the chance for good also to arise if we allow ourselves to see it.
I’m more convinced than ever that this paradox is a fact of life. How else can I explain all that I’ve experienced as well as the incalculable suffering I see in the world? I’ve dealt with the usual suspects: divorce, job loss (multiple times), death of a parent, difficulties raising my children, depression. And some others, also difficult to sit with: cancer, two blood clot episodes, an unfortunate collision of flesh with a table saw.
The most frustrating thing about this big life lesson is that it seems most often learned after misfortune and significant pain. It is ironic that we are not set up to understand before something bad happens. In fact, as my sister warned me years ago, life keeps trying to teach us the same lessons until we learn them.
Embracing this paradox, I believe, is key to living on through life. With each setback, I could not see an alternative but to keep moving forward. Divorce taught me to be more authentic in my relationships. Job loss taught me to be better at interviewing my prospective employers. Difficulties with my children taught me to be gentler and more empathetic. Cancer taught me how fragile life is and that I am not invincible despite my devotion to healthy living. Losing a finger to the table saw taught me that it’s okay to start hiring pros to do some jobs around the house.
Yet I have to admit this second blood clot is challenging in a lemons-to-lemonade-acceptance-versus-why-me-again way. Despite my professing to be so evolved, it’s really hard to feel so unexpectedly vulnerable.
Sometimes I’m like Napoleon during his exile on Elba, obsessing on ways to a comeback, in this case, to idealized, robust 25-year-old health. I’ve read countless self-help books looking for the clues to personal resilience after a fall. Resilience is one of the values I hold closest.
Sometimes I’m like Napoleon during his exile on Elba, obsessing on ways to a comeback…
After four weeks of not running, I was back on the roads and grateful simply for being able to run again. I now try to pay more attention to my most important relationships with those whom I love. I’ve also become more practical: having the table saw out of the garage allows me to sidestep some DIY renovation jobs around the house I might try and those for which I will call in a pro.
I wish I had learned all of this long ago. But I’m slow. So many choices I’ve made would not have been. I would be more evolved on my path. Yet I’m thankful for this insight. The realization that every setback offers a positive lesson is ultimately what it takes to thrive. It’s what resilient people do. They don’t let difficult times stop them, at least not for long. They keep moving. Without bitterness. Without regret. It’s as if they say, “Oh well, that didn’t work. What’s next?”
“Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before.” – Elizabeth Edwards