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“All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.” Pope Paul VI

“This is the best thing that has happened to me”. Words that are uncommon from the mouth of someone who has suffered a catastrophic health crisis, to which I have observed the worst. Spinal cord injuries resulting in complete paralysis from the neck down. Strokes and Brain injuries leaving people physically and cognitively dependent on others. And neurodegenerative conditions where life becomes a race to outpace the disease.

So, I am always taken aback when someone tells me that such an event is “the best thing that has happened to me”. With full transparency, my first thought is often concern that this person is in denial and is, in fact, imploding….. eventually, he/she will realize the severity of their condition.

But there is the rare occasion where “the implosion” never happens. It is as if this person truly believes this is “the best thing that has ever happened” in their life.

When I dig a little deeper, selfishly hoping I can drink from the same well, I find these rare individuals are genuinely wired differently.

I first encountered this “type” of person in my early 20’s. He was a gentlemen in his 30’s paralyzed from the neck down with a spinal cord injury so high in his neck he required a sip-and-puff wheelchair (a wheelchair controlled by blowing and sucking air through a straw). This type of wheelchair is quite useful in providing someone with some level of independence; however, it is pretty taxing when half of your breathing muscles are also paralyzed. All the more reason it was shocking to hear him say…  “this (injury) was the best thing that could have happened to me”.

On another occasion,  I had the opportunity to work with a gentleman in his mid-40s with a very successful career, 2 grown children, and a beautiful wife when he suffered a massive stroke; leaving him completely dependent on his wife and kids. In his words, “I am the happiest I have ever been”.

Yes, wired different.

There is a concept in the world of psychology called “post-traumatic growth”.  This is a psychological phenomenon where someone has positive psychological changes after experiencing a life-altering event. Scientists have found that certain individuals respond by embracing new opportunities. Additionally, they build inner strength from the awareness that they have overcome a challenging event.  They have the ability to use the event “to think differently about themselves, their relationships and the world”.

As I reflect on the two gentlemen mentioned earlier, and others I have observed who seem to have the same “wiring”, it all makes sense.

The gentleman who was paralyzed was never a patient of mine. No, I met him because he was part of a support system that helped people with spinal cord injuries. In his words, “this is my life’s purpose”.

The “happy” gentlemen wasn’t always so “happy”…. or “kind.” In his wife’s words, “he was difficult. “He was a difficult boss and a less-than-perfect spouse and father.” That is… until his stroke. Now, in her words… “he is the most kind and gentle and loving father and boss anyone could ever ask for.”

We aren’t guaranteed a “happy” l life. We aren’t entitled to a life without trials and tribulations. And maybe that is by design.

“All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.”

Pope Paul VI

Different people respond differently to catastrophic events. I have observed some who ignore the event completely and pretend that “life is great”. These are the eventual “imploders”. Often times falling short of their full potential.

Others might respond with bitterness, anger, and resentment.  Although completely justified emotions, create a sense of helplessness placing a ball and chain around future growth.

But then there is the diamond in the rough. The far less common individual who has the courage to acknowledges the “suckiness” of their situation.  But the thought train keeps moving to a boxar that tells a different story.  They somehow embrace the mental and emotional stress caused by the event to fuel the fire that sets into motion positive change.

Whether “post-traumatic growth” is a real phenomenon or not is debatable.  With that said, “reframing” is a widely accepted strategy for improving mental health. And a positive state of being is absolutely correlated with improved health outcomes. Not just after a stroke, but in reducing a whole variety of neurologic and cardiovascular conditions.

Now, I would be remiss if I failed to address the realists, to whom I might self-identify. Some of us were not born with this type of “wiring,” and that is okay. It can be learned. It takes practice. It requires you to have the courage to accept “the stink” of your current situation. Embrace the negative emotions that arise and have the will to reframe your story. It is possible. It is essential. You are here for a reason. Your friends and family need you. This community needs you. This world needs you.

So here is my question….

What part of your current story can you leverage for positive growth?

How would this impact your life and those around you?

The LORD is my Shepard; I lack nothing.  He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,  he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Psalm 23:1-4