I had a recurring dream as a child.
In this dream, I was being chased by something that paralyzed me with fear. Try as I may, I could never see what I was running from.
I hadn’t had this dream in decades until it revisited me one fateful night while I was in the military preparing for deployment. The following morning, my worst nightmare from childhood had come to pass.
When I awoke, I was completely paralyzed and beyond terrified.
From the rigors of military training, I had inadvertently suffered a severe spinal injury that left me immobile from the neck down. My life was turned upside down. In my slumber, I had gone from preparing for war on the battlefield to a war within my own body and mind.
During the subsequent surgery, I died on the operating table, twice. While the surgeons had saved my life, I was told that I would never be able to walk or use my hands again.
I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around the reality that I now faced. What do I do now?
It was as if the Universe was punishing me for some past wrongdoing.
At 40 years old I was broke, divorced, and paralyzed.
I kept asking myself the same questions over and over: Why did this happen? What did I do to deserve this?
I was beyond angry, I was positively livid! I was furious at everyone around me. But the person that I was the angriest with was myself. I was furious with myself for wasting so much time in my life! I thought of all the days I’d wasted thinking I’d always have “tomorrow.” I now regretted every wasted second.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The reality is that we know what we’ve got, we just assume that we’ll never lose it.
Eventually, my anger was directed inward, sending me into a deep depression.
I was in this physical and mental anguish for months with no change. I tried to stay positive, but my optimism waned as time wore on. Feeling completely defeated, I eventually gave up hope and surrendered to the notion that I would be like this for the rest of my life. I even tried to think of ways of committing suicide.
In Chinese philosophy, there is a belief that no situation leaves us until it has taught us the lesson it holds. I tried to see the lesson I was missing. Instead of resisting my adversity, I decided to go with it. Anger wasn’t helping me, so I attempted to employ gratitude.
I tried to be grateful, but that was much easier said than done.
I knew that I should be thankful to be alive, but honestly, I’d rather be dead than live my life like this. After pondering this notion for days, I had an epiphany. Instead of focusing on myself, I thought of others. I realized that if I’d suffered this injury while deployed, I would have put the lives of countless others in danger. It takes many soldiers to get a wounded man out of combat, and that puts their lives at risk to preserve mine.
This revelation was the first thing I’d been grateful for in months.
This was the cornerstone upon which I could build more gratitude. Once I started seeing my Adversity as a gift instead of a curse, something miraculous happened. I was suddenly grateful for everything from the room I could never leave, to the bed I was confined to.
A few days later something else happened.
I woke up and felt pain in my left index finger and thumb. I looked down at the source of my pain and instinctively tried to move my hand. My finger and thumb wiggled! I was elated! As the feeling in my body slowly grew, so did my gratitude.
Today, though I still have pain and permanent nerve damage, I am now able to walk and use my hands.
Is it possible that I would have eventually recovered without shifting into a mindset of gratitude?
I have no idea.
All I can say is that when you’re in such a desperate situation, you’ll do everything in your power to try to regain what you lost.
Years later, I now understand why I couldn’t see what was chasing me in my childhood dreams. I couldn’t see my pursuer because paralysis is something that can only be felt, not seen.
In hindsight, I realize that I needed this experience to help me overcome the fear I’d dreamt about for over a quarter century.
To this day I’ve never forgotten the lesson from my injury: Adversity is a gift, embrace it and be grateful.