When I was six years old, I learned how to ride a bike. As soon as the training wheels came off, I felt like I was flying, zipping up and down our little alley.
One day, just as I drew a circle to head back to the dead end, a white van turned into our street. Looking over my shoulder, I didn’t get the feeling it was slowing down — and got really scared. I tried to make a run for it, spinning the pedals as fast as my tiny feet allowed.
Right when I thought I’d made it to safety, I slipped. My hands lost control, my feet missed the ground, and, in seeming slow-motion, I flew straight over the handle to land face first on the asphalt. When I came back to my senses, my chin felt warm. It was bleeding. A lot.
Somehow, I got myself up and staggered to our house. 30 minutes later, I was sitting in the hospital, pressing a tissue against my chin. Instead of stitches, the doctor would sort of glue my wound shut. You can still see the scar today. But that wouldn’t happen for another two hours.
It was a busy day in the emergency room. Right after we’d arrived, the paramedics wheeled in someone on a stretcher. I couldn’t make out the person, but people were talking about an accident. A biker had hit a tree and sliced his machine in half — and himself right with it.
I learned a lot of lessons that day, but the most important one was this:
No matter how bad life gets, someone always has it worse than you.
A Little, Big Question
Day 12. I don’t remember what it feels like. To get up full of energy. To want to exercise it. To want to run and think and get things done. Funny, how fast we forget. How fast we adapt. Waking up in sweat, coughing, being in a constant daze, it’s all just part of my day now.
Yesterday, I finally saw a doctor. A virus. Probably the flu. And the only thing you can do with a virus…is to wait it out. Patience, he said, patience.
For the first five days, I was raising all hell to get better. Meds, supplements, tea, lemon, spicy food, ginger, you name it. For the next five days, I fooled myself into believing I already felt much better. Now, I’m past all that. I’m beyond trying and beyond complaining. I’m accepting. Finally.
When life bans you to the sidelines, acceptance is a wonderful state. It takes a while to reach, but it provides room for asking a short — but big — question:
What’s it for?
Age Isn’t Lethal
Did you know there is no such thing as a “natural death?” We don’t really die of old age. We die when a specific part of our body fails.
And while the consequences of aging — slower cell renewal, worn out organs, a weaker immune system — increase the likelihood of such a failure, of an internal one over an external trigger, they’re not ultimately responsible. At the end of the day, the same things that bug us now, like infections, diseases, malfunctions, or chronic health issues, will also send us on our final journey.
This is as creepy as it is comforting. Don’t quote me on this, but I once heard there’s a 50% chance you’ll deal with a six-month health issue by the time you’re 40. Given that 40 is the halfway point for our life expectancy in many countries already, it’d make perfect sense to me. If you’re death and want to keep people in check, why not send a strong reminder at halftime?
Whether we like it or not, we’re all forced to take the occasional break. Health problems are just one of life’s many ways of giving us one. And since we all share this varying portion of our lives we spend immobilized, watching from the outside, the question is not what to do about it. It’s what to do with it.
What do we do with this time now before we’re banned to the bench forever?
Just Another Cheesy Quote
Everything in life happens for you. Not to you. For you. To some, this may just be another cheesy, pseudo-inspiring quote. To me, it’s one of many attitudes we can choose. And, since I get to, I’d rather choose meaning than misery.
We know meaning is an important component, maybe the most important, of human contentment, happiness, our ability to function and even survive. Ascribing meaning to his life is what allowed Viktor Frankl and others to survive the atrocities of World War II, and it’s also why Frankl dedicated his life to spreading the message that meaning is something we can choose.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
When you’re sick or down or beaten or depressed, deciding that life happens for you is not a way to force-feed yourself back to happy. It’s not even about gratitude for what you usually have or that the pain becomes easier to bear, although those are part of it. No, choosing this attitude means you’ll start looking for learnings instead of relief. You’ll start using your time.
You won’t figure out the real meaning right now. That often can’t happen until weeks, months, years later. But you’ll give your experience meaning by getting something out of it. By making it part of a bigger picture instead of seeing it only as a bump in the road.
Given the choice — and we all are given the choice — I’d rather ascribe too much meaning to life than too little.
On the day I had my accident, I wasn’t worried about the van or my bike or the motorcyclist. All I wanted was for my wound to heal. And just like that took time, so did the bigger lessons that transpired.
But every time it came up since, that biker was part of the story. Until I started wondering if he was the story. If I was a guest in his, rather than he in mine.
And now, to this day, whenever I have an accident, no matter how minor, it’s a little easier to remember that people are rolled into hospitals every day. In way worse conditions. And some never make it out. But I did. And that’s a lesson — a story — worth keeping.
I hope you’ll rarely feel defenseless. I really do. But I know you’ll never have to feel powerless. Because there’s always something you can do: make meaning. Just create it, and it’s there. It might take you a while to find the acceptance you need to seek it but, once you do, there’s real comfort in learning. In taking lessons where others take offense.
Before you know it, you’ll be back out there. Riding your bike, doing big things, flying through the streets. Until then, it pays to listen to the doctor:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” — Viktor Frankl