I had a stroke last week. One minute I’m sitting on the bed talking to Whit and the next I’m in the ambulance unable to say my words properly. However, it was small and, except for a few IV poke remnants, I have no lasting damage.
I had some time to ponder during my three days in the hospital. I was lucky. Way lucky. But there are others not so lucky. I thought of the people around me, close friends and family struggling with troubles of their own. Cancer. Infertility. Disease. Death. Depression. Loneliness. Financial concerns. Worry.
. . . and the list goes on.
I think that all of us might have a little trouble accepting the difficulties that life divvies out. We wonder, “Why me? Why this? Why now?” I know I had trouble accepting this wheelchair ten years ago when I fell off a cliff and became paralyzed. I stared at myself in front of a full-length mirror and wondered the same things. No more legs. No more tummy muscles. No more hand use. But there was no one to be mad at. Except God.
I think it’s just human nature to want to assign blame and God is the perfect target when there is no one else. Through my tears, my heart shouted clear to heaven: Why have You taken away so much from me?
Almost immediately, my soul heard a tender message. It was meant for me, but could have just as easily been said to you. Right now. In your trying time as your heart shouts clear to heaven, heaven responds with the same message: Don’t covet. I have given you more.
It has been ten years since I’ve been paralyzed and ten years since I heard this answer. And, I am still maybe another ten years off from really understanding what it means, but in my probably-childish grasp, let me share ten ways I have learned trials can give us more out of life.
1. We learn more confidence.
I was not born with any amount of humility to speak of. I liked praise for my good grades. Recognition for my (totally awesome, did you see it?!) performance. Approval. Applause. Compliments. I liked it all. Well, I won’t lie, I still like it all. But humility has come in small degrees as I’ve tried to gracefully endure being wheelchair bound.
Before I was paralyzed some guy always got the door for the beautiful me. At school. The Post Office. Stores. And in a wheelchair, guys still got the door, but for a much different reason. I look the same, but not really, as “I” am not the first thing people see. The wheelchair takes center stage. I have had long looks in the mirror and it has taken a long time for me to decide for myself that yes, it is okay that people get the door for me because I can’t. It is okay that many don’t “see” me the first time we meet. It is okay that no one applauds when I finally make it up a steep ramp and no one recognizes how quickly I can do my makeup. I can be confident in my ever-growing abilities and take my turn to now give others the approval, accolades, and compliments.
Don’t get me wrong, I still get some attention from others, but it was initially jarring how different it was. Any trial that shakes you to the core will surely shake loose some of the pseudo-confidence we have that’s built on the words, looks and actions of others. And let it fall. The sooner we can accept ourselves for who we are, who we aren’t and what we can and can’t do, the sooner we’ll begin to love what we see in the mirror — even if what stares back at us is scarred, battered, and bruised (but not beaten) by trials.
2. We become more patient.
I think most people would describe themselves as impatient. I think it’s just how most of us are made. I remember being called out on my impatience several times before I was paralyzed and my impatience was obvious after. With my new paralyzed body, I had to relearn the most basic tasks like flipping a light switch and picking my nose.
In the hospital rehab, I just got sick of it and quit. I think that’s how it goes when our impatience peaks, we can either learn patience or quit. I refused to go to therapy and stayed in my hospital bed. A brassy nurse came thundering in, ripped off all my blankets, pointed her bony finger at me and snapped, “Missing therapy is not an option! This is not an option!”
I went to therapy. I never missed again. Because she was right, while I did have two options, quit or continue, the stay-in-bed-sulking-option was not the right one. When we choose to push through whatever challenge is in front of us, we can learn patience even if it is just with ourselves.
3. We get more strength.
I believe every person — with any challenge — wonders if they are really strong enough to handle it.
For sure I didn’t think I was. I was 97 pounds when I left the hospital and I couldn’t even laugh without passing out.
I couldn’t push myself ten feet. I couldn’t lift a 2-liter of soda. I couldn’t brush my teeth without fainting. I was a pansy and I knew it. And I kept saying it to myself and to others. I’m such a pansy. I’m a pansy. I’m a pansy.
But, my first October in a wheelchair I noticed that the little potted purple pansies on my front patio didn’t seem to get the memo winter was coming. They were still in full bloom, green leaves and all. They stayed that way all month. Then through November. Then through December. I saw those purple faces poking out of the snow in January and standing tall through sleeting rain in February. I’m not sure when they wilted. In my mind, they never will.
I learned that, for a flower, pansies are kind of tough. And if I was going to be one, I’d better really be one.
Despite what I know I look like, I now actually think of myself in very strong terms. The constancy of physical challenge makes it possible for me to “prove” myself time and again. Every day. From the moment I wake up in the morning and wonder if I can muster the strength to sit up by myself (or if I have to ask Whit to help me) to the last moments of the day when I approach my bed again and wonder if I have anything left to scootch over (or if I have to ask Whit to help me).
For anyone with any trials in any form, strength is something that grows. We become stronger-willed, more firm in our beliefs, more self-reliant.
Because no matter how much of a pansy you might look like on the outside, strength still grows as long as we’re a pansy on the inside, too.
4. We learn more appreciation.
When I had the stroke, I was truly terrified. I actually don’t remember being so afraid and I am not sure I ever have been. My speech kept coming and going and each time I said a wrong word, I panicked. At one horrifying moment, my right side went numb and, not only couldn’t I speak, but I couldn’t even feel my arm.
But in a relatively short amount of time, the feeling returned and so did the speech and they sent me to another area where I could just be monitored. I was on a medication through an IV in my elbow pit (that a paramedic placed with one poke while straddling me in a moving ambulance!) but every time I bent my arm, it temporarily impeded the flow and the alarm would sound. The poor nurses were a little tired of coming in to turn off the alarm and suggested putting in another IV where it wouldn’t be such a bother.
The first nurse tried, but popped the vein. She felt awful and got a second nurse who popped another vein. A third nurse was committed to succeeding and, after many sticks, a lot of blood, and some bad bruising finally got the IV in.
Like most people, I am pretty squeamish about needles and blood-draws and stuff, but I felt the pricks oddly reassuring. I even liked to feel them. They hurt, but the pain was a message to my heart: I could feel my arms — both of them. I could speak. I was okay.
I think when we have something taken from us, or when we struggle to get something, we value it more. We love it more. We appreciate it more. Anyone who has struggled with infertility, or lost someone close, or any number of similar challenges could surely write a list of things they appreciate more, not in spite of being challenged, but because of it.
This popular song sings it well: Let Her Go
5. We become more realistic.
When I see a doorway, I can’t pretend it is anything other than what it is. I can’t pretend it is wider or taller or greener or WHATEVER. I don’t have the luxury of pretending the physical world is anything different because my wheelchair is 24 ½ inches wide and no amount of positive thinking is going to change that.
Likewise, moms of children on respirators can’t pretend the air quality is better than it is — they have to know exactly what is real so they can plan accordingly. I think, for whatever challenge we face, we become more realistic. We think deeper. Out of necessity we become more aware and this extends out into other aspects of our lives.
People have argued that you have to trade “realistic” thinking for “positive” thinking. I think some do. The more trials someone gets, the more realistic they can become, the more pessimistic they can become. However, the world is full of positives that are realistic and there doesn’t need to be any down side to seeing the world exactly the way it is.
6. We see more of others’ talents.
This is a tough one for most people. I think the majority of us are born with some kind of warrior gene and we can — and want to — do it all.
Trials provide a magic warrior-gene-disabler. They make it so, in some ways, maybe large, maybe small, we really can’t do it all. We can fake it, maybe for a little while. We can struggle through our hardships and heartaches alone, pretending we’re fine, but when we finally accept our limitations, we become free to see just how capable those around us are.
Other people can bring us dinners. They can watch our kids. They can get our mail. They can come sit with us.
. . . and they don’t mind.
Not only don’t they mind, they like it. You like it, too, when it’s you who gets to be the giver (and not the receiver). I think being a good gift receiver is a lost art. It’s easier for us to give and share our own talents, it’s more fun. When we get to be the ones who give we get to show just how willing, capable and loving we are. But when we allow others to give to us, we let them show off all those things. We see just how willing, capable and loving they are.
7. We see the good side of more people.
I once fell out of my wheelchair on a very dark and deserted street. I was only on the ground a moment when a loud car roared to a stop next to me. Out jumped a muscly, shaved-head, tattooed, could-be-described-as-frightening guy. He wore a skin-tight wife-beater and baggy, super low jeans with his boxers puffed out. He strutted toward me and, without a word, scooped me up and put me back into my wheelchair. Then left.
In my ten years of being paralyzed, I have learned that no one will deny me help when they understand the situation. There have been times when, at first, people haven’t understood and I had a well-dressed lady tell me off for not knowing how to pump gas into my car (once she understood that I couldn’t walk she felt terrible and pumped it for me. We parted as friends.). I’ve had people question why I am asking for help (again, it usually is when I am in my car and they can’t see I can’t walk). But once someone understands the need they are more than willing to help!
I think it is important to understand that almost everyone is ready and willing to help with whatever they can, but they just need to understand what that is. It is common for people to offer a well-meaning, “Call me for anything!” but we need to call them. And tell them how they can help.
Yes, this means there is a certain degree of pride-swallowing. We have to admit— out loud — that we need help. But I promise that if we’re willing to help others understand our situation, they will love the opportunity to help.
8. We develop more empathy.
When sharing about a current challenge, no one likes to hear that someone “knows” what they’re talking about. Unless, of course, they really do. And to really “know” about someone’s trial, you have had to have been there. Done that.
Some might argue with me, saying they understand diabetes perfectly because they tended their uncle all the way to his grave. I agree that this person definitely understands diabetes well, but their perfect understanding is with giving care to a patient with diabetes, not in having the disease itself.
True empathy is like a beautiful flower bouquet. You might see and smell other beautiful flowers, you might have pressed your face against the petals of others, but the only ones you can really give are the ones in your hand.
All moms have a lot in common, but I have seen the tender interactions between moms of patients at Primary Children’s Hospital. The trials they share bring them closer together. They understand each other on a level only reached through experience.
Once we’ve endured a trial and come out on the other side, it is our choice if we’re going to use our newfound expertise to help others. Preacher Ulisses S. Soares told us to do so. He said, “…each one of us must look around and reach out to the sheep who are facing the same circumstances and lift them up and encourage them…”
A favorite poem of mine by Will Allen Dromgoole shares the sweet need for all of us to reach out to others who are going through something we’ve endured and conquered:
An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”
9. We gain more opportunities.
My husband and I run the Ms. Wheelchair Utah pageant. We founded it the year after I was paralyzed and our mission is, “To provide opportunities for women and girls in wheelchairs to recognize their unique potential, not in spite of being wheelchair bound, but because of it.”
I see many girls, just like me, who’ve found purpose in being wheelchair bound. Some are athletes, some are speakers, some are teachers, some are students. These girls have a lot of success. But sadly, I’ve also met many girls who are simply wheelchair bound.
I don’t believe the successful girls are just “lucky.” I don’t believe the less-than-successful girls have it “harder.” I think it just comes down to who is willing to answer the door when opportunity knocks.
. . . and this goes for all of us.
Because of his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp, Viktor Frankl was able to write Man’s Search for Meaning. While it took a strong heart and a lot of overcoming, Frankl saw the opportunities for learning and growth in the terrible circumstances he was in.
Opportunity doesn’t always knock at the door we want. In fact, I would dare say that opportunity’s faint knock taps three doors down on the wind-beaten wood of a door with rusty hinges. But if we’re willing to answer the door and welcome the unsolicited learning experiences, we can find a new path for success we’ve never considered. We can reach our potential, not in spite of the trials we face, but because of them.
10. We can have more times of inexplicable peace.
My face was pressed into the red dirt as I lay at the bottom of the 45-foot cliff I’d just fallen from. I knew stuff was broken. I knew stuff was bleeding. I knew it was bad. The people around me seemed frantic, but I, surprisingly, was calm. I was peaceful. I knew I was going to be okay.
I have since had many moments of peace when “peaceful” would not be a word used by onlookers to describe the situation.
I have a friend whose teenage son struggles with a terrible disease that affects her whole family. I asked her what blessing she gets from her trials and she told me, simply, peace. She said that between unwanted lab results, looming medical procedures, and missed baseball games, when she feels she might be at her breaking point, she reaches toward God. And even though chaos is two feet away, she has an inexplicable pain-free moment to rejuvenate. “Without trials,” she said, “we wouldn’t seek those moments out.”
When faced with a seemingly insurmountable trial, people tend to go one of two ways. They can reach toward God, or, well, not. And while I’ve met many in varying degrees of toward-God-or-not, I haven’t ever met anyone (who is experiencing a difficult trial) in the middle.
When we reach toward God we can have peace. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)
Reaching toward some divine reason for why we’re struggling so much gives us hope. It helps us accept that while our lives might be terribly trying right now, it is for a reeeeally good reason. Like the beautiful poem by Corrie ten Boom reads:
My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares; Nothing this truth can dim. He gives the very best to those Who leave the choice to Him.
So there you go. Ten ways trials give us more out of life. Let me rephrase that, ten ways trials CAN give us more. We have to be willing to become more confident, patient, and strong. We need to take a step back to appreciate what we have and not get hung up on what we don’t. We have to want to see things the way they really are and not lose our optimism. We must allow others to help us and find ways we can help others.
We have to recognize the opportunities available, even if they lead us down a path so far from the one we’d rather be on.
And we have to seek those moments of rejuvenating peace. Special moments just for us, if we’ll take them.
I know it’s been said before, but this old adage, at least to me, never gets old: Trials don’t define us. They refine us. I know that I am what I am, and you are what you are, because of the trials we’ve experienced. Big trials. Small trials. We all have some of both and each is meant for one purpose — to give us more.
Meg Johnson is a wife, mom, friend, writer, and speaker. She was paralyzed in 2004 and shares her motto with people of all abilities: When life gets too hard to stand, just keep on rollin’! Visit her website at www.MegJohnsonSpeaks.com
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