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Soulful Sundays: Metamorphosis (Part II)

“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.” -Henry David Thoreau

When last we left off...I was sitting on my back porch in Boulder on September 11, 2013, watching the rain come down. I had just undergone major surgery after my 75-foot rock climbing fall. My left arm was broken, my neck would be in a brace for ten more weeks, my jaw would be wired shut for another four weeks, and no one knew how long it would be until I could walk unassisted. Plus, I would have to delay my education in Oriental Medicine for at least another year. Could things have gotten any worse? Silly question. For the rest of the Front Range, they were about to become cataclysmic.

In a period of four days, a record 17 inches of rain fell across most of the Front Range (from Fort Collins south to Colorado Springs). The resulting floods obliterated roads, houses, and other infrastructure, leaving thousands of people stranded in the mountains for weeks on end. The damage totaled over $1 billion and eight people lost their lives. I remember watching the whole thing unfold from the safety of my porch swing. Surreal is the best word I can think of to describe what happened. One of my school friends came and picked me up so we could drive around and witness the flooding. It was awe-inspiring to see whole city blocks covered by water. My own problems didn't seem all that significant in comparison.

As corny as it sounds, I believe that I was the only person that the flood actually helped. Our school shut down for a few weeks as things normalized, which gave me precious convalescence time. My brain and body started working again. I began using crutches. I needed fewer naps. And while I knew it would take some adjusting, I was confident that I could continue forward with my studies as planned. Hobbling into classes on the first day was something out of a movie. My classmates had all heard the news, but no one knew what to expect. I became semi-famous as the person who came back from the dead. It felt a little strange to be seen that way, but it wasn't my first time, I must admit.

There were two other distinct times in my life when I brushed closer to death than is usually comfortable. The first was when I was 11 years old, suffering from severe depression and an eating disorder following my parent's divorce. The second was when I was 21 years old and recently diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. In both of these confrontations, however, death was not an external force like it had been in Boulder Canyon. Internal suffering was at the root. Not to sound overly melodramatic, but I don't frankly know how I survived them both. If you have ever suffered from severe depression or witnessed it in a close friend, you know exactly what I'm talking about. When it gets bad, it gets really bad. At some point, you talk yourself into believing that death is a better option than life.

An alarming number of people in the Western world are depressed and have thoughts of suicide. It is a growing pandemic that affects millions of lives each year. The standard approach of antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy is clearly not working. I have experienced darkness in my own life and in the people I work with, and I think the solution lies in overcoming our fear of death by embracing our desire to be present in life. Thinking of death is not necessarily a bad thing. Christians, Stoics, and Buddhists alike make a daily practice of momento mori, or "remembering death," so that they are reminded to devote their attention to the limited time that they do have. We are in trouble when thoughts of death outweigh the joys of life. When this happens, only one force is powerful enough to tip the scale back to the side of life. That force is Love.

For my 11-year-old self that love came in the form of family. I remember the day that I decided that death was not an option. I knew that I had to live for my family which loved and needed me. The same thing happened again when I was 21. I chose to live out of love for myself and my family once again, but I also vowed that I would become the healthiest person I could possibly be. This vow is what has guided me through the path of holistic medicine, and it continues to inspire me today. The very obstacle that I despised at first, has become my greatest teacher. Life often works this way. The difficulties that we want to change the most end up changing us instead. Our greatest power comes when we choose to love our fate.

Miraculously, in 2013 I had no thoughts of suicide, despite every excuse to be depressed. The love and sense of purpose that I had cultivated over the last decade of hardship had apparently been sufficient protection to keep me from having to go down that road again. I used my recuperation time as an opportunity to delve more deeply into areas that I had been ignoring. I re-engaged the world from the perspective of a beginner. I asked myself (with the help of counselors and mentors) many questions about the emotions and intentions underlying my life decisions. I learned to walk, think, see, and feel in a whole new way (partly because I had to as a result of recovery, and partly because I chose to out of a desire to change). I began climbing again after the accident, not because I had something to prove, but because it had more to teach me. Eventually, I stepped away from the sport a few years later when I had sufficiently learned the lessons I needed.

Amor fati is Latin for "love of fate," and is another tenant of Christian, Stoic, and Buddhist worldviews. As a complement to remembering that our time on Earth is finite, loving fate is a reminder that our time here is also full of purpose. This was the metamorphosis that occurred after my fall. From that moment on, I began embracing the events of my life as gifts to help show me my path and add to my power, rather than omens leading me to a tragic end. The world is unfolding for us. When we can accept life's challenges and glean meaning from them, then nothing can disturb our center. We can move from a place of intention, curiosity, learning, and love. We can be transformed and made stronger by adversity. We can forever become better versions of ourselves.

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