Three weeks ago, I suffered a terrible lower back injury while lifting weights.
(I was doing single leg deadlifts with bad form. Just in case you’re thinking of doing some single leg deadlifts yourself, here’s a link that teaches you how to perform them with proper form. Okay, random note over.)
I’m glad to say that I’m 95% recovered, but the past three weeks haven’t been fun.
I experienced a constant, sharp pain.
I couldn’t bend my back.
I couldn’t sleep because of the discomfort.
I had trouble even getting out of bed.
I could barely walk.
I spent most of my time at home either lying or sitting down.
How my wife made me feel like a 90-year-old
My wonderful wife, Michele, even had to put on my socks and shoes for me.
(I felt like a 90-year-old when she did that—don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against elderly people—but I’m blessed to have such a patient and caring wife!)
One of the saddest things was that we were forced to cancel our honeymoon.
We’d planned to spend a week in Korea, but we figured that I wasn’t in any condition to travel. I’m sure we wouldn’t have enjoyed ourselves much if we’d spent all of our time cooped up in the hotel anyway.
An unfortunate turn of events, but of course I’ll take full responsibility for not performing the single leg deadlifts correctly in the first place.
But being immobile gave me time to think about what I could learn from the experience.
Here are three lessons I learned that I hope you’ll find helpful, regardless of whether or not you ever injure your back:
Lesson #1: Life is relationships, the rest is just details
That’s a quote from Dr. Scott Sticksel. It captures a truth that’s hard to fully wrap your head around, especially for someone like me.
I enjoy my work and I enjoy feeling productive. I like checking things off my to-do list, and I get plenty of satisfaction from finishing a task or completing a project.
You go-getters out there know what I’m talking about, right?
Purposeful work adds joy and meaning to our lives, but our work is just one aspect of who we are and of what makes for a significant life.
This back injury reminded me that the quality of our relationships largely determines the quality of our lives.
I’ve felt very loved over the past three weeks, particularly by my family, parents-in-law, and aunt-in-law.
Here are just some of the things they did for me:
- Dropped by to see how I was doing
- Cooked for me
- Washed the dishes
- Cleaned the house
- Took out the trash
- Gave me a massage
- Drove me around
- Got me an abdominal binder to speed up my recovery
- Sent me encouraging text messages
I know, I know… I’m so lucky!
And to think that when I was growing up I didn’t even want to hang out with my family because I thought they weren’t “cool.” I wanted to spend all of my free time with my friends—that’s what the “cool” kids did.
But I’ve since grown a lot closer to my family, and to Michele’s family too. They serve as a continual reminder to me (especially through this recent episode) to intentionally invest in the relationships I value most.
Clichéd but true: Life is relationships, the rest is just details.
Lesson #2: What describes you shouldn’t define you
I’ve always been physically active. I played basketball competitively for many years; I was trained as a platoon commander in the army; I lift weights regularly; I enjoy activities like hiking, skydiving and bungee jumping.
Over the years, I subconsciously started to take pride in the fact that I was fitter and stronger than the average person.
I’m ashamed to admit that I began to feel better about myself when I saw people who were in worse physical shape than me.
But this conceited view of myself fell apart when I injured my back.
I turned into a weakling who could neither move around freely nor carry anything that weighed more than a couple of pounds. Like I’ve already mentioned, I even needed my wife’s help to put on my socks and shoes!
I felt both helpless and useless.
I realized that I’d allowed myself to become defined by my physical health, when that’s merely a trait that described me.
We’re described by our…
- Physical health
- Social status
- Net worth
- Marital status
But we should be careful never to let any of these define us. If we do—in the same way that I did—we set ourselves up for disappointment in the long run.
We’re defined by these two things: our character and our commitments.
We’re defined by our values and our beliefs, and by how courageously and resolutely we live them out.
There’s no doubt that physical health matters, but it’s our character and commitments that are of lasting worth.
Lesson #3: Happiness is a battle
My back injury made it difficult for me to be happy.
Hey, I wrote a book called The Happy Student, so I work hard at being happy and discovering the keys to long-term happiness.
I’d be a hypocrite if I walked around with a frowny face all day long, right?
But my back pain was so continuous, so present, and so severe that it was a challenge for me to think of anything besides the pain.
That’s when I understood afresh that happiness isn’t an emotion; it’s a choice. More than that, it’s a battle—most of the time, an uphill one.
It’s a fact that life is tough, and it’s full of stress and struggle. It’s also a fact that anything worth achieving usually takes twice as much effort and twice as long as you’d initially estimated.
Does this mean we’ll never be happy?
Of course not. It just means that if you want to be happy—to have a good life, not just an occasional good day—then you’ll have to fight for your happiness.
Every time you choose to be grateful, choose to pay a sincere compliment, choose to look for opportunities amidst the problems, choose to give hope to someone in a seemingly hopeless situation… you’re winning the battle, one blow at a time.
Choosing to be habitually joyful is a decision of the will, a declaration of intentionality, an act of courage.
It’s a choice I’m still learning to make daily regardless of my circumstances, but I know it’s one we all need to embrace if we want to find enduring peace and fulfillment.
I’m thrilled that I’ve almost fully recovered from the injury. Now when I pick up something from the floor or bend down to tie my shoelaces, I’m uncommonly thankful I can! I definitely won’t be taking my health for granted in the near future.
I’m even more thankful that I could learn these three lessons for myself and share them with you. Now you don’t need to injure your back to learn them. 🙂