What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger!
This is a story about my friend, Paul David, his cycling accident ten years ago, and his amazing recovery. But, to put his story in perspective, I first need to tell you a story about my own cycling accident.
Back in March of this year, I had a head-on collision with a car while going downhill at about 15 mph on a quiet street. The Tesla driver, coming up the hill from the opposite direction, “had the sun in her eyes” and never saw me as she turned directly into my path. I hit the brakes as hard as I could but it wasn’t enough to stop me in time.
I ended up hitting the Tesla on its front right bumper as it came to a halt, flew off the bike, jammed my right knee into the windshield, somersaulted over the vehicle, and landed behind it. I was surprisingly alert, never lost consciousness, and was up and walking within a few seconds. My right knee and left shoulder were banged up but no other part of my body seemed to have even touched any surfaces. Later X-Rays and CT Scans confirmed there were no major injuries.
A few hours later, I posted the photos from the scene of the accident on Facebook with a quick note (“Broke my bike in half but you should see what I did to the Tesla with my right knee as I somersaulted over the top!”) and went off to give a previously scheduled talk in San Francisco.
By the time I got home later that night, dozens of friends and family had commented and texted, telling me how lucky I was, thanking God, and telling me to count my blessings. As I thought about the event, though, I slowly came to the realization that luck had absolutely nothing to do with what happened.
I walked away from the accident not due to luck but because I’ve been biking three hours a day every day; simply put, my body was in a fit enough condition to deal with the trauma. Ten milliseconds earlier, five miles per hour faster, a different turning radius, twenty more pounds of weight, and the results would have been very different. But is that luck? Or is luck just our brains rationalizing about what “could” have happened?
It’s important to distinguish fact from fiction. A lion failing to bring down a gazelle in the Sahara doesn’t blame his bad luck nor does the gazelle exchange high fives with his buddies for her good luck. It is only us, homo sapiens, that imbue experiences with fictions, constructs of our minds, blaming and thanking everything from luck to karma to God — entities that have no physical existence anywhere other than in our collective minds.
The facts of the matter are clear: I was traveling at x mph going down a hill of y degrees, sun coming up at an angle of z degrees, car travelling at w mph, etc. We can painfully go through every factor that led up to the accident and nowhere in there, I claim, will you find luck, karma, or God. There are no such things in the universe except in the minds of men.
The problem with “luck” (and its ilk) is that once you open the door, they’ll find their way into every facet of your life: It was just bad luck that you didn’t get that job; it was God’s will that you got cancer; I got lucky that I didn’t break my arm when I fell; I pray to God that our plane doesn’t crash; …
As I sat writing this post about my accident, I was reminded of the inspirational story of a friend who had a much more harrowing experience and almost lost his life in the process. If anyone embodies the quote by Nietzsche that I used as the title of this post, he’s the one. My little accident just puts his in perspective.
Paul was hit by a car while cycling to work a decade ago. He had always been a serious runner, racking up many marathons before the accident. We used to run together in Seattle but he was always in massively better shape than me. In his case, the injuries were far more serious but his body was also in better shape to deal with the trauma.
I remember going to the hospital to visit him on the day of his accident and the shock I felt when I realized, staring at his body stretched out on the bed, that I couldn’t recognize him.
Here was a guy I ran with almost every day but I wouldn’t have been able to tell it was him if he hadn’t been pointed out to me. His face was swollen beyond belief, tubes were hanging all around him, and I couldn’t find my friend in that mass of congealed blood and broken bones. The picture below was taken later, after he’d been cleaned up and the swelling had subsided.
The accident occurred on a fairly busy street about 2 or 3 miles from our house. I was going along at a pretty good clip (about 25 mph), when a driver who was lost and late for a job interview cut me off. I hit his Ford F150 truck just behind the passenger door, and then rolled under the vehicle. Apparently I was conscious for a short time following the accident, but I recall nothing. You can read a little about what I remember from the day of the accident, or check out my reading the police report from the accident.
My injuries included a collapsed lung, many broken facial bones, broken ribs, broken scapula and collarbone, and lost vision in my left eye. More seriously, I’d incurred a Traumatic Brain Injury. I’d damaged an artery on the left side of my head, which then started to bleed into the gap between my skull and dura. I required a Craniotomy to stop the bleeding and save my life. A portion of my skull was removed to permit my injured brain to swell and then heal. I was placed into an medically-induced coma for about a week to permit this healing to begin.
Paul could barely walk and had to go through many months of physical therapy, not to mention multiple surgeries. But he never gave up. Never once did I see his spirits flag or the smile disappear from his face. I can’t possibly do justice to the hard work he did during his recovery. His blog posts immediately after the accident, and over the years, have done an excellent job of covering the details.
Suffice it say that, within nine months, he had completed another marathon and within eighteen months, he’d run ten marathons and even (gasp) ultra-marathons! And in the next ten years, he proceeded to finish almost one hundred more such races! And he’s still going strong.
The story of Paul’s accident and recovery has always been one of my favorites and one I tell friends and family (and myself) whenever we feel sorry for ourselves.
I guess you could say he was “lucky” that the accident wasn’t any worse but I don’t believe “luck” was anywhere in the vicinity that morning. You might even say he was “lucky” that he recovered so quickly but I prefer to give credit where it’s due: to the man for being physically fit thanks to years of regular exercise, to his hard work and tenacity after the accident, to his family for their support, and to the doctors for their help; not to some arbitrary man-made fudge factor called “luck.”
What matters in the end, though, is that the accident not only didn’t kill him, it made him stronger. Nietzsche was right after all but there was also a lot of sweat, blood, tears, and toil involved along the way. I’m pretty sure luck had nothing to do with it.