I recently had a bit of a health scare.
See, my knee has been bugging me in a strange way lately. I mean, it's not uncommon for me—and possibly you too—to occasionally wake up with a sore, beat-up joint that needs a bit of TLC from a foam roller or lacrosse ball; or to get a bit of nagging tennis elbow from destroying my wife on the courts (don't tell her you heard that); or to step wrong while weightlifting and slightly tweak an ankle…
…but this knee injury was strange. It would just float around in the knee and never really go away, no matter all the tricks and biohacks I'd throw at it, such as deep tissue therapy, stem cells, PRP, PEMF, infrared light, transdermal magnesium, different anti-inflammatory herbs, and spices, training all the supportive musculature, etc.—basically, all those things I've done in the past that have helped me heal up over the years. As a matter of fact, considering I have competed since I was 14 years old at a pretty intense level in everything from bodybuilding to collegiate tennis, volleyball, and water polo, to years and years of marathoning and Ironman triathlon, to Spartan racing, to some relatively difficult kettlebell training, I feel like I've actually kept myself pretty well put together from an injury standpoint—with zero major surgeries and no injuries that I haven't resolved within a matter of weeks.
But it seemed to me, over the past few months, that I'd finally “met my match” with this knee.
So after months of problematic knee aching that culminated over this past summer in several weeks of severe knee swelling to the point that I actually had to go to the physician to have my knee drained of over 210 cc of nasty, yellow fluid…
…I finally decided to go to the hospital for an MRI.
The MRI findings were a bit of a disappointment, to say the least. The results revealed a large grade 4, full-thickness chondral defect of the entire lateral side of my patella (kneecap), along with a full-thickness chondral defect along the adjoining surface of the femur, along with a large, swollen Baker’s cyst with internal loose bodies on the back of the knee. But even more concerning was something the physician labeled as “markedly abnormal marrow signal,” which they described as a “highly suspicious for systematic/metabolic marrow infiltrative disorder resulting in gelatinous marrow conversion with differential considerations considering anorexia, malignancy, malabsorption, and HIV/AIDS.”
When I received the report results back, it was that last part that really concerned me. After all, the fact that I seem to have lost a ton of cartilage in my knee was something I knew could eventually be repairable, although that in and of itself was annoying and a bit disappointing…
…but that last part? Anorexia and malabsorption? Probably not. I eat like a horse. HIV/AIDs? Doubtful.
But malignancy, aka some kind of cancerous growth, aka a bony knee tumor?
Now that, I'll admit, that last one freaked me out just a touch. As a matter of fact, even as you read this very article, I'm currently deep in the throes of investigative bloodwork, laboratory analysis of my knee fluid, discussions with surgeons about cartilage repair options, and all the other research and learning I tend to embark upon when I have some kind of problem to solve. Admittedly, that's one way that I personally cope with stuff like this: I experience a problem, then I set about to find a solution, then, after I've found the solution, try to create some kind of gratitude, love, and joy out of the situation by sharing that solution with others.
Heck, half the things I talk about on my blog and podcast, like scar healing, MRSA, gut issues, hair growth, testosterone optimization, sleep hacks, balancing parenting and exercise, biohacking, etc., etc., etc. were all inspired initially by me simply living a curious life and seeking out then subsequently sharing answers to issues or problems I happen to have been dealing with at one time or another.
The Upside Of Adversity
I realize that to label my nagging left knee issue and minor cancer scare as an “adversity” might be a stretch.
After all, compared to, say, living under the daily threat of poverty or persecution, having a family member or loved one suddenly die, or losing all one's belongings and heirlooms in a house fire, a buggy knee should certainly be classified as a first world problem.
Yet—and I'm certain that if you're an exercise enthusiast, a sporting fanatic, or anyone else who relies upon or enjoys using all of their body pain-free on a daily basis, you may agree—the “loss” of a crucial joint can threaten your happiness, and yeah, struggling through an injury, especially an injury that carries along with it a slight risk of a deadly chronic disease, is something I'm going to classify in my writing dictionary as a type of “adversity.” It can remind you of your mortality and make you question what it is that you rely upon to feel like a complete human. It can cause you to reminisce about the good ol' days of youthfulness when you could hammer a couple of six-packs of beer and run a marathon the next morning. It can leave a nagging, throbbing ache in your body but also in your mind—an ache that creaks along with each hour grumbling at you in an annoying voice that a part of you is officially broken.
You are mortal.
You are hurtable, woundable, killable.
Your ultimate source of happiness—if that is what your body or your fitness or your health is—is suddenly dangling from a razor-thin string of spiderweb and you're left scrambling and thinking ahead with ruminations about what you'll do with your life if you can't do a deep squat for the rest of your existence, or hammer away on your bicycle on the weekend, or jump into a game of tennis with your friends. Poetry? Stand-up comedy? Writing fiction? Learning a new musical instrument? Volunteering more in your local community?
Indeed, these types of thoughts are quite natural.
As a matter of fact, while navigating through the mental barrage of inner questioning I myself have been experiencing the past several days, I stumbled across a quote from the classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Victor Frankl and chronicling his experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. You've likely heard the saying that “a man is free to choose his attitude no matter the circumstances,” and that quote is derived directly from Frankl's writing. But here's what else Frankl notes in his book, and this is important for anyone experiencing adversity: those who see a greater meaning in their lives are able to “transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
I'll repeat that statement (you know, for dramatic emphasis):
Those who see a greater meaning in their lives are able to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.
This idea is also described and commented upon quite nicely in another book I've been enjoying lately entitled Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. In Transcend, author Scott Barry Kaufman points out that it is precisely when the foundational structure of the self is shaken that we are in the best position to pursue new opportunities in our lives.
Kaufman goes on to describe how the following seven areas of growth have been reported to spring from adversity:
1) Greater appreciation of life;
2) Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships;
3) Increased compassion and altruism;
4) The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life;
5) Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths;
6) Enhanced spiritual development;
7) Creative growth;
He also makes the astute observation that becoming fully human is about living a full existence, which is not necessarily an existence that is continually happy. In other words, being well is not always about feeling good or never experiencing trials or tribulations, but instead about continually incorporating more meaning, engagement, and growth in your life as you navigate the messiness of being a broken human. It is only through shedding our natural defense mechanisms and approaching any injury, adversity, or discomfort head-on, and viewing everything as fodder for growth, that you can start to embrace the inevitable paradoxes of life and come to a more nuanced view of reality.
Furthermore, the book of 2 Corinthians in the Bible contains two meaningful observations on suffering and adversity. First, 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 provides the assurance that all suffering is temporary and is simply preparing for us an eternal weight of glory, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” So take heart. Though your body may eventually grow weaker as you age, as you beat it up, as you wear it down, and as you slowly degrade all the cartilage, your spirit can grow stronger and stronger to the very end, and eventually you will experience the eternal forever glory I talk about here.
In 2 Corinthians 12:8–10, Paul also says regarding his own adversity—the so-called “thorn in his side” that appears to be some kind of illness or injury (though what the thorn is isn't specifically named)—”Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul viewed his own bodily failures as not only a lesson in contentedness, but also a sign that God's grace and His mighty power are infinitely greater than any of the power contained within our own weak bodies, and the ultimate source of our strength. In other words, experiencing the imperfect nature of the flesh can make you realize that you're but a mortal, fragile human and as a result, serve as a constant reminder to stay humble, to empathize with others, and to not consider yourself more highly than you ought as some kind of a bulletproof, unbreakable, mighty man or woman. Sure, you may have big muscles, or decent fitness chops, or clean and healthy bloodwork, but that doesn't make you any better than anybody else, and may often hold you back from growing spiritually because it's so easy for you to rely upon your body instead. Problem is, that body—that shaky source of your happiness and power—will eventually break.
Finally, in addition to providing an opportunity to grow in character and appreciation of life, an opportunity to realize the superiority of the spirit over the body, an opportunity to be content and happy no matter our circumstances, an opportunity to rely upon God as the source of power, and an opportunity to be humble, injuries also place you in a position to be able to learn about your body and turn around to teach others what you have learned. This is, as I alluded to earlier, is something I find myself doing quite a bit. What I mean by that is that the SIBO, parasite, bacterial, and other gut inflammatory issues I've experienced in the past have allowed me to learn a great deal about the human digestive system that I have been blessed to teach to others on my website and podcast; the MRSA, giardia, and staph infections that ravaged me for a year left me with a wonderful working knowledge of natural herbal compounds and plant medicines that can heal the body; the cuts, breaks, scrapes, and wounds I've sustained over years of triathlon and obstacle course racing has taught me tons about both allopathic and naturopathic first aid protocols; the low drive, endocrine imbalances, and thyroid issues I experienced during hardcore endurance training taught me plenty about testosterone, hormone, and adrenal optimization; and so on and so forth.
In other words, I'd probably be a bit of a dummy about the human body and brain if I hadn't been forced to navigate my own issues, find solutions, then turn around and share those solutions with others.
And that's the upside of adversity.
So the next time you're going through adversity, choose to grow and not to despair.
Focus on a greater appreciation of life, greater appreciation, and strengthening of close relationships, increased compassion and altruism, the identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life, greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths, enhanced spiritual development, creative growth, contentedness, and opportunities to teach others what you learn as you find solutions to deal with your adversity.
Then, while you're growing in all these other areas, address your adversity.
Hunt down solutions.
Talk to smart and experienced people about your problem.
Throw noodles at the adversity wall and see what sticks.
Maybe, by the grace of God, you'll fix it.
Maybe, by the grace of God, you won't.
But either way, you'll be a better person—the same way you'll be a better person every time you get out of bed in the morning, smile, and savor yet another ray of magical sunlight beaming through the window and massaging your skin.
What about you? What have you learned from your own injuries or illnesses? How have you grown, or how have you resisted growth and instead grit your teeth to stay attached to a fading or failing part of you? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below. I read them all.