Misfortune or Blessing? Stay Calm and Choose Your Response

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Making judgments about events before they are played out may be wasted energy.

By Deb Gulbrandson, PT, DPT

Have you heard the story about the poor Chinese farmer whose work horse ran away? Hearing that the farmer’s livelihood had just disappeared over the hills, the townspeople cried, “This is horrible. What misfortune.” To which the farmer replied, “Perhaps.”

The next day the horse reappeared and along with him were a dozen wild mares, which the farmer captured. The townspeople exclaimed, “What great fortune!” To which the farmer replied, “Perhaps.”

As the farmer’s son was trying to tame one of the horses, he was thrown off and suffered a broken leg. The townspeople moaned, “You are so unlucky. This is terrible.” Again, the farmer replied, “Perhaps.” Within a week, a neighboring army threatened the village and all the young men were drafted except the farmer’s son who was still recovering. Many died. The townspeople shouted, “You are so fortunate.” And the farmer responded . . . well, you know what the farmer said.

The moral of the story is that no event in and of itself can be judged as fortunate or unfortunate, lucky or unlucky, good or bad. Only time will tell the whole story. Often, what we assume to be bad luck, a poor choice, or even a mistake may in fact be a blessing. Our ability to remain calm in the face of a storm or supposed failure is a lifelong habit that needs continued nurturing. Thomas Edison reportedly answered a New York Times reporter’s question about his failures to come up with the light bulb with: “I have not failed. I have successfully discovered a thousand ways that won’t work.” Talk about the glass half full! Every “failure” in our lives is a learning opportunity, and often the most painful ones are the most important lessons.

Life has its ups and downs, and private practice owners have certainly known the “What great fortune” as well as the “This is terrible” phases. I’ve learned to take a page from my patients’ playbooks about grace under pressure. When you think about our patients and their circumstances, very few wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll swing by the local physical therapy clinic and pick up some therapy.” Or “Let’s see, I don’t have enough going on in my life. Why don’t I schedule in some physical therapy appointments twice a week for the next four to six weeks, come up with money for copays which I don’t understand and didn’t budget for, and find extra time to do exercises between working, caring for my family, and running a household?”

The equanimity with which the majority of patients handle their minor setbacks (or life-changing events) is remarkable to say the least. And at the end of treatment, they often reflect that the experience has made them better. Their attitudes have changed and taking care of their health may have moved up the priority ladder. I believe physical therapy is one of, if not the best, of the health care professions. We journey with our patients from pain and incapacity to mobility and independence. We can help them see the “Perhaps” in their recovery.

I believe that in the end, it’s not what happens to us in life, but our reaction to it that makes all the difference. As Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lie our growth and our freedom.”

Deb Gulbrandson, PT, DPT, is a PPS member, Annual Conference Program Work Group member, and owner of Cary Physical Therapy in Illinois. She can be reached at deb@caryphysicaltherapy.com.

Copyright © 2018, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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