A while back I began noticing an epidemic of bad posture—otherwise healthy people of all ages, their shoulders slumped forward, necks craned out in front, heads arriving everywhere a second ahead of the rest of their bodies. (Presumably a side effect of long hours spent hunched over computers and cell phones.) I found myself feeling sorry for these people and wondering if they knew what was happening to them.
While shopping one day, I tried on an outfit in a dressing room that had large mirrors on all four walls. I liked the way the outfit looked from the front; I even liked the way it looked from the back, which was nothing short of miraculous, but when I saw my reflection from the side, I was horrified! My shoulders rolled forward and my neck and head angled out, making me look like a turtle. I tried to stand up straighter but that only helped a little. When had this happened?! How had I not noticed before?!
I went home and immediately made changes. I put my laptop on a stand so it would be closer to eye-level and I plugged in a separate keyboard which sat lower; I began sleeping on my back without a pillow; I scoured the Internet for exercises that would reverse the damage; I found a few, and did them faithfully for months, but saw no improvement. Every time I saw my reflection, it reminded me of how stooped I had become and it made me feel helpless. I kept doing all I knew to do, but nothing seemed to make a difference.
Last January, I was awakened very early one morning by excruciating pain in my left shoulder and arm, and a weird combination of pain and numbness in my hand. A trip to the ER ruled out a heart attack and left me believing that my symptoms were the result of a pinched nerve. This pain was, without a doubt, the most intense pain I’ve ever experienced. I’ve given birth without medication—this shoulder pain was worse, and it went on and on. When the pain finally began to abate after about ten days, I was surprised to find I had almost no strength in my arm.
Because my family doctor also believed I had a pinched nerve, she suggested I try some physical therapy. I found a great PT facility, where I was assigned an excellent therapist who could easily moonlight as a stand-up comedian. It was such an upbeat atmosphere that my sessions there became the highlight of my week. My left arm and shoulder continued to hurt a lot, but they were getting a bit stronger. My back and my other shoulder and arm were getting stronger, too. And before long, I realized my posture was improving! My neck and head were better aligned above my chest, and my shoulders were less slouchy.
As it turned out, I did not have a pinched nerve. When pain and weakness lingered, despite therapy, I went to several specialists. A series of tests revealed that I had suffered nerve damage from something called Parsonage-Turner Syndrome. I did some research and quickly realized that I’d been really fortunate: as painful and long lasting as it was, mine was a very mild case. (My symptoms are still not completely gone, but they are manageable and improving steadily.)
I’m not a person who uses the expression, “Everything happens for a reason.” If I did use this expression, I guess I’d say that the nerve damage happened so I‘d learn the exercises I needed to improve my posture. Instead, I believe the reason I suffered nerve damage was simply because my body was attacked by a virus, and that the posture improvement was my silver lining.
I don’t believe that bad things have to happen so that good things can follow. I believe that good things have the power to happen all on their own, and that no matter what misfortune or tragedy we experience, something good can emerge from it; something good wants to emerge from it.
I believe the good that emerges can depend on our response—if I hadn’t chosen to do physical therapy, I’d have missed my unexpected benefit. And the good that emerges almost always depends on our attitude—resisting the urge to wallow, instead choosing to look for the treasure hidden in the wreckage—always choosing to look up, because that’s where the silver linings are.