What a 30 Foot Climbing Fall Taught Me About Gratitude


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Recently, as I neared the top of a difficult 40-foot climb at the local climbing gym in my new adopted home of Vancouver, I took a dynamic step to reach the final stop. My right hand grabbed the small, awkwardly placed handle, but I couldn’t hold on and my body fell off the wall. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal: I was “on belay”, the rope attached to my harness, looped around a pulley at the top of the route and then down to a belay device on my partner’s harness on the floor below me. Falls like this happen all the time, and they’re not a big deal, a small fall until the rope catches you and you rest in the air before getting back on the route to try the move again.

But not this time. Something went terribly wrong this time. I looked down as I fell out of the hold and watched in horror as the rope smashed through the harness and disappeared from view. I was free falling from 30 feet and there was nothing but the ground to stop my fall.

When I hit the rubber mat, the shock was intense, a violent impact that reverberated through my body. Luckily, I ended up in the same position I was in when my hand slipped out of the grip: I leaned up and to the right, landing on my right side. Had I been upright or in pretty much any other position, I probably would have broken my legs and possibly my spine or cervical vertebrae. My head didn’t hit the ground, so there was no concussion. I fractured my right ankle quite badly and had three minor pelvic fractures, but paramedics assured me I wasn’t paralyzed. That was my horror, the question I kept asking myself as I realized I had survived the fall.

A colleague of mine, an EMT, told me afterwards that 30 feet is the beginning of what they call that Death zone. This is the zone where they consider the possibility of death to be a significant risk. I didn’t die and I wasn’t paralyzed. In fact, I was extraordinarily lucky.

Somehow I’d gotten a bad knot attaching the rope to my harness, but despite the height, I’d survived the fall surprisingly unscathed. I had ankle surgery and have been in a wheelchair and on crutches for a few months, but I’m just a visitor to the world of disability. Five weeks after the fall my pelvis has mostly healed and I can feel my ankle getting better every day. I live and work in buildings with elevators and the sidewalks are all wheelchair accessible so getting around is not a problem.

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I am deeply grateful for all of this. And that’s really what I want to write about in this post: the power of gratitude to help us through difficult times.

Gratitude in the face of immense suffering

For most of my career I have worked with people who have survived genocide, civil war and displacement from their homes, communities and homelands. Again and again, as I describe it in my book war torn, I have heard survivors of the most terrible violence and loss express their gratitude for their survival, for the family members they have not lost, for the new chance they have been given to build a life in exile. I’ve always been amazed at her ability to focus on that Well to hold on to gratitude in the face of so much tragedy when it was so easy to get caught up in feelings of despair, fear, hopelessness and anger.

I remember a Bosnian woman whose parents and brother died when nationalist Bosnian Serbs set fire to their house. As she sat in my office, stricken with grief and haunted by images of the burning house, she kept thanking God that she and her children had survived, that they had escaped to Croatia and finally found a new home in Chicago.

Her words were not lighthearted; on the contrary, she felt sincere gratitude despite the enduring emotional pain of her loss and the harrowing memories of what she had experienced. In fact, I think her gratitude was a kind of psychological lifeline, a way to focus on what she still had rather than get lost in despair over what she’d lost. I’ve seen that kind of positive focus, this appreciation of what can still find good, everywhere I’ve worked, in every war zone and refugee community.

There is of course also great pain in these places, the legacy of the destructive power of war. But in the midst of that pain, and perhaps as a kind of balm to soothe it, the power of gratitude to shift focus away from what is lost to what remains, what is still possible, is the seed of hope.

Gratitude has attracted a lot of attention from researchers in recent years, particularly those familiar with positive psychology, mindfulness, and post-traumatic growth. A 2010 review found that gratitude, or an intentional focus on appreciating the positive aspects of life, is strongly and causally related to both physical and psychological well-being. There is also growing evidence that simple gratitude meditations done daily can improve our mental health and that cultivating gratitude can even boost our immune function. When we shift our focus to the positive in our lives or reframe painful experiences in a way that allows us to grow, gain wisdom and compassion, and deepen our empathy for others, we also curb our stress response and decrease the flow of stress-related hormones through our bodies.

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A question to ask

I’ve always found it tricky to suggest to someone in pain that they have much to be grateful for. It can come across as callous, an empathic failure that doesn’t acknowledge their suffering. Most of the time, I find that people come to a place of gratitude on their own, an organic process that requires no outside help other than the love and support of family and friends, and perhaps the spiritual support of their faith community. But for others stuck in despair and bitterness, a gentle question of gratitude after making an empathetic and supportive connection can sometimes turn things around and help them resolve.

“I wonder, after everything you’ve been through and amidst all that you’re still dealing with, is there anything you’re grateful for?”

“During this difficult time, is there anything you can hold on to that gives you hope? Anything you can focus on that makes you feel good, comforts you, and helps you feel more comfortable?”

If the answer is yes and they can name things they are grateful for, I might ask how it feels to shift their focus in this way. There is often a feeling of relief, a noticeable relaxation of the tension.

However, sometimes the answer can be no. There is simply nothing to be thankful for at this moment. That’s fine. The questions are meant to plant a seed, and seeds take time to grow. Cultivating gratitude in a place of darkness can be a gradual process.

On the night of my fall, in a town I had just moved to three days earlier, as I lay in a hospital bed scared, alone and in pain, I could barely move due to the pain and heavy cast. Half asleep in the semidarkness of the sickroom, I kept imagining being paralyzed. But then a wiser voice within me quickly reminded me that I only had a broken ankle and minor pelvic fractures. The memory snapped me out of my fear and despair; it felt like a symbolic rope from the dark thoughts I fell into. Another climber had been taken to the emergency room that same night and hadn’t fared nearly as well. I was thankful that my injuries weren’t worse and that I was able to walk and even climb again relatively soon. I was thankful that my older sister had already booked a flight from New York to help me after I was discharged from the hospital. I felt gratitude to be alive.

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In the challenging first few weeks after discharge from the hospital, I found myself slipping into frustration and depression at the thought of my disability, the intense effort required for simple tasks, and the isolation from my injuries. The lifeline I held onto in those moments was gratitude, which shifted my thoughts from the inconvenience of my injuries to how much worse this could have been and how normal things would be again in a few months. I focused on the incredible support from my family and friends and new colleagues and the beautiful mountains to explore just outside of town. That change of perspective made all the difference, like a way out of a dark place that offered nothing but fear and hardship. That dark place is still there, and it’s easy to find myself in it. But the way out is always just a change of perspective away, and I’m grateful for that.

A gratitude exercise

Want to try a simple and well-researched way to cultivate gratitude? At the beginning or end of each day, open a “gratitude journal” or simply say out loud five “things” you are grateful for. This can include people you care about, a friend you recently reconnected with, a great conversation you had with your significant other, your health, a pet, your home, the kindness someone recently showed you, the solution a conflict with a colleague or loved one, or the comfort of your body sitting on a chair or a pillow. Take a moment to notice how you are feeling as you write or name these. How does this focus on gratitude feel? Notice the feelings and thoughts that arise and any changes in your energy or posture. Just sit in that awareness for a moment and get on with whatever comes next in your day.

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