November 28, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Learning to fall (and pull ourselves back up)

When I was an eight-year-old kid, my older brother Dave was taking karate. I thought it was very cool.

One day he came home from karate class and I asked him what they did that day.

He said they were “learning to fall”.

At the time I thought that was the dumbest thing I had ever heard in my life.

Learning to fall?

Isn’t the idea in karate to make the other guy fall and for you not to fall?

He explained that in karate it was inevitable that you were going to get knocked down. It happened all the time even to the best. The point was if you learn how to fall you could avoid getting hurt from falling and bounce back up faster.  That sort of made sense, even to my eight-year-old mind that was more concerned with Bugs Bunny and my chemistry set.

Fast-forward 35 years. The other day I was thinking back to that whole idea of learning to fall in karate and it occurred to me that the same thing applies in life.

No matter who you are, no matter how lucky you are, you are going to fall. You are going to find yourself down, hurt, and maybe even feeling hopeless at some point. Life does that to all of us in different ways. Then I was thinking, can we in essence “learn to fall” to prepare ourselves for these “falls” in life?

Well, there are falls, and then there are falls. Some falls are so bad and come at us so fast that before you know what happened you are down. Such falls might be a cancer diagnosis, a heart attack, a spinal cord injury…how could anyone be ready for those?

So maybe a better way to put it would be learning to pick oneself back up and make the best of a very horrible situation.

I thought back to my own experience being diagnosed in late 2009 with aggressive prostate cancer (not the kind you can just sit back and watch by any stretch of the imagination). It was the kind of diagnosis at age 42 that made me feel like I had been run over by a truck, but somehow I got through it and the surgery.

Now almost 15 months later–so far so good–I’m doing well, but life will never be the same and the big C could come back some day.

How did I bounce back from that fall? How did I pick myself up? I am not sure, but believe me I couldn’t have done it alone and it wasn’t a linear path. There were lots of ups and downs.

There were many hands providing support to peel me off the ground and provide the oomph I needed. There was also hope and a lot of that hope came from my first hand knowledge that there are scientists and doctors all over the world working very hard to come up with new treatments and cures. These are serious, committed people who are driven to help make a difference no matter the sacrifice. Maybe they can’t prevent us from falling or prepare us for disaster, but they sure help us recover as best we can and provide real hope for the future.

The idea of “learning to fall” is not an original one. In fact, Philip Simmons has written a book by that name (you can find it here at Amazon).  I just found this book yesterday so I have not read it yet,  but it sounds like a very inspiring one.

Dr. Simmons was an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, when he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  He writes about his experiences with this disease and with life. I’m going to try to find time to read it between all my scientific journals.

Like I said earlier, some things are so bad like serious cancer and surgery or ALS or spinal cord injury (just to name a few) that they are impossible to prepare for, but you can learn as you go through it and reinvent your life to some degree… to bounce back as best you can.

Hope is a key ingredient. Adequately funding research with bipartisan support provides this real hope to millions of people.


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