Thinking Out Loud No. 8
On a dislocated knee, anti-fragile identity and sensory overload in Seoul
I lay screaming on the floor of a conference centre in Gwangju, Korea with dozens of concerned onlookers around me; 21 hours later I gave a talk on 'digital transformation in energy' in front of 300 senior energy professionals.
This newsletter contains discussion of orthopaedic injury that some may find distressing. I’m sharing this with the hope that i) you’ll better understand my inner workings and ii) it will encourage you to look for the value in your own adversities.
In my last newsletter, I shared that I was invited to speak at a conference in Korea. I arrived late on Tuesday this week, then on Wednesday on my way to lunch my left knee decided to dislocate itself. I hit the ground hard, smashing my phone in the process, and found myself screaming in pain.
I say 'found myself screaming’, because my awareness of the process was like a dream that ended when I hit the ground. I grabbed my knee with both hands, forcibly extended my leg and pushed on my dislocated kneecap until the pain, and the panic, blessedly eased as my kneecap snapped back into place. Within five minutes I was limping away.
I looked back to where it happened and there was nothing that could have caused it. I can only assume that my shoe slipped ever so slightly on the polished floor and in just the wrong way. That’s it. No way to predict or avoid it.
As you might tell from my dispassionate tone, this is not the first time. It’s ‘a thing’. It happens rarely enough that my life is largely unaffected – I can do most of the things you can do – but often enough that it’s always on my mind as a risk. As such, it has become part of the structure of my psychology and identity.
I’ve noticed two main psychological effects. The first is hypervigilance, a state of higher sensory awareness of the world, a way of being that is always scanning for possible dangers. The second is intrusive thoughts, where some content from the world creates sensory flashes: “What would it be like if it happened right now? How about now? And now?”. On a single bad day this might happen hundreds of times.
Hypervigilance makes me notice the kids playing football across the park or the uneven road surface a few feet away. Intrusive thoughts make me imagine what would happen if one of those kids kicked the ball directly at my knees or if I stepped awkwardly on that uneven surface. And while I’m grateful that my brain can’t recreate the feeling of pain itself, it can accurately recreate the feelings of ‘wrong’ associated with knee dislocation, so these intrusive sensory flashes are unnervingly realistic. They also seem to bypass the rational centres of my brain, so I respond physically, often flinching or reaching for support, before ‘I’ am able to intervene.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a recipe for both chronic and acute anxiety, and yes, I need to manage these daily. Ninety percent of the time you wouldn’t notice what’s going on in my head, but sometimes it gets too much to hide.
I’ve gone into some detail about how unpleasant all this is, so it might surprise you to learn that part of me is grateful that I’ve had this experience, because it helped forge my identity. Of course, I’d rather have working knees, but there is a silver lining.
I’ve been falling down like this pretty regularly since I was 11. When I was younger my kneecap didn’t fully dislocate. It would wobble, I would fall over and scream in pain, but the kneecap stayed in place. After a few minutes the pain and weakness would subside enough for me to get up and limp away.
Doctors largely couldn’t help. My kneecaps were hypermobile, but there was little that could be done beside surgeries (I ultimately had five). That meant I was on my own. There was a stage in my teenage years when my knees would give out like this several times a year. Each time I would fall, it would hurt, I would feel angry and frustrated, and then I would get up and get on with my life.
That last part is crucial: I got up. At first it was difficult, but over time it became habitual. I would go through the same physical and emotional rollercoaster, but cultivated a kind of acceptance towards it. This is the one area of my life where I’ve never told myself I shouldn’t feel angry, or sad, or in pain, but have left the process alone.
Over time a kind of programme was coded into me: fall down; get up, fall down; get up. While I’m always in physical shock immediately after it happens, I notice myself reassuring the concerned witnesses who moments earlier saw me yell, swear and writhe as if possessed by a demonic spirit. No, I don’t need an ambulance. Yes, I’ll be okay. Thank you for helping me.
This programming extended to the rest of my life. I’ve fallen many times and in many domains and this response has always kicked in. I've never allowed the ‘fall down’ state to become the new default state. It’s part of my identity: I am someone who falls down and then gets up.
I want to make clear that I’m also grateful that I have always been able to get back up. I know there are many people who don’t have this luxury. None of this should be read as me having a tough love approach to navigating personal adversity. I’m aware and grateful that I have always had the necessary support and safety nets to help me recover. That doesn’t stop me valuing the agency I have developed, but it does put it into context.
At the same time, as I once again go through this now familiar physical and emotional rollercoaster, I once again find solace in the fact that I have taken something positive from it. I'm limping around Seoul, but I feel strangely anti-fragile, each painful step reinforcing my sense of self and resolve to keep exploring.
“But Michael,” I hear you ask, "how was the talk?!”
You’re so sweet to ask! It went really well and I’m working on an article covering everything I’ve learned about public speaking over the years.
When I started my career I would visibly shake and clam up when presenting. Now I can present to 300 people with three weeks’ notice, while jet-lagged and less than 24 hours after a traumatic injury. It’s been quite the journey! I’ll share that along with some highlights and photos of the conference in next week’s newsletter, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, tell me (if you feel like it): what experiences do you have of finding meaning in adversity?
Media of the week
This is a street near my hotel in Gwansu-dong, immediately south of the more well known Insa-dong (where dong means neighbourhood). Blade Runner clichés aside, walking around streets like this is a real feast for the senses.
Close nearby is the Jongmyo Shrine, a “Confucian shrine dedicated to the perpetuation of memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Korean Joseon Dynasty” and UNESCO World Heritage site.
While the whole Jongmyo site is lovely, this little sign caught my eye. Whether you believe the spirits are there or not, there’s always something about designing physical structures to create certain states of mind – in this case respect and reverence – that gets to me.
And for the record, this is the pathway for the spirits.
That’s all from me. Thanks for reading and have a great week ahead.
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