Photo by Cory Mogk / Unsplash

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. All the food and family of Christmas, plus more football, minus gift pressure.

I was planning to write a traditional Thanksgiving post this week, sharing everything I'm thankful for. A gratitude exercise in public.

And I am grateful for family, friends, ample food, health, and shelter. Naps and a good left-bank Bordeaux also make the list. I echo all the usual things people mention around the Thanksgiving table (except my kids, who said they're grateful for "snot" before laughing out of their chairs).

I don't remember how, but I stumbled across Cole Schafer's writing a few months ago. He runs the Honey Copy ad agency and writes a few killer newsletters.

He also offers a few different email-based writing courses. I'm taking "How to write articles that will make your readers fall in love with you." (He also runs "How to write words that sell like a Florida Snow Cone Vendor on the hottest day of the year." By far the best online course title I've ever seen.)

Rather than re-tell the story, I'll share something from the course this week:

"Are... are you sure you've been feeling okay?"

"I think so. Why?"

"Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your lung collapsed again. You're probably going to need surgery to fix it."

Today's writing prompt is to put a song you loved as a teenager on repeat and see what emotions it surfaces. I picked the song "Fingers Crossed" by the Swedish punk band Millencolin (can you tell my early taste in music was influenced by my older brothers?).

My first lung collapse was on April 29th of junior year. The first sign that this was serious was that the pain started on my shoulder blade. A strange place for pain. It got bad enough that I left school and went to the doctor. He ordered an x-ray, which showed my lung was about 80% collapsed.

It was a spontaneous pneumothorax. Long story short, there were weak spots on my lung, bubbles formed, and eventually, pop.

The doc said these often resolve themselves, and within a week, mine did. He ordered another x-ray a week later to follow up and confirm I was fine.

After the x-ray the following week: "Are... are you sure you've been feeling okay?"

I felt fine, but my lung was almost entirely collapsed. I went under the knife two days later.

After surgery (more painful than open heart but less painful than childbirth, according to the doctors), an ICU stint, and five days in the hospital, I got to go home.

Ten days later, I felt a now-familiar pain, this time on my other shoulder blade. The other lung collapsed. Since the first lung hadn't yet recovered enough to handle another surgery, I spent four more days in the hospital, then went home for ten days with a valve in my chest to continue recovering.

Another surgery, another ICU stint, and eight days in the hospital (the lung re-collapsed at one point), then I got to go home. Since I had no lungs left to collapse, I was able to stay home this time.

The Millencolin album Home From Home came out in 2002. "Fingers Crossed" is about a girl getting back on her feet, but the song has a line that resonated at the time:

'Cause after rainy days the sun will shine

Listening to the song now, I'm transported back to one particular night. My mom, a saint who stayed in the hospital with me 12+ hours a day, headed home for the night. The room lights were dark, but I could see fluorescent light peeking through the cracked open door, hear machines beeping, and feel the bustle of the hospital. Maria was my nurse that night and she was amazing. Nights were the worst, but I knew I was in good hands with Maria.

My brother brought my CD player (a navy blue Sony Discman with electronic skip protection) to the hospital. I clicked in the Millencolin CD, plugged in my headphones, skipped to the second song, and hit play. The familiar drum and guitar intro hit my brain. I kept telling myself, after rainy days the sun will shine.

As I listen to the song now, the whole experience, and that night in particular, comes flooding back. The pain, the sadness, the frustration, the ups and downs, the confusion, the fear.

And, like the sliver of light coming into the room from the hallway, I can still feel the sliver of hope that the sun would someday shine.

On you
I know the sun will shine
For you
I know you'll do just fine
Yeah you
I know the sun will shine
On you, yeah...

While writing about that nightmare from 2003, I realized something: I'm grateful for it.

It provided an appreciation for life, health, and the kindness and support of those around me. Realizing how short and unpredictable life is has fueled my desire to take (calculated) risks.

This week is Thanksgiving, and yes, I'm thankful for all the good in my life. Being born when and where I was, I hit the genetic lottery (except my inborn Cleveland sports fandom). And my luck only gotten better since.

But I'm also grateful for all the hard things in life. Major surgeries at 17. Job offers that don't come. In-laws. Flat tires. Botched meals. Rained-out tee times. Sick parents. Kids' fevers breaking at 3am. The ends of friendships and relationships.

Setbacks teach us so much more than successes. They make us uncomfortable, challenge complacency, force introspection, and give us the courage to take life's big leaps. They are gasoline poured on life's smoldering embers.

As 50 Cent said, "Sunny days wouldn't be special if it wasn't for rain. Joy wouldn't feel so good if it wasn't for pain." All of the good things in life that we share around the Thanksgiving table? Setbacks fueled them, and failures make them taste sweeter than the second slice of pie.

And the best part: the challenges we face today are setting us up for things we'll be thankful for around future Thanksgiving tables.