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Bringing Forth Joy From Hardship

Seeking the meaning of a recurring injury, I find cause for joy and leap forward.

Juliann Petkov in New York City, November 2021.
Victory—Juliann Petkov in New York City, November 2021. Photo by Natalia Petkov.

by Juliann Petkov
New York

In October of 2018, one year after getting badly concussed backpacking in Vietnam, I was concussed again when a teenager, texting while driving, crashed into my car while it was parked at a stoplight. Climbing out, I remember thinking I was lucky to be on my way home from supporting a future division activity; kids always put me in high spirits. I spoke with the girl who’d hit me and was able to calm her down.

The full magnitude of my reinjury revealed itself in the following days. My speech slurred, my vocabulary shrank; reading triggered migraines and walking, vertigo.

It was especially bad timing. After several years of trying to decide on a career path, I had finally decided to go for law school and had enrolled that year in an entrance exam prep course.

With this injury, I felt I was, at 30, missing life’s proverbial boat. I had heard many times that seeking guidance in faith cuts to the root of what is holding us back. I reached out to my young women’s leader, who shared that Buddhism teaches that we can derive value from any experience. What did that mean? How could a brain injury become a benefit? I began chanting to experience the benefit of my circumstances and discovered that I lived a 30-minute drive from the best neuro rehab doctors in the country, from whom I received immediate care, somehow skipping a six-month waitlist to do so.

Still, as the young women’s leader for the Pacific Northwest, it was my responsibility to encourage young women practicing this Buddhism. On one of my early trips to the neurologist, my doctors spotted something suspicious and asked that I check in to an emergency room—just in case.

Annoyed, waiting in the hospital lobby, I got a text. It was my co-leader informing me that a young woman I had been supporting was herself in the emergency room; she had passed out at work. Scans had revealed a large brain tumor. Something shifted in my heart.

I’m not just randomly sitting here in the ER, I decided. There is a reason I am going through this as a young women’s leader in this movement. I left the ER that night with a determined appreciation. Because this young woman and I were both struggling with health, we were able to deeply understand and encourage one another. The same held true for other young women who were employing their practice to remain undefeated by illness or injury. Connecting, studying and chanting with these young women, watching them refuse defeat, gave rise to an abundant, even unreasonable joy in me; together we were undefeated. I was discovering the benefit of my injury.

Slowly, I was recovering. Working with a neurologist four days a week enabled me to continue to prepare for my exam. In August, a month before the exam, I felt my life stagnating—my practice test scores had plateaued, and I had become grumpy about SGI meetings. I again reached out to a senior in faith who encouraged me to not permit my brain injury to act as a devilish function tricking me into thinking I had limited capacity. She shared guidance from Ikeda Sensei stressing the importance of disciples freshly committing to their personal growth. I chanted to grow significantly.

One week before my exam, loading luggage into the trunk of a taxi, the trunk’s hinges failed, sending the hatch down hard on the back of my head, concussing me again. Immediately, the migraines and vertigo returned. I could not read.

A senior in faith reminded me that I decide victory or defeat, not my injury. She said with conviction that my circumstances were tailor-made for me so that I could discover the power of my own life, just as I am.

Sitting down to chant with that guidance in my heart, I realized this was my moment to grow significantly. All I had was the Gohonzon, Sensei and my own life. While chanting, I experienced a tremendous conviction—a sensation like a jolt of lightning. I knew, somehow, that everything would be amazing.

The morning of the exam, I found out my car battery was dead. I was unfazed. Laughing, I taught myself how to use the jumper box for the first time. Upon arrival, we were each assigned a computer and mine was the only one that was broken. “Of course it is!” I blurted happily. While the tech guys troubleshot the computer, I shared with the proctor about my car and then about the concussions. “How are you here right now?” she asked. I told her I practice Buddhism and am never defeated. While I took the exam in a separate room from the other test takers (a very tangible benefit from the injury was extra time on the exam) the proctor was reading through the SGI website, and even urged me to chant during the breaks! In the end, my score proved strong enough, not only to get me into law school, but to secure me a two-thirds tuition scholarship.

Each day of law school has been a battle against self-doubt. I am currently fighting to get a job for this summer and have thus far been rejected and ignored. However, each day I win over that doubt alongside the young women of my Kayo Core, redetermining together to have breakthroughs, visualizing the work I want to do: help private industry adopt climate solutions and work toward Sensei’s vision of human beings living in peaceful coexistence with our environment.

I’m not worried. No matter what, I have this conviction in the power inherent in my life. It is a conviction that joy in the face of hardship, far from unreasonable, is called for. It is called for and, in Buddhism, guaranteed.

Unless you wholeheartedly make a fresh determination now and grow significantly, you will not be able to open a new era.

Ikeda Sensei, Nov. 6, 2009, World Tribune, p. 1

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