On the morning of May 18, 2010, Enzo Piscopo’s alarm clock went off, signaling the start of another work day. Moments later, excruciating pain shot through his back.
“I screamed so loud that I probably woke up the whole neighborhood,” he recalls.
That scream marked the end of one chapter in Enzo’s life and the beginning of another. A herniated disc had ruptured and become encrusted in his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors said he’d likely never walk again.
The last three years have been a challenging, but equally rewarding, journey for Enzo, a Coca-Cola employee since 1996.
He has gone through intense physical therapy and rehabilitation, relearning everyday tasks he previously took for granted and acclimating to life in a wheelchair.
That scream, Enzo adds, also marked the beginning of a life full of intensities. Intense pain. Intense emotion. Intense love and friendship. Intense gratitude. Intense strength and inspiration.
And, above all, intense learning about what it means to be happy.
You can’t force happiness... you have to mold it yourself.
“These lessons have opened my heart in a way that have made me the happiest I’ve ever been,” the 46-year-old says. “I’ve learned that happiness is not a standard feeling. It has many colors and many shapes. You can’t force happiness... you have to mold it yourself.”
Nearly every day, someone asks Enzo how he can be so optimistic, so cheerful, after such a life-altering injury. It’s a question, he admits, he’s asked himself more than a few times.
One particular conversation changed Enzo’s outlook, he explains. A few weeks after his injury, he was talking to his wife in his hospital room. He was just beginning to process what had happened. Instead of focusing on what he had, he zero-ed in on what he thought he’d lost.
“Feelings of depression were starting to invade every corner of my heart,” he adds.
His wife grabbed him and told him the things that mattered most to them were still intact, and that they would continue to follow their dreams and do everything they love to do, including traveling.
“That conversation has been the pillar of me succeeding in this journey,” he says. “I was reminded that I have the most wonderful wife. I have four beautiful and healthy kids. I have the love of my parents, sisters, friends and co-workers. I live in a great country. I work for the best company in the world. And the list goes on.”
Enzo, who returned to work at Coke three months after his injury, insists that happiness is a choice.
Here are five key lessons he has learned over the last few years:
1) Be Choiceful.
“You can find millions of reasons to either be happy or unhappy in your life. The choice is yours. Many people who seemingly have everything are miserable. By the same token, some of the poorest people in the world are deeply happy. The key is prioritizing the things that really matter. You have to stop and smell the roses. Today I make a conscious effort to digest and enjoy all the ‘little things’ that make me happy – such as singing and laughing with my kids. Before my injury, I had a perfect life, but took many things for granted. I constantly challenged myself and looked for the next best thing… a better job, a better house, a stronger relationship with my wife. I still want to improve and grow as a person in all aspects of my life, but I’m now much more focused on enjoying the abundance I already have.”
2) Be Patient.
“My disability has made me a much more patient person. For example, getting ready in the morning takes much longer than it did before — up to 90 minutes from the time I wake up until I leave the house. And I now use a wheelchair lift to reach our second-floor bedroom. It goes back to making choices: I can either be bitter and complain, or take a deep breath, enjoy the ride and refuse to let impatience poison my day.”
3) Be Empathetic.
“My ‘new’ life has opened my eyes and inspired me to coach a softball team for disabled kids. My kids also have learned to accept — not judge — people for their differences. They are more sensitive and open to people from all walks of life. Each of my four kids has responded differently to my disability. My oldest daughter, for example, has not cut me any slack on my responsibilities as a dad. To her, my wheelchair is irrelevant. And that has been great for helping me realize I’m not disabled... I’m just unable to walk. I’m still able to be a responsible dad and husband, and an effective and efficient employee.”
4) Be Brave.
“When I got out of [treatment at the Shepherd Center, a medical facility in Atlanta], I had to muster the courage to do the things I’ve always loved to do. At the top of that list was traveling. Soon after returning to work at Coke, I took a project assignment in Dubai. Taking a 15-hour flight without being able to get up to use the bathroom and visiting an unfamiliar country was a big deal! But I asked myself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?' I love traveling and my job, so I decided the potential reward far outweighed the risk. I went, and it was great. Since then, I’ve traveled to Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela – where I’m from – for business and pleasure. And I’m getting ready to leave for Japan and China in a few weeks."
5) Be Generous.
“When I look around at everything I have, I have no right to complain. In fact, I have a responsibility to give back. I learned this first-hand at the Shepherd Center, where I met Father Thomas, a priest from Uganda. He’s in a wheelchair due to an injury similar to mine. After a motorcycle accident, he did not go through rehab and spent two years in bed. He couldn’t work. He didn’t have an appropriate wheelchair and lived in a place that was not wheelchair accessible. Thanks to the immense heart of an angel named Mary and many others, mountains were moved to bring Father Thomas to Shepherd. And in just a few weeks, he learned all the basic skills needed to return home and not only live life with dignity, but also to become a productive human being again. Meeting Father Thomas and realizing how fortunate I am triggered an uncontrollable urge to pay it forward. My wife and I started a nonprofit organization called The Happiness is a Choice Foundation to help victims of spinal cord injuries in the underprivileged world integrate into their communities and become productive again.
And earlier this year, I came up with the idea to help everyone reap the benefits of giving through simple acts of kindness – anything from volunteering at a local soup kitchen to handing a gift card to a person in need. I organized the International Day of Paying it Forward and set the date for tomorrow, October 8th. So far, 160 people have accepted my invitation on Facebook… that’s 160 acts of kindness we would not have had before. I invite everyone who reads this to join us!”
This story originally ran on the Coca-Cola Journey website and has been republished with permission.