Justin Pines Is so Comfortable Being Uncomfortable, He Made it His Motto

Justin Pines knows all about the art of storytelling. For three years in Hawaii, he taught junior high kids about structure and narrative and conflict as an English teacher. As such, he’s keenly aware of how all novels—or, at least the best ones—have that one defining chapter that exerts its influence over every single chapter that is still to come. “It won’t just be an isolated thing,” Pines explains. “It’s a big part that continues to shape the overall trajectory.”

Then, lightning-quick, the analogy becomes clear.

“So in that sense, I am Justin, a man who now lives with paralysis.”

There is a motto that Justin Pines likes to live by: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. In many ways, that has always been a facet to his life. He grew up within a family of adventurers, whose notion of a relaxing summer vacation was backpacking 60-plus miles through the Sierra Nevada. Then it was off to college at Princeton, where he ran cross-country—arguably the most uncomfortable sport in the world. 

It wasn’t until April 2016, though, after a ski crash in Squaw Valley left him hanging upside down in a tree well, that this motto would become fully realized in his head. The result of Pines’ accident was T6 paraplegia, meaning a loss of function and feeling below his sternum-area. “All of a sudden, all the adventure and possibility that my life contained pre-injury seemed to be just ripped away,” Pines says. “I couldn’t sit up in bed. My world had shrunk down to the size of my room, initially. Or really, my bed.”

Pines made a pact to himself: He would view each day as an opportunity to stretch his world back out. He would learn to sit up in bed by himself. He’d master his wheelchair—first just getting in and out of it, then eventually 360-wheelies to tear up the dance floor with. “Everything is just so suddenly and dramatically limited at first. Your natural response is like, Whoa, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this. It starts with, I can’t walk, and then there’s a whole laundry list of stuff after that. But then you start learning. You start adapting. And it’s a bumpy process. From getting dressed to loading your chair in the car independently, almost everything seems ridiculously hard the first time. I knew there were going to be a lot of bumps and I wanted to front-load as many of those bumps as soon as possible so that I could get to the smoother waters faster.” Smoother waters for Pines, though, included competing in the 2017 New York City Marathon, traveling with two of his best friends to Colombia to visit a coffee farm in the Andes, and wine tasting through the south of France.

“Move fast and don’t break things,” Pines quips. “I knew going in that I wanted to be pushing right up against that line, but thoughtfully, in a way that I wouldn’t be putting myself in unsafe situations. They would just be potentially uncomfortable and definitely new and definitely require me to learn and adapt and get creative to the end of stretching my world back out. It’s this big existential thing of, is your life going to involve all of the world or just some small slice of the world? And my response was, well let’s get on with the work of trying. T-R-Y. That’s always been a favorite word of mine.”

Pines knows he’s luckier than some who have suffered similar injuries. He’s always had a very close relationship with his circle of family and friends. “It was overwhelming, actually, the way in which my village showed up when I got hurt,” he recalls with an unmistakable sense of pride for his loved ones. “To the degree one would entertain feelings of hopelessness, it was almost impossible.” And then, as Pines put it, he got “double lucky.” Within hours of his accident, one of the ski patrollers rescuing Pines told him about a non-profit organization called High Fives, which aims to provide resources to athletes who have suffered life-altering injuries. Just days later, the founder, Roy Tuscany, was sitting across from Pines in his hospital room. Without even seeking it out, another tribe had found Pines, welcoming him with open arms.

“The community is small in adaptive athletics. And, because of that, much more tight-knit. It’s grounded in this shared experience of a challenging thing. When you share things that have been hard in your life with someone, it’s a way of being vulnerable and establishing some baseline of trust. So that, I think, facilitates a quicker path to depth in relationships. There’s this common understanding. We don’t just identify as ourselves individually. The people we surround ourselves with and our community are also part of our identity. Part of how we think of ourselves and who we are. When you start to build confidence in your community and a pride in what you’re a part of, that also directly translates to your own self-conception and sense of worth.”

Perhaps more difficult for Pines than finding the strength within himself to traverse South American mountain ranges was the simple act of how to dress. Not to minimize the intense physical and psychological obstacles an injury like his threw in his path, but after speaking with Pines, I was left with the impression that wheelchair-bound or not, he would have likely found himself relishing in similar life experiences: Tackling black diamond ski runs, training for marathons, photographing murals near the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris. It was the notion of how he was supposed to look doing these things that remained a big question mark.

“When I first got out of the hospital, I didn’t think I could even put jeans on,” Pines explains. “It was hard. I just figured I’d wear some form of stretchy sweatpants material for the rest of my life. Representation matters a lot. It’s something I’d never really encountered in such a personal way. But being able to see yourself and have an internal conception of what a good fit actually is, I think, is really important. It shapes your aspirations and goals for yourself.”

Naturally, personal style was put on the back burner during those early months of recovery, as Pines worked relentlessly to relearn everything he had to in order to live a fully independent life. No small task by any stretch of the imagination. But when he was invited to attend a gala hosted by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, he was suddenly confronted by the realization that he didn’t even own a suit that fit anymore. “I had never seen a man in a wheelchair in a suit in his early thirties,” Pines says. “But when I got that first suit and I was at that gala—got a handful of compliments, saw the photos—it was just like… It was a big answer to a question that I had only just begun to ask myself. But it was a big question. Are you attractive? Can you still be attractive or desirable? That first suit and experience at the gala in New York City, it was a real milestone in my recovery journey.”

Yes, they’re material, but the clothes we wear also project a sense of self-assuredness to the rest of the world. They heighten and reflect the aspects we value most about ourselves. “When your world gets turned upside down and you become paralyzed, to have a super hopeful, positive self-conception about yourself and your future, that’s important. It’s challenging to buy back in to yourself, to your own story. It means a lot when I see men and women with disabilities carrying themselves with confidence, dressing well, and exuding an unapologetic attitude of, ‘Here I am, looking good, not preoccupied with the fact that I have a disability. So you shouldn’t be either.’”

What’s next in Pines’ story is the Havana Marathon in Cuba. He’s already training in his racing chair, pounding the pavement, and High Fives is helping with some of the logistics to help him take on the 26.2-mile course. It’ll be tough, but it’s very much in line with Pines’ desire to stretch his world out more and more. Big athletic endeavor? Check. Add a new stamp to his passport? Check again.