My grandmother often said that it takes a new problem to drive out an old one. For me, it’s often the new problem that softens my outlook.
I always expect to handle a downturn in fortune better than I do. Take my non-serious, yet painful and limiting biomechanical travails. Seriously, take them.
It started with a mysterious knee swelling that presented when I rode my bike. My knee pit swelled into a painful, golf ball sized lump called a baker’s cyst. Then, everything seemed to aggravate my knee.
I pointed to my bulging knee pit one day and said to Susan, “This is the knee of my parasitic twin.”
“That you ate in utero,” she shot back.
That’s what friends are for—making you the unfunny one.
Biking aggravates my knee the most, so I stopped bike commuting in the early summer. Now that it’s -35 degrees Celsius with the wind chill, it doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice, but I was angry at the time: “All I want to do is ride my bike! I’m not training for the fucking Ironman! Fate, you’re an asshole!”
Fate was quiet for a while and then handed me excruciating back pain. Sleeping was painful, sitting was agonizing. Standing perfectly still was somewhat acceptable. Getting through the work day involved handfuls of ibuprophen, with the occasional muscle relaxant chaser. When I spoke to people in meetings, I worried that I had the pupils of a stoner.
At the end of a work day my husband would lower me to the living room floor where I would cry, command assistance, and then ask querulously for someone to please put socks on my cold feet.
It was so humbling and illuminating. I stopped thinking about my knee. Suddenly, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go to the bathroom without worrying that shooting nerve pain would shackle me to a toilet.
It reminded me of how my father joked with me when I was a little kid.
“Your knee is sore?” he’d ask when I presented the latest abrasion.
I’d nod my mousy little head, and look up at him through my smudged coke-bottle glasses.
“How about I step on your toe? I bet you’d forget about your knee then,” he’d say, and laugh uproariously.
He and Grandma were right, although his approach was less elegant. Presented with a new problem, the old one doesn’t seem so bad.
Pema Chödrön often writes that we have two options when it comes to handling the heartbreaks and disappointments of life. We can let these things harden our hearts or soften them.
For someone like me, whose go-to emotion is anger and frustration, the first option is reflexive. It feels safer inside the fortress rather than outside presenting your heart to the slings and arrows of suffering.
When I’m shocked out of defensiveness, I find that its opposite is wonder and gratitude. It’s just annoying that it takes near incapacitation to get me to a nicer place in my head.
When my pain was at its worst, I’d look around at people walking upright, or stooping to pick stuff up from the floor, and marvel at the symphony of human movement that has neuro-transmission at the conductor’s podium cueing the graceful play of muscle, tendon and bone that allows us to move in spectacular and mundane ways.
I wanted to stop people jogging by on the cold squeaky snow, hold their snotty faces in my mittened hands, and say, “I hope you realize how amazing it is to do what you’re doing!”
Recently, I was shopping with my mom at Costco, and I exclaimed, “Look! I’m pushing the shopping cart!”
Two weeks prior, that would not have been possible. These days, my back is stiff more than sore, but I’ve put vaccuming on the backburner to be on the safe side. I’m not too sad about that.