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Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Body Abandons Us

I am quite sure people are more than a little tired of my complaining about my physical problems. In fact, I am tired of complaining about my physical problems and so I long ago switched to talking about my physical problems in the hope that others encountering similar difficulties will benefit from the discussion.

I started "falling apart" when I was forty-five years old. I will turn fifty-two in September. I had my ankle reconstructed at forty-five and discovered when they gave me crutches after surgery that I couldn't use them because of an existing shoulder injury that I had learned to live with. Eight months later, at forty-six, I had my right labrum and rotator cuff repaired. While I wouldn't recommend anyone have two significant orthopedic surgeries in one calendar year - I thought it was a good idea because my out of pocket maximum had been reached in the first surgery and the physical therapy that followed it - my rationale for repairing my shoulder was sound, even if the timing wasn't. I reasoned that at some point in my life I would need to use either crutches or a walker again. In 2011 my rationale proved sound when I had spinal fusion and needed to use a walker for a couple of weeks. Back surgery is never a complete success in the sense that one never becomes "good as new." That having been said, even though I've not returned to one hundred percent I am at eighty to eighty five percent - a very significant improvement, indeed. Now it's a torn labrum in my left hip, and as much as I don't want to admit it I will probably need to have it surgically repaired  sooner rather than later because it is getting worse rather quickly. What started out feeling for all the world like a bad groin pull and sort butt now clicks and sometimes makes it difficult to bend over or stand back up after sitting on the floor.

Quite often I find myself wondering if all of this is "normal." People in my family didn't talk about physical aches and pains due to being of northern European heritage and, in the case of my parents, rather heavy alcohol abuse that may well have masked whatever physical pain they were having. I wonder how many other fifty-one year old people have the physical health issues that I do, as if being able to identify myself as normal or abnormal would change the reality of my situation. The truth is that if I live long enough I will one day reach the age where most of my peers have physical limitations and whether or not I started earlier than most will be irrelevant.

Our culture is very embodied - more than we need to be and more than is healthy. I was abused rather profoundly as a child and I recognize that led to two seemingly contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, I always made sure I was strong and able to take care of myself as an adult should anyone attempt to transgress against me as an adult and, on the other hand, I wasn't very invested in caring for my body - a body that had let me down when I needed it most as a child. So I exercised and lifted weights to increase my strength and stamina and I also ignored my body when it told me something was wrong. In other words, the only one who got me here is me!

One day, however, even the most grounded among us will experience what I am experiencing now. If we believe our body is our "self," then we surely will experience our "self" slipping away. While I am a true believer in interdependence, I do not relish becoming physically dependent on others one moment sooner than necessary. Perhaps I feel unsafe, or (more likely) unworthy of the level of care that I may need a bit sooner than most. On the other hand, the opportunity for spiritual practice in the midst of all of this is enormous. I am daily reminded of my own impermanence, and my ego (in the Eastern sense) is regularly assaulted by these small reminders that there is no permanent, unchanging Craig who will go on forever. Maybe the grace in all of this is that since I am a slow learner I have been given early lessons!

I have always found suffering to be an extremely spiritual circumstance. There is something about being reminded that we aren't islands onto ourselves or the masters of our own destiny that has great value. Balanced against that are concerns about remaining gainfully employed and being emotionally available for friends and family. As in so many other areas of life, it becomes necessary to find and maintain balance. You might well say that balance is the heart of all spiritual practice! After all, not many of us can run away to a monastery or become a hermit in a remote cave, as appealing as that may be at times. While some people are called to such practices, even in the monastery or the cave there are questions of balance in our relationships, our schedules, and finding food and water.

The spiritual life, especially in Christian circles, has suffered because somewhere along the way some fool decided to create a false dichotomy between sacred and secular and so between daily life and spiritual practice. There is no such distinction. A spirituality that makes us feel great at church or in the meditation hall but doesn't impact our home life is perhaps the worst kind of self-deception because it creates a part of ourselves that is irrelevant. That's obscene, and may be a significant part of the decline of institutional Christianity. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, which means the human experience is the subject of spiritual practice - from eating, drinking, and shitting to wondering how we are going to get up that flight of stairs it is all grist for the mill. The challenges of life are the vehicles for our growth and awakening. They may not be fun, but they are essential!

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