There’s this very important point in the healing process that’s difficult to detect: it’s when the quest to get better becomes a test of one’s self-worth. “Am I the kind of person who can heal themselves, overcome this challenge, or is it true, as I have quietly believed, that I don’t have what it takes?”
The Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, writes that we tend to view everything in our life as a test. Your door hinge is squeaky? It’s because you’re lazy and hopeless with handiwork. The bank teller is uncharacteristically friendly? It’s because she wants to leave her family and run away with you. In essence, we personalize circumstances that have a complex web of reasons which often have very little to do with us. Combine that with cultural narratives of absolute personal responsibility and soon illness or pain starts to feel like failure.
The addition of blame to an already difficult healing journey often means that now we have to get better not only for all the obvious reasons like wanting to have less pain, more mobility, fewer trips to the physical therapy office, but we also have to “overcome” this and return to normalcy to prove that we can do it. We want, understandably, to be a success story.
I’m all for making an effort to move your life towards health and happiness. However, when dedication to healing slides into obsession, when everything hinges on getting better, we get stuck. The process of repairing our back or reducing migraines can be so pressured that we get tied up in knots and become irritated by all the people and things that get in the way of “better.”
One day in 2009, as I was walking across 14th Street on my way to an Alexander Technique lesson, I made a pact with my creator that if my neck pain ever abated I would finally be content. No more pining for professional acclaim, money, or a dishwasher. I just wanted to be able to stand fully upright without pain.
In many of those Alexander Technique lessons I would feel a lifting of the pain. I’d get choked up as I told my teachers that my arms and neck felt normal again. I remember, in particular, one morning when one of my teachers, who was nearly eighty years old, placed her fingertips on the side of my head and guided me up and out of the chair. I felt myself continuing to rise and rise until I had lengthened far past my usual crimped posture. I walked around the room as if I were the principal ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet.
I was hooked. Salvation was just a muscle release away, it seemed. So with singular purpose, I practiced the Alexander Technique at all hours: while waiting in line, while taking a shower, even when I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night. If I were a lawyer, my billable hours would have been impressive. Given the undercurrent of emergency — I wasn’t able to work or earn money — it was understandable that activities like talking with my family or watching a movie were just background to the primary struggle — shedding my habitual neck tension.
As you may have guessed, obsession and relaxing one’s neck don’t pair well. When I thought about the Alexander Technique it didn’t have the same effect as when my teachers worked with me because I brought so much fear and shame to the process. Each moment was a test of whether I was going to get better or not. What we in my school called “self-work” was, for me, a scramble to prove that I could gain mastery over my condition.
In a rare moment of candor, I laughed out loud when I imagined what my tombstone might read:
He Tried to Free His Neck
My journey had become too small. Yes, it was important to recover (to the degree I was able to) but I didn’t have to stop living in the meantime.
Having pain can be horrible, saddening, and limiting. It would be bizarre to think that we shouldn’t try to do anything about our pain, but when it becomes the only thing we think or wish about all day, we can find ourselves feeling quite alone and without nourishment from outside of ourselves. Ironically, in the midst of our own suffering, we might forget that everyone wants to be free of pain and be happy. That people who live in Baffin Bay have arthritis and there is someone on Wall Street who is desperate about their anxiety. I don’t bring this up in the usual way that people employ this line of reasoning: to castigate you for being so selfish as to care about yourself! I mention it because if we see our situation as only Me vs. Pain, we miss out on the gift of empathy. It is one boon of suffering — we viscerally learn what it’s like to not be where we want to be. Of course, it’s neither easy nor pleasant. But as David Brooks’ new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, shows, a surge in empathy can help us steer toward greater meaning and fulfillment.
If left to our own devices (literally), our deeper values might remain unexpressed or not acted upon. We might not take on the journey aspect of our lives; we might not ask, what does this moment feel like?
On certain days, I just go through the motions. To an observer trying to chronicle my life, they might come away with the following epitaph:
Dan Cayer — He Tried to Keep His Phone Charged
Lover of Potato Chips and Trail Mix, He Never Let Himself Get Hungry
I don’t know if my neck and arms will ever heal. I intend to keep trying to get closer to the ease and freedom I felt when that elderly teacher was floating me out of the chair. That’s the pursuit. I think there’s nothing wrong with undertaking something that may not be completed in a lifetime. I’m inspired by individuals who commit to projects without end: to prevent animal cruelty, or find safe accommodations for the homeless, for instance.
Even if your health issues mean that activities of daily living take up most of your time and energy, you can at least try to think big. Include yourself in the wish that, “May all beings be free of suffering. May all beings feel safe.”
Plus, the more I obsess about me, the tighter my neck gets.