I have a confession to make to you. There are many subjects I have wanted to write about, but have hesitated to do so for fear of being a hypocrite. That is, speaking or writing of a principle that I want to acquire but have not yet attained. Sometimes I feel like this blog should be called, "Things Carson Truly Wants to Internalize, But Hasn't (Yet) Been Able To." I keep making disclaimers throughout my blogs and I hope this is the last one. I'm quite sure almost anyone who is trying to improve in almost any aspect of his or her humanity would feel this to some degree. Isn't it the plight of every Christian, or every good man or woman for that matter, to become or internalize what he or she believes? It's a quest that takes more than a lifetime. This post is about one of those subjects.
That subject is patience. However, I've found patience is exercised in conjunction with other principles like faith or hope. For example, the very definition of faith implies that one has yet to arrive at some sort of destination. The journey leading up to that destination always requires patience and hope. Patience in the waiting for something not yet realized, and the hope that one day it will be. They are by nature interconnected, I think. So, I guess it's more than just about patience!
Over the last few weeks, I have been feeling like my efforts towards recovery have been in vain. These feelings are greatly motivated by my dissatisfaction with how function has returned below my injury level. I am grateful for what has and continues to return, but it's at a rate that I find... depressing. While feeling somewhat hopeless about the future, I've had some experiences that have given me new insight and perspective, and have caused me to reconsider my attitude towards the current circumstance.
Some of you may already know that my physical therapy can essentially be broken down in two parts; the working of muscles above injury level, and the working of muscles below injury level. Working out areas below injury level means working muscles that work very little, if at all. This is terribly frustrating work for me. I've described my efforts at physical therapy to some by way of an example. I invite you (whoever's reading this) to try something. I want you to take a moment to find an object that's close to you. It can be any size, but something relatively small would probably be good. Now that you have found the item, your objective is to move the object using only your mind. You can do anything you'd like to move it, just as long as you're only using your mind to do it. Stare at it. Try your very hardest! You can move it, you can do it!... Now, repeat this exercise for a few hours, for 4-5 days a week. For some this works faster than it does for others, and for some it doesn't end up working at all, but keep at it.
I've spent the last eight months doing this exercise and I know many who have been at it ten times longer than I have. What I have described above is how it can feel day after day, trying to exercise certain parts of my body. I go to therapy and try to accomplish an exercise over and over again, but to no apparent avail. It tries my utmost patience. There are many days where I feel I am wasting my time as much as you would be, trying to move that object with your mind. It was probably only a week or two ago that I was feeling especially frustrated and hopeless during therapy. I turned to my PT and said, "Jan, I'm afraid I'm plateauing..." She looked at me and said something to the effect of, "Sir, you are way too early in your injury to be worried about plateauing." So, I was given the "plateau talk", which was helpful and got back to work. Shortly after that, I had the following experience that taught an me an important lesson.
|Me before the "plateau talk"|
I was at physical therapy like any other day of the week, and my therapist decided that I would do some standing in a walker. I sit on the bench and have a therapist sitting in front of me with his knees on mine, blocking them so that they don't just shoot out from under me when he pulls me up. I have a walker between us that I can grab onto, and the therapist has a belt around my hips to pull me up when it's time. I lean forward as he pulls me up, and I get into a standing position. Once I'm standing, I do a number of different exercise to challenge the muscles responsible for keeping me upright. I have to find the "sweet spot" where I feel like I'm falling but have just enough control to keep myself from going down.
I have stood many times in the walker, and always try to stay upright as long as possible. That is, after all, the point of the exercise. As I was standing there working to execute my task effectively, another therapist came behind me to feel which muscles were firing (contracting) within my abdominals and low back. As she tried to feel for them, I would try to flex and contract everything, but the therapist monitoring me remained silent, feeling no change in the muscles. As I continued to do my best to find my balance, I would often lose control and have to catch myself in frustration, needing to put my hands back down on the walker. However, right at the moment I failed to stay upright, the therapist behind me would say, "Hey, good muscle contraction!"
Surprised and frustrated, I tried again. I tried to find the sweet spot, but it wasn't until I had failed at my attempt that my muscles would give that last bit of effort required for contraction, that the therapist would feel something fire. In essence, I was succeeding only when I experienced what I thought was a dismal attempt at standing upright. I began to think about the possibility of this being the case in every aspect of my recover. Could it be that more is happening below the surface that I am aware of?
This learning experience has motivated me to keep working hard even when no progress seems to be made and I have tried to change my perception of success during therapy. Recognize my use of the verb "try" in the sentence above. I still get frustrated and still want to throw in the towel sometimes, but during these hopeless times I have to remind myself that at least some progress is occasionally masked as failure, as experienced in the walker. In short, all this walker business inspired me to reflect on the virtue of patience. The experience said, "Keep working hard because something unseen is occurring, be patient, and don't call the game early".
I have remembered one of my favorite quotes by Neal A. Maxwell. He said, “Patience is... clearly not fatalistic, shoulder-shrugging resignation. It is the acceptance of a divine rhythm to life; it is obedience prolonged. Patience stoutly resists pulling up the daisies to see how the roots are doing. ” In other words, patience does not suggest that you pull out the white flag to give up the fight, nor does it suggest that we should become apathetic to our plight. It does suggest that we learn to accept the timetable that has been given to us, regardless of the context of our life struggle. I've struggled to find the line between acceptance and resignation, wanting to accept what has happened, but wanting to never give up on the hope for change. I believe that patience is part of that answer.
Waiting is tough, but patience is especially tried when the future is not clear. My SCI has gone above and beyond in testing my patience, since the outcome of my injury is unknown. I don't have the blessing of knowing that I'll achieve my desired outcome. It's not like what I've experienced before in life. In anything else like sports, music, or academics, I know that I'll have to practice, sacrifice, and suffer to get better. I know that I'll have to focus and push my limits to improve, but I have at least been fairly certain that I would be rewarded with improvement. However, this is not so for my SCI recovery, nor is it so for many people in other circumstances. Sometimes we don't know what the outcome of our efforts will be, so we simply try to hope for the best as we do what we can. This has been the true test for me since I have found it difficult to find a basis for hoping at all. I hear myself ask, "What can I hope for in this? I don't even know if what I seek is within reach..." This hoping without evidence reminds me of Abraham in the scriptures, who "against hope, believed in hope..." as he patiently awaited the fulfillment of God's promises. If you know how his story ends, you know that his hope was not in vain, but that the fulfillment of those promises required time.
Like in Abraham's case, certain final outcomes do not rise to the surface until later, and like seeds, some things grow down before they grow up... Which is exactly the reason I want to keep at it! Working with faith and patience is a risk for me since I can't promise myself certain results, but I consider giving up an even greater risk. What if the seeds we've planted are about to burst into life? What if the plant we've cultivated has healthy roots, and is on the brink of shooting up above the surface into the daylight, revealing the fruit of all our hard work?
The last 8 months have been hellish for me, and I cannot describe the angst I feel over my whole recovery. I dream about walking over and over again, feeling the freedom I had before. I dream that I'm better, weak but better, and that everything has somehow miraculously worked out. I dream that life is the way it was again... and then I wake up. I wake up paralyzed in bed, probably aching and sore from therapy, and struggle to get out of bed to start another day. It's depressing and painful to realize that from this there is no escape. What's happened has happened, and there's nothing I can do go back to December 30th to stop myself from jumping, or at least tell the management at the park to replace the flat, deteriorated foam. And no matter what I do, this will be my life experience... so it all comes back to choice. I have to wait, so how will I choose to wait? Will I choose to learn patience and gain something from this in spite of what has transpired, or will I choose to rot? Will I choose to hope for positive change to occur at some point, or will I resign myself to a ruined life?
I say it all the time, "I want to be happy again". I know I can't be happy if I give up, and I have chosen to try and learn with the hope that I will be content with life one day. In the back of my mind I think, maybe, just maybe those dreams I have every night could come true. Maybe one day the Carson of real life will become the Carson of my dreams... but in the meantime, I have to learn patience, which for me means a lot of suffering. My hope is that while I grow the daisies of my life, I can learn this patience.
I imagine that the truly patient have learned to enjoy the warm sunlight while watering their flowers, or take time to notice the sweet scent of the soil they work in. The truly patient do not say, "I'll be happy when...", though they still long to see the hard green bud they tend erupt into soft white petals. These have learned to live now, though it's difficult. Their positive outlook does not diminish their suffering per se, but perhaps it does allow them to avoid a few more thunderstorms than the rest of us.
I am not one of the patient, but I want to be. I personally have flowerbeds full of upturned daisies as a result of my desperation to know that something is growing. The skies over my gardens are overcast more than they are sunny, by some choice, and it's generally colder than it is warm. I am learning that I have less control over how the seed grows, but have more control over environment it grows in. It's my goal to learn to let the flowers grow on their own time, and choose the sunnier days over the darker ones. It's my goal to learn to live now and not "when", and it's my goal to generally enjoy the surroundings of my garden as I watch for the transformation from bud into blossom.