sprains of the soul

I recently went on vacation. It was an amazing adventure involving lots of hiking on slippery and uneven terrain, miles of walking, and many, many stairs. Given my bizarre obsession with packing light, I accomplished all of this footwork while wearing the one pair of shoes that I brought. These were decidedly not hiking boots and offered little traction and no stabilization. On more than one occasion I regretted my choice. While my family scurried over steep hills I had to choose my path carefully and move slowly. Even still, as the trip came to a close, I joked about becoming a spokesperson for the shoe brand given my expert skill in navigating the unexpected in their totally inappropriate-for-the-fjords-of-Finland kicks. Then, two days before our two week vacation was to end, came the completely flat sidewalk upon which I rolled my ankle. One minute I was up, in the midst of an interesting and lively conversation, and the next I was down. I looked over my shoulder to find the uneven ground, the lifted pavement, the huge hole that had, most certainly, tripped me up and saw only pristinely flat pavement. The swelling began immediately and, by the evening, my right shoe no longer fit. Not necessarily a wise sage when it comes to listening to my body, I iced and elevated only between long bouts of walking in that same pair of shoes.

Several weeks later my ankle was still swollen and painful. I was anxious to return to dance class so I headed off to see my favorite sport’s medicine physician. With a foot in each hand he wisely asked about prior injuries to the affected joint. His years of practice and expertise allowed him to quickly discern the difference in “play” between my two ankles. While I had long forgotten the ligaments I tore as a gymnast in high school, my body belied their existence.  This got me thinking about how pre-existing injuries impact present capabilities. 

Whenever our physical bodies experience strains, tears, breaks, infection, and the like, the entirety of our being responds. Muscles compensate, others atrophy, tissues accumulate. We build up antibodies or our systems become more vulnerable. Regardless of the specific disruption, our cells remember what has happened and, often, are impacted in long term ways. An injury accomplished 30 years ago creates a proclivity to re-injury today. Our bodies, in their wisdom and humanity, work to maintain health and stability and yet, can only do so much. If my right ankle is weak, I am more prone to rolling it, especially if I have lost conscious awareness of the need to be mindful of not doing so.

It hits me that our souls (or psyches, or spirits, or selves, or hearts...whatever word you choose to refer to as the seat of your being) are much the same. We have all suffered emotional injuries, dark nights of the soul, relational losses, and more. We do our best, after such injuries, to remedy them and/or to protect ourselves from further pain. Our efforts are most often based upon either deeply automatic or intentionally chosen coping strategies. Some people stuff the pain, ignoring it and hoping it will go away and others process it in any number of verbal or behavioral ways. Some create rituals to avoid further harm and others apply a “rehabilitation” strategy of sorts, working to understand what created the injury in an effort to curtail a repeat of it. Innumerable alternatives along this spectrum provide people with options for moving forward after suffering emotional pain. 

As with physical injuries, these soul wounds leave us vulnerable in deeply personal and specific ways. Just as previously torn ligaments leave my right ankle overly flexible and prone to sprains, pre-existing emotional injuries cause similar proclivities. Further, the manner in which we addressed the initial wounds profoundly impacts the pattern by which we deal with our present day ones. 

We’ve all witnessed (or been a player in) situations where a person’s reaction seems out of place in relation to the trigger. We’ve over- or under- reacted. We’ve been left before so we avoid emotional entanglements or cling to those who connect to us. We’ve been taken advantage of so we keep people at arm’s length, fear the motives of others, and are overly stingy with our resources. We’ve experienced failure so we stop taking risks or stop caring about our passions. A seemingly benign part of our daily routine stops us short and redirects our emotions; a stimulus that “should” make us feel happy prompts sadness; a smell triggers pangs of loneliness; or more. We are complex beings whose bodies and souls have created intricate systems that are stopped and started by all manner or experiences. When these patterns have gone on unexamined, when we have lost site of how our original injuries have left us vulnerable, we are particularly prone to sprains and swelling and pain of all sorts.

When I sprained my ankle it would have been best for me to stop walking, to elevate and ice it, and to stay down for a couple of days. Having done this, I could have made an intentional plan for how to strengthen the injured area and avoided the long term frustration I am experiencing today. The same is true of our emotional/relational/soul injuries. Exploring their etiology, understanding their impact, learning about the patterns they initiate within us could be like physical therapy for the soul. Rather than pushing through, acting like “it doesn’t hurt,” or developing a limp to compensate for the lack of strength, doing this difficult excavation might allow us to resolve the injury and improve our internal strength and our lives. If we don’t do this resolution work, we simply compensate.

Mister Rogers frequently reminded us that “whatever is mentionable is manageable.” This seems like a fitting mantra for the process of examining possible sprains to our souls. Rarely are these types of wounds easy or “fun” to explore. They can, however, be made manageable. The first step would be to tell yourself the truth about disruptions or experiences in your life that may have caused a pre-existing propensity for reactivity or pain. Finding a trusted person to wonder about these with might be a good next step. Not a person who is happy to tell you what you should do or think or feel but, rather, someone who has dealt with their own internal injuries or has proven to be sensitive to and qualified in responding to those of others. Writing or journaling which allows for honest exploration might be helpful and finding some good literature/resources around your particular kind of injury might help. A google search does not qualify here unless you use it as a jumping off point for finding content that is rich, grounded, and balanced. Ideas and interventions that at first make you squirm might be especially important to consider. Attending to interventions/messages that make you feel shamed or seem to “increase swelling” is probably a bad idea. For example, it was unwise for me to “intervene” by keeping walking in unstable shoes because if I didn’t I was “admitting defeat.” 

Too often our own internal messages about our weaknesses and pains, and those external ones that support them, are based in all sorts of wild inaccuracies. With sprains of all sorts, recovery will be slow and will happen best if approached with wisdom. Acknowledging the real injury, receiving some wise external assessment, intervening in appropriate ways, and being patient and intentional in regaining strength will help this process along. Ignoring the incident, pushing past the pain, and clenching our teeth, on the other hand, leave us vulnerable for future injuries and compensatory behaviors of all sorts. While much more involved than simply getting by and much more complicated than holding on to our rigid pain-induced proclivities, in life, as in walking, who wants to limp when they could soar?


christmas in june (thinking ahead about our tech use)

My niece turns 7 this week and is celebrating with a Christmas party. It’s June. She chose this theme for many reasons,including the generous inclusion of hot chocolate that the holiday invites. As the E3 (game developers) conference kicked off yesterday, it seems that Ella is not the only person thinking about Christmas. In keeping with retailers of all kinds, the gaming industry is whetting it’s loyal customer’s appetites about what they can look forward to this December. Live streams, constantly updating blogs, and never ending tweets emanating from the conference are bombarding me as I type.

I am particularly interested in this years’ conference because of my curiosity around how  virtual reality, 360 degree, fully immersive gaming/digital capabilities will impact our embodied lives. This is important to me because, while gaming often leads the way in digital content and product development, other entertainment enterprises are typically close behind. Following this second tier are the research, educational, and, sometimes, assistive/therapeutic applications. This is, of course, the case with virtual reality hard ware and software. While we’ll purchase the virtual reality head set for our gaming friends and family, new ways of using it will not be far behind. Porn developers, with pockets possibly even deeper than those of game developers, will offer their wares en masse as will all sorts of time sucking platforms dressed as entertainment enterprises. While these applications will create monetary windfalls, the assistive and therapeutic applications, will remain secondary, expensive, and out of reach of the mainstream. But I digress...

Digital spaces offer opportunity for escape in exceedingly powerful ways ranging from fully immersive experiences (think of the gamer who is playing with a head set and microphone) to singularly visual or auditory distraction (your partner in bed scrolling through youtube clip/news article/pandora station or playing trivia crack on their phone/tablet). When the images/sounds on the screen were square edged, pixelated images (and their auditory counterparts), it was easier to limit one’s time. When games had fewer story lines and less actions within the player’s control, there was only so long that one’s attention could be held.

Watching the trailers from Day 1 of the E3 conference, however, leads me to a place of deep empathic understanding of how compelling today’s games (and other digital forms of entertainment) are. Take the trailer for the much anticipated upcoming December release of The Last Guardian. In development for 10 plus years, the game includes a visually beautiful story line involving a massive cat/eagle creature and a young man moving fluidly through obstacles and challenges enhanced by a complex and compelling musical score.  I am not a gamer. I am deathly allergic to cats and not particularly drawn to animals. I don’t tend toward animated Japanese films. Even still, I thought the trailer was beautiful. This makes no sense. If I, who am prone to dislike both the media and the message, am drawn to it’s relational themes (between beast and boy) and sensual beauty (lush landscapes, subtle falling feathers, beautiful music), how much more so will those who want (and know how to) face into the strategic challenges of the game be drawn in? For anyone who finds embodied relationships difficult, costly, hard to find, or few and far between, the relationships available in digital spaces (with the characters we play or with the people we play with) are especially appealing.

The time to determine how we want to parse our personal and interpersonal resources is now. As individuals we are benefitted by honestly assessing the way in which we engage our embodied spaces and how our digital lives enhance or limit this. As the holiday season approaches we will be bombarded by press releases, news stories, and trailers (beautiful, stunning, interesting trailers) touting the latest and greatest of all relationships digital. Technologies will promise us opportunities to engage digital landscapes (head sets that allow you to turn your head in the game/digital environment and actually see what is behind you, etc) in never before ways. They will suggest that enhanced game play options will deepen your connection to the clans with which you (or your child, office mate, barista, etc) engage. Some games will promise to help you relax and some will offer intimate relationships with characters you yourself can fully shape. Very likely, all of these will be fun/effective/compelling/engaging. Almost certainly, they will be habit forming. 

Before we make the impulse buy, what about asking our selves the following questions:

How much of my life and energy is spent in digital spaces versus embodied ones?

Am I able to tolerate boredom? Do I ever allow idle time? Can I make and sustain eye contact? Do awkward social moments cause me undue stress? Am I personally and socially resilient?

Am I preoccupied with game strategy, social network sites, or other digital content even when I am engaging with things or people I have enjoyed in the past? Do my spoken conversation or internal dialogue center on stories or examples from digital platforms exclusively?

Do I defer to digital forms of entertainment above all others most, or all, of the time?

Once we’ve taken honest stock we can make healthy choices from the inside out rather than relying on cultural norms or marketing efforts to tell us what is best for us. For health, we need a balance. We need friends in embodied spaces in addition to those we play with (or im-personate) online.  Just like limiting Christmas to hot chocolate would be silly, so would settling for life online when so much is to be had off of it. 

If you, or someone you know, is having a hard time breaking a gaming habit that is hurting the ability to live in/tolerate their embodied life, email me. I’d be happy to help you find resources to help.