A few weeks ago, our founder, Sheri, wrote about bringing the perspective of a cancer survivor to recovering from a broken leg. We’ve been a little accident-prone here at Digging Deep lately, and I thought I would follow up Sheri’s post with a totally different perspective on a nearly identical topic. Two months ago, I had a slightly delayed diagnosis for a wrist compartment infection — just an unlucky, one-in-a-million bug that managed to take over the wrist joint, resulting in a nasty surgery to cut apart gummed-together tendons followed by six weeks of IV antibiotics. The wrist remains a big mass of unmovable and mostly unusable scar tissue. Yes, it’s been awful but trolling for sympathy isn’t the point of this post (don’t worry, I’ve done enough of that on Facebook and Instagram to fill my quota of well-wishes…). The point of this post is that, unlike Sheri, this is really my first experience with significant injury and recovery. And it turns out there are surprisingly powerful things to learn from the experience — lessons that I hope to carry forward long after my injury is healed. Here’s what I mean:
- Whether we mean to or not, we judge people based on their physical abilities
I gave myself until my IV antibiotic PICC line came out to lay around the house playing stupid mobile games, watching bad TV and eating the kids’ leftover Halloween candy. I got the line out two days ago, so I went to the rock climbing gym last night. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do much — I mean, I can’t even pick up a coffee cup, let alone cling to the wall. But it’s a sport I’ve invested in for more than 20 years, both for my physical and my mental health, and I’ve always enjoyed chatting with other climbers at the cliff or the gym. Last night, I stayed on the beginner wall and basically just climbed one-handed. I was by far the worst climber there but I didn’t mind: I was fully prepared to be embarrassingly bad and really just wanted to get off the couch and move around a bit. What I didn’t expect was to not talk with anyone all evening. Usually, I would end up chatting about how to do tricky moves with any strangers working on the same climbs. But last night when I tried to strike up casual conversations with other beginners sharing the wall, I got nowhere. Eventually I realized that others’ perception of my climbing ability led to them devaluing my conversation. In other words, because I couldn’t climb, they didn’t feel the need to talk to me. Here’s the thing: I wonder how many times I’ve been on the other side of this equation? How many times have I overlooked or dismissed people because of their lack of physical abilities? Eight months or a year from now, I’ll be able to actually climb again. And when I can, I think I’ll see people with different skill levels or body types in a new way, valuable as people and not just because of what their bodies can or can’t do.
2. Internal vs. external expectations
Speaking of climbing, even before my injury I had been on a bit of a downswing. Early last fall, I did a route that was both difficult and scary, and after that my bravery was a bit shot and I started to lack confidence on climbs that should have been fairly easy. And I started to beat myself up about it: Why did I suddenly suck so bad? I wasn’t meeting my high expectations. But now after my injury, I have NO expectations and in a way it’s freeing. Last night at the gym, I tried really, really hard and got almost nowhere. But I didn’t expect to get anywhere. I focused on trying to move well and when my wrist ached, I quit before I made it worse. I left the gym without getting to the top of a single route, even on the beginner wall, and I felt great about it and about myself. I’ll go back to the gym tomorrow night. I hope I will go back to difficult climbs next year. And when I do, I hope I can keep my current expectations: I will try hard.
3. Injury is an opportunity for a new start
Still speaking of climbing, one of my friends just got a new guidebook for our local area. He’d been carrying around the old book for 15 years, writing in the margins and checking off every route he finished until he’d climbed most of the routes he ever could or would. And the question became, what was left to do? Now with the new, clean guidebook, he decided he had to check off everything again. It was a new start. My injury feels similar: It’s a chance to start fresh and in many ways from scratch. And I wonder what I’ll be able to learn as I relearn how to climb? Will I have to become more balanced or more flexible? Will I learn how to read the body positions required to move up the rock? Instead of being stuck in my old ways, I will have to learn new ways, and despite the ache in my wrist, I’m excited for the challenge.
4. Life is about relationships
My son, Leif, turned 15 on Monday. For months, we planned to climb 15 “pitches” (rope lengths) on his 15th birthday but instead I had to send him with one of my friends. At the end of the long day, my daughter and I hiked in with water and treats to meet them at the bottom of their last climb. And as we sat there with the cold sun setting in Eldorado Canyon, I realized that while I missed the climb, I made it for the most important part: Connecting with people I care about. In fact, it’s never really been about what I can and can’t do, it’s been about sharing adventures and experiences. But I’ve never really said that to anyone. All along I’ve been saying, “Let’s go climbing this weekend,” when what I really meant was, “Let’s share an experience together.” Long after I’m healed, what I will carry forward from my experience of injury is the certainty of what matters. Life is about the people we love.
Garth Sundem is a parent, husband, and author of books including “Real Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change”.