Welcoming Adversity, Part II
Glass ankles vs. tubes of toothpaste
This is a continuation of Welcoming Adversity, Part I, where I recount my experience of enduring a sweat lodge in the Sacred Valley of Peru, likening it — and the world we are living in now — to a pressure cooker that transforms us in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise.
Both of these essays are meant to stand alone, but for the full experience (as they say), read Part I before Part II… :-) xox M
On November 9, I watched on television as #25, my daughter Maddie, jumped up high at the net to “joust” with the player opposite her — a routine move in volleyball — to the sound of thousands of spectators cheering.
The next broadcasted image showed Maddie lying face down on the court, motionless, surrounded by a suddenly, eerily silent crowd in the arena. The broadcasters said what they all say now, “we’re going to step away,” and a large graphic slid onto the screen, replacing the view of my daughter with a large, meaningless chart.
Commercials invaded cheerily, and when the broadcast resumed, I learned that Maddie had been assisted off the court, hopping on one foot. Wiping away grateful tears, I texted my eldest son who was in attendance at the game, and he confirmed it was her left ankle. She had apparently landed on an opponent’s foot which was illegally under the net — illegal for just this very reason: it’s highly dangerous — and crumpled to the floor.
The doctor diagnosed it as between Grade 2 (moderate) and Grade 3 (severe), and told her she’d be back in about a month — perhaps in time for the NCAA tournament in December — to which she, used to this routine by now, replied internally, “Ha ha no. Watch me,” all the while smiling and nodding.
You see, this is a kid who’s used to defying odds. Homebound for two and a half years in high school, sick with what we eventually realized was Lyme, Maddie is now playing at the highest level of college volleyball — but that is not only a miraculous story for another day, it’s a book that she and I are writing as soon as this season, her last, is over.
Suffice it to say, she is no stranger to adversity. Her generation and the one coming up behind it, however, are another story.
During my recent time in Peru, I was fortunate to be surrounded by a tremendously wise, kind, and curious group of women, brought together by BeLovedNow. Almost all of these women were my generation or close to it; however, there was one exception, a lovely 24-year-old (I’ll call her Veronica).
Veronica and I got to chatting one evening about the state of her peers. She echoed what my own kids have said, that their generation cannot abide any discomfort whatsoever, and reaches for relief/distraction immediately.
“Anything,” she said, “anything at all — a bad grade, an uncomfortable conversation, a stomach ache — and they’re on their phones, looking for a way to feel better.”
“Sounds like they’re super-fragile,” I said.
“Pretty much,” she sighed.
I realized that Veronica’s generation could be described as the emotional equivalent, metaphorically, of “glass ankles,” defined here by FirstAid4Sport website:
“In Medical terminology, a glass ankle refers to an ankle instability. Usually, this is caused by a series of ankle sprains.”
The website offers “expert” advice:
“People with ‘glass ankles,’ must be sure to be delicate on their feet and avoid rolling the ankle left or right.”
Just as people who sprain their ankles must be sure to be “delicate on their feet,” the 20-somethings and the children growing up behind them are taught that pain is bad and must be avoided. Helicopter parents have raised them with material abundance, built-in distraction devices, and participation trophies, a potent and addictive cocktail that of course just creates more glass ankles to be protected.
Human beings who’ve never suffered pain and stayed with the pain long enough to come out the other side successfully, have no reference for discomfort. At the first hint of it, they run the other way because they can. The world has softened and squishified around them, cushioning them at every stage. They’ve never failed, never lacked, never been bored, never fought for themselves.
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each generation outstrips the next in its fragility, its inability to deal, requiring more trigger warnings, more comfort animals, more pharmaceuticals, more distraction. We are fast becoming an entire society that is “adversity averse.”
I am, of course, speaking mainly about a specific social stratum; clearly there are those who have not had the same level of comfort. But for a growing swath of our society, being averse to adversity is now baked in to our psyches. As soon as any icky feeling appears like a pea under the mattress, we swipe it away on our always-available-tech.
Yet life is hard. Adversity is inevitable. The last few years have been rife with loss, grief, confusion, pain, difficulty — a pressure cooker. So how are we to respond?
First, let’s talk about Maddie’s athletic trainer in college, whom I’ll call “Randall.”
In charge of rehabilitating all of the athletes, Randall is highly trained and super-credentialed — witness the ten framed documents on his office wall. Therefore, according to the coaches (and himself), he’s the expert. Randall is the One Who Knows Best.
I’ve written about pain before, in this essay and this poem. And yet I’ve never been provided with such a valuable lesson as Maddie’s sprained ankle to illustrate adversity’s path to transformation and growth. Hint: it does not require “experts.”, who publishes, writes in his most recent and highly cogent essay:
“I believe one of the fundamental problems in our society is that we rarely have an honest conversations with each other about how we know something is true… Since the truth is often murky and hard to uncover, tools like critical thinking and epistemology are needed, but more and more, instead of developing those tools, we are taught to settle those questions by simply trusting the most trustable expert.”
Two years earlier, when Maddie sprained her other ankle, she was required to follow the protocol Randall gave her, which revolves around the PRICE method: Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. She had to wear a boot to immobilize the joint, she had to ice regularly, and she wasn’t allowed to practice. All told, it took her 21 days to recover enough to play.
PRICE ( also known as RICE) is the only method of rehabilitation you’ll find if you Google “sprained ankle.” It’s the accepted way. It’s what every august medical institution recommends. It’s all I’ve ever known. You, too?
“It is important that no activity which increases pain or puts added pressure on the area is undergone to prevent further injury or increasing the healing period… Anti-Inflammatory medications may be taken to relieve the pain of the injury and also to minimise any swelling.”
To summarize: AVOID ALL PAIN. DO NOTHING. TAKE DRUGS.
Taken in tandem with their above advice, I’ll further summarize: CONGRATS! YOU NOW HAVE GLASS ANKLES.
This time, Maddie was determined to get back on the court faster. She knew a lot more now about rehabilitation and healing injuries, having healed her chronic knee problem using the methods created by Ben Patrick, the “knees-over-toes” guy who healed his own injured knees. She had also read up on PRICE, and based on what she learned, was not going to ice her newly-sprained ankle.
Randall, beyond-confident in his treatment methods, did not respond well — just as he hadn’t responded well months ago when she shared with him Patrick’s revolutionary training ideas.
(The below video is Maddie pulling her brother’s in-neutral truck (and her good friend) up an incline — one of the ways she healed her knee. Do not try this at home. :-)
Randall’s preferred mode was to ignore her, a mode made easier by Maddie’s habit of privately sharing her opinions with him. This time, however, Maddie unintentionally upped the stakes by going toe-to-toe with him in front of a training room filled with other athletes dutifully following Randall’s instructions.
“I’m sorry, I’m just not going to ice it this time,” she said, her face reddening as she noticed heads turn and the room go quiet.
He bristled. Then, perhaps because of the audience, he demonstrated curiosity for the first time. “Why?”
Her answer was immediate: “Because ‘RICE’ was invented in 1978 by Dr. Gabe Mirkin to reduce inflammation. That same doctor recanted his support of the technique in 2014 when he realized that inflammation is actually necessary for healing. RICE delays healing. That’s why.”
He stared at her for a long time, no doubt reeling from the slugs she had just unloaded from both barrels and wishing he hadn’t asked for an explanation. The room waited for his response, but they waited in vain. He turned on his heel silently and strode away.
It may seem odd that Maddie should know such seemingly arcane facts, but it’s all there on Wikipedia for anyone to read — including Randall. All she had to do was question the efficacy of a common practice — the accepted narrative — and do minimal research.
I wish I could tell you that Randall came back to Maddie later and said, “tell me more!” but that’s not how he rolls. That’s not how experts operate. They gain their worth by possessing what they believe to be specialized knowledge, information that they spent a lot of time and money to receive. (Back to those ten framed certificates.)
Experts aren’t interested in some high-school-educated dude who heals his own knees. I can tell you from my own experience, doctors aren’t interested in how anyone heals themselves of anything.
You can heal yourself from Stage Four cancer after they told you to get your affairs in order, and they don’t say, “Wow! Sit down and tell me everything. I want to learn from you!” They either say, “Hmm… you must’ve been misdiagnosed,” or “Keep doin’ what yer doin’!” and walk away as quickly as possible.
(The one exception I know is, god love that anonymous professional.)
The Randalls of the world need to feel important, and one of the ways they do that is by diminishing the insights of “common” folk. If some zero-credentialed shmoe from Clearwater can create a strength training method that actually heals people, what does that mean for the Randalls? I imagine their unconscious internal monologues sound something like this:
“We can’t have a bunch of empowered individuals running around, healing themselves! Better to have a society of frightened, dependent, pain-avoidant glass ankles who only know how to look outside themselves for relief. Keep the power where it belongs — with us, the trusted experts — otherwise we’ll be unemployed, or worse… oh the horror!… we’ll be irrelevant.”
So back to my question from above: how are we to respond to the pressure cooker we find ourselves in?
On November 9, Maddie went down with the massive sprain. Two days ago, on November 17, she walked back onto the court and played an entire match, eight days after her ankle blew up like a grapefruit and she was told by the experts it would take a month.
No painkillers, no ice, no immobilization. Eight days, not 21.
How did she do it? Yes, she took loads of bromelain and turmeric, used a red light we gave her for her birthday, did epsom salt soaks and castor oil packs, and used arnica (the homeopathic pellets and the external gel) religiously. She also did visualizations of relaxation and healing, compliments of her hypnotist-dad.
She did all the “woo-woo” stuff that made her coaches call her a witchdoctor.
But the biggest factor, the one that her coaches didn’t see, is the one that most people recoil from: she welcomed agony with open arms. Only hours after the injury, she was putting weight on it, walking backwards (a Ben Patrick therapeutic staple), and doing targeted ankle exercises slowly and methodically — all of which were excruciating.
She did not shy away from the pain, because she was absolutely determined to not miss any more games than one, and she knew from experience that the road to swift healing is straight through discomfort.
So let’s back out from Maddie’s experience to the world in which we are now living. What from the micro can we apply to the macro? A lot, and it’s relevant not just to Generations Z or Alpha, but to all of us.
We can take back our sovereignty. We can question narratives — any narrative, about healing, or the economy, or justice. We owe it to ourselves to process information ourselves, not simply swallow pre-digested cud, especially the stuff that’s been chewed to atoms by “experts.”
We can identify what we are truly committed to. Maddie’s commitment to playing volleyball at the highest possible levels is what gives her the discipline to push through pain that might deter others. She’s also committed to choosing what’s right for her body without outside interference.
I’m committed to freedom, in all its forms: personal, societal, physical and spiritual. It’s what drives me to write, but it also drives me to make choices about what to write, what to eat, how to live. It’s my North Star.
What’s your North Star? If you know, let it be the rocket fuel that propels you through the pain of transformation that this world is providing. That way, when you find yourself in serious distress (“Your heart will rend/ piercing you with/ white hot shrapnel stars”), you will keep going.
If you don’t know what you’re truly committed to, now seems a good time to get quiet and listen to the voice inside that does know. This apocalyptic pressure cooker will change you — is already changing you — for better or worse., a Substack writer I follow, said “the collective transformation we are undergoing can't be anything except profound,” and I agree. Wouldn’t you rather choose to play an active role in that metamorphosis? In fact, my hunch is that our own individual transformations will determine the course and ultimate manifestation of what Isaac is calling the collective transformation. The micro is the macro, and vice-versa.
We can throw open the doors of our hearts to truly welcome adversity. Assays, “It takes a spiritual shift and a radical mental reframe before we can start to embrace our challenges as sacred opportunities.”
Maddie’s illness transformed her relationship to pain. She now says, “Embrace the discomfort that comes with growth. It’s impossible to grow if you’re comfortable.” Amen to that.
Here’s another radical reframe to pain:
“The day I realized it wasn’t my mind or my pain, but just the nature of the mind and pain itself, was an initiation that changed my relationship to pain forever. When it’s ‘the’ pain, it has the whole universe to float in; when it’s ‘my’ pain, I’m standing alone in it.” — Stephen Levine
Compassion for others is borne out of that expansion of frame, yet I also find it somewhat theoretical and hard to access practically.
However, if I return to the sweat lodge in Part I of this essay, I can find a tangible path to the universality of pain. I remember what allowed me to endure the overwhelming discomfort I was experiencing: Cyn’s hand on my back. My hand on Jamie’s. Arturo’s wisdom: “The hand that appears is the one you’ve been awaiting all your life.”
We can always offer a hand, even if it does nothing but say to the sufferer, I am here. I am with you. You are not alone.
We can share our stories of overcoming pain. Years ago, while training as a volunteer firefighter, my husband Peter was sent into a smokehouse — a building filled with smoke, designed to confuse and disorient. He did what he was taught, crawling along the wall to find an exit, but began to panic when he realized he had circled the perimeter of the entire room and had found no way out.
Suddenly, he heard a voice. There was someone else in there with him. They followed the sounds of their voices to grasp hands, then together discovered a ledge they could access only by lifting and pulling each other up. The way out was not out, it was up. And it required teamwork.
When Pete recounts the experience, you can feel the relief he felt the moment he realized he was not alone. I feel that way every time I read an essay or a comment by someone who is finding the strength to step willingly and bravely into the pressure cooker of the world: ah, yes. I am not alone.
Because that, actually, is the grand truth of it all. None of us is alone, and that is the greatest source of our human resilience.
Answers, help, guidance, relief: they are not coming from Superman. Or [insert name of presidential candidate here]. Or experts. They are coming from a friend, from a tribe, from within. Maddie learned about Ben Patrick from her brother.
So what does any of this have to do with toothpaste? Thanks for asking, and for waiting this long.
I leave you with this fun metaphor: we are not glass ankles, we are tubes of toothpaste, clustered together, being squeezed by some great force. And you know what happens when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, don’t you? What’s inside — the good stuff — comes up and out.
Welcome the squeeze.