One reason injury seems so devastating is that I start thinking the cycle of health and injury is inevitable. I’m not talking about contact sports, just running and some resistance training. When you mix in seemingly soft exercises such as yoga and swimming, the idea of injury becomes remote. I’m here to tell you it isn’t.
One thing I’ve helplessly noticed is my competitive streak. It’s hard-wired. For a decade, maybe more, I did nothing but walk, ride a bike, maybe mow the lawn. I didn’t realize I was falling into semi-retirement, physically. During this long period I was raising a great, headstrong son mostly by myself, earning a master’s degree, working everything from Seven-Eleven to Princeton Educational Services (handing out SATs), and trying to figure out steadier, better means of employment. I didn’t give competition a thought.
But thinking about competition and behaving competitively are two different things. I look back on the day I led a Sociology class in a lecture. I practiced the material over and over. I dissected student performances and swore to avoid their mistakes: losing my place, standing in front of the projector, falling into monotone. I was trying to stand out — against them. But also – and this is important – as measured against some cave-dwelling version of myself.
In the student-as-teacher scenario I was battling against social anxiety – a term I didn’t know at the time. Stage fright, yes. But stage fright was supposed to be normal and you just stood up to it. What I didn’t know is that there are degrees to all those anxieties. In order to succeed that day, I had to set my will-to-achieve self against my will-to-run-away self, and the result, while laudable on the surface (the class applauded), absolutely drained me. I had to go back to Married Student Housing and lie down. In a way I’d injured myself. The intense ‘training’ for teaching the class had taken me far beyond my limits. I wasn’t full strength for two days. You might say, fine, that’s how we get stronger. And it is. But how often are you going to demand these ‘farther-is-better’ days out of yourself? By pushing myself into the farther-zone, I am still feeling my sore knees a full week after I injured them (see post ‘Injury!’). I feel them when I wake up, I feel them when climbing the steep stairs in this Cairo flat. And I felt them on the golf course last Saturday.
That round of golf — ridiculous. We were going to play as a foursome, two women and two men. I was looking forward to socializing, joking, laughing. At the last I was stuck with three other men. The women played in a separate group. I knew this was trouble from the start. Frankly I don’t make enough money to golf. My friends have their club memberships underwritten, at least partly, by their employers (big military, big beer, big oil). The under-paid idiot is the teacher. These class differences meant that at least two of the men in our group played golf a few times each week. I’ve played three times in the last year. But who out of the group won a few junior tournaments at age 14?
The competitiveness leaped out from the first shot. I lost all consciousness about ‘swinging gently.’ By the fourteenth hole, I was done. I was using my nine iron to putt because the trip to the golf bag was too much to face. To boot, the two regular players were younger than me, one of them by at least twenty years. I was defeated before I got started – at least as the lowest scorer. My teen edge had worn away fifty years ago — imagine that?
Obviously competitiveness comes with the person, at least to some degree. I don’t remember my father caring whether I won anything. My mother was a huge fan but couldn’t recall who won the football games in which I’d scored a touchdown or two. The kid though – he always wanted to run faster, to shoot more baskets, to put the bat on the ball every plate appearance. For a brief period, that attitude was fine and well. Winning and playing ‘better’ than most kids gave me satisfaction, something I still crave in life.
But to drive oneself on in this manner is ultimately self-defeating, at least for most of us. I don’t mean that the concept of winning writes failure into the script for most of us. I mean, my body just can’t take the competitive push any longer. If I try to match each college swimmer who happens to fill the lane next to me at Tulane’s Reilly Center (when I’m stateside), I end up the loser most of the time. Petite Chinese girls streak past me like toy submarines filled with baking powder. The mental pleasure of winning the race is comically gone. I guess I’m getting a workout, but sometimes I kick so hard that my knees hurt when I get out of the water. I develop aches in my left shoulder. All from simply trying too hard. And for what? So I won’t look like those white-haired walruses that ply the waters up and down and look so decrepit, so used up. God forbid! The fact is, in time I’ll be happy to be able to join them. I hope that time is a little ways off, but what if I’m too injured to get in the pool? That would spell loss in an irretrievable way. Horrors.
It’s a thin line between love and hate, the balladeers croon. I’m not certain about those dramatic lyrics, but I do know there’s a thin line between the workout that pushes a bit and the one that pushes too much. Point: I’m not going to fit within my 20-year-old skin anytime soon. The body parts have gotten a lot of wear over the years – think of those grocery bags being toted, those trash cans wheeled to curbs, those full water hoses pulled through grass, the many children riding backs, grabbing legs. If we lasted forever, we wouldn’t have all the sci-fi movies and books that play around with the theme of immortality. Being impervious to life’s knocks seems to be the most powerful ghost working.
There are other reasons than competitiveness for me to quit golf – fodder for a separate post. But I can’t quit exercising. What I dearly need to quit is competing against others – on the track, in the weight room, in the pool – and also quit competing with myself. Who is that person driving this game? He sure wants to win. Maybe somebody better redefine what winning is.
I can see I’m going to have to go back to my Tai Chi Chuan books. I’m going to have to really read this time (as if I’m going to teach that Sociology class) about chi, the Chinese concept of energy, and about the balance of powers, the yin and yang, that set the parameters for health. Health is not about winning competitions. If I can get that through my head – and through my body – maybe I can escape the cycle of injury-health-injury. To do so would be a kind of analogy to escaping the unending wheel of life-death-life – of course on a very finite, mortal scale. But that’s all we have.