For the first time in five months, I picked up my violin. A fall and subsequent wrist injury kept me not only from playing my violin but also from riding my bike, picking up pots and pans, opening doors without pain, getting lids off jars, and even driving. But after five months, I finally felt ready to try the violin for two minutes or so. It’s been a long wait. My hand, which has gained a good deal of strength over the past month, nevertheless shook from disuse as I struggled to move the tuning pegs. My pinky was clumsy as it pressed down the strings. But the music soared out.
In this time of recovery, I’ve learned and re-learned some important lessons about healing, lessons that are valid for all types of injury and restoration: personal, relational, societal. They aren’t universal truths, necessarily, but landmarks, reminders of the nature of becoming whole.
1. Healing is gradual but also fierce.
I had to be patient with the slow pace of my gathering strength, but I also couldn’t sit down and just wait for things to get better. I had to create the conditions for my healing. When I tried to do everything at once, my wrist rebelled with biting and throbbing pain. But if I neglected my exercises (or stopped using my wrist altogether), there was no hope of meaningful steps forward. I had to push my muscles, tendons, ligaments, and scar tissue every day, further than was comfortable but never beyond my capability. It was hard to notice my capacity growing, but my ability to bring out my violin today is proof that it has grown. I had to learn to balance sustained effort with gracious welcome. I’m not a master at it, but I’ve certainly gotten a lot of practice.
2. Consequently, recovery isn’t linear.
If I accidentally overdid things by trying to weed the garden or sleeping without a brace on, I might set back the process by days or weeks. Sometimes a good day would be followed by an abysmal day, and I would have to start all over again. I couldn’t predict the pace – I could only listen and be patient.
3. Visible trauma does not dictate the extent of harm.
When I fell onto the sidewalk back in March, my hand looked as though the only result was a mild abrasion. There was no swelling, very little blood, and nothing suggesting a severe injury. But the next day, I couldn’t move my hand. And my continued pain, weakness, and numbness was testament to the fact that something was indeed wrong. An MRI gave no further clues, but not once did my doctors suggest that my pain and difficulty moving wasn’t real. The hand and wrist is a complex system, they said, and it takes a long time to heal. So we made our best guesses as to the diagnosis and moved through therapy accordingly. Some of my own reading has been about the neuroscience of pain and the persistence of learned neural pathways after an injury. Whatever the cause of my pain, ignoring it was not going to produce healing. Only careful listening coupled with expansive thinking would allow us all to get to the root of my pain.
4. Everything is connected.
When I really started getting my arm back into gear, I noticed increased pain and tension in my shoulder blade. My muscles aren’t used to having an active arm, and they responded accordingly with protest. Nothing about my injury or healing is isolated. What I do in once place means paying attention to another place.
It isn’t hard to see the common threads in these lessons: patience and listening. And I would qualify these as a relentless patience and a spacious listening; there is nothing soft or easy or quiet about the work of recovery. But wherever you or your community, or our whole world for that matter, may be in messy work of healing, we can know that a sustained and gracious effort will open us up to each other and to possibility.