Cast Off

It happened too many years ago to remember now, but I still do. It was a time when we who labored in mental health could be more real, could actually connect with our patients in meaningful ways and even let our hair down from time to time and have some fun. A group of staff members were playing a group of patients in a friendly softball game in Aiken, a few miles from the mental health center. I was old enough to know better but still young enough to think that the teen athlete still lived in me, and you know how that always turns out.

 

I was taking my turn at bat, connected with the ball and drilled what should have been a solid single to right field. I should have been more than satisfied with that, but of course I wasn’t. I rounded first, saw that the outfielder was fumbling with the transfer from glove to throwing hand, and made a split second decision to stretch a sure single into a maybe double. Getting to second was easy. I was still moderately fast in those days. The next decision I made was not a good one, however. Without a clear need to do so, I decided to slide into second in a blaze of dusty glory. Bad move.

 

I knew that I had really screwed up when my left leg made contact with the base, which felt at that moment like a concrete block. The snap was audible, the pain immediate and the shame followed close behind. When I tried to get up, I saw an acute angle between leg and foot that was not at all natural. Not good. A short ride and check in at the emergency room later, I was not at all comforted by the well meaning nurse who told me that “only really active people get injuries like these”. You know the drill. Ortho tech, clean it up, put it in a cast to the knee, get fitted for crutches, see ya in a few weeks.

 

The hardest part about being in a cast for those long weeks, besides not being able to take a real shower without wrapping my leg in plastic bags? I couldn’t walk with crutches and carry a coffee cup at the same time. This, my friends, is the definition of crisis. But, of course, like many weekend warriors, I made it through.

 

Fast forward to the doc’s office on the day that the cast was coming off. I had lost about half the muscle mass in my leg, and I was more than a little worried about taking away the plaster exoskeleton that had held me up for those weeks. Would I fall down? Rebreak the leg? Be able to do the things that I could before the injury? Getting the cast off felt so good in one way, with cool air on skin and mobility that I had missed terribly. But the worry about reinjury or weakness or worse still gave me fits for a few days, until I knew things would be okay again.

 

Now, forward to March 13, 2021. The CDC decides that after more than a year, those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can shed their masks indoors and out, around people who are also fully vaccinated and those who are not. This seems to come so suddenly that it catches us off guard.  After being so careful for so long to avoid exposure, protect ourselves against infection and illness, we are now told that all is clear and safe! To me, it almost instantly brought back memories of taking my cast off, something that I was more than happy to shed, but with the anxiety of what my health would be like after it was gone.

 

Protections, even if restrictive and painful in the short term, often make us feel safer in the long run. Removal of these restrictions is exhilarating but can be frightening at the same time.

 

When I was recovering from my broken leg, just as we are now seeing the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, letting protections fall away was the only sure way to test ourselves and our safety going forward.

 

The second half of that lesson is also clear: testing ourselves is the only way to grow.

Janus Moments

Janus, according to ancient Roman mythology and religion, was a god with two faces. Purportedly, he could look toward the future as well as back to the past. When we think of him, we might think of someone who is “two-faced”, one who talks out of both sides of his mouth, one who cannot be trusted. We have many examples of people who behave in this way today. Just pick up a newspaper, sign on to your favorite news outlet, or turn on the television. Say one thing, act in the opposite way. Promise one thing, deliver another (or nothing at all). Smile at someone while stabbing them in the back. “Make something great again” by tearing it down. (that works well in medical school and boot camp, but other than that I’m not sure it’s a good way to run a railroad, if you get my drift)

Janus was a two faced god, for sure, but he was more than that. He was considered the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages and endings. I am so sick of seeing and hearing and experiencing modern people and circumstances that do little more than belittle, tear down, marginalize and destroy government, institutions, morals and other people. Could we not look at Janus as a chance for looking back at history, learning from it, and then facing the future with a bright optimism that fuels positive change and enlightenment and respect for others? How many Janus moments could we find, if we could but look for them actively?

  1. New relationships. We meet people all the time, in the stores we frequent, at our places of worship, at work, at school, at play. New relationships are just that-new. They are opportunities to show compassion and friendship to others, while receiving the same from them and learning new things from them as well. While we have many fine older relationships that span years and even decades, new ones offer us the opportunity to  expand our worldview, our reach and our circle of influence for the better.
  2. Online encounters. We sign onto Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WeChat, and dozens of other on-line clearing houses for ideas, self-expression and commentary. We pick and choose who to associate with there just as we do IRL (in real life). We look, listen and learn. We comment about the things that we feel most strongly about. It is a slippery slope, social media. Why? Anonymity is one big reason. You can say anything to anybody with impunity, to a point. You can cut someone down, cut them off, and cut them out of the herd. You can spew racist commentary, spout your political views and wish someone a happy fifth birthday, all on the same medium. Is this not the perfect place to model behavior, good behavior for others? Yet, we look backwards to arguments and wars and disagreements from the past, fanning the flames of hate and unrest that we thought had long since died down to a heap of cold ashes. We spew vitriol. We curse others. We demean others for their customs, their dress, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs. It seems that social media is rarely the bringer of good tidings and happiness, as least on the whole. Where better to turn things around and use this Janus moment to look forward, literally turning our backs on hate and racism and homophobia and discrimination and fear?
  3. Death and loss. I was reading several articles this past week about D Day and its aftermath. On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 allied troops made a spectacular beach assault on the German defenses on the coast of France. The attack involved incredible planning, unbelievable numbers of planes, trucks, amphibious assault vehicles, and of course the soldiers themselves. Nine thousand allied soldiers were killed or wounded that bloody day, but their sacrifices allowed one hundred thousand more troops to begin the march inland that eventually lead to Hitler’s downfall and the salvation of Europe and democracy in the free world. We mourned their sacrifices and their loss this past week, as we do and as we should every year, but is this also a Janus moment? I believe what I am thinking about this was best said by General George S. Patton. “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
  4. Aging: In another blog, I am writing out my feelings and coming to terms with Growing Older. Aging is that perfect mix of looking back and looking forward, never in equal parts. When we get up in the morning and have our increasing aches and pains and feel stiff and sore and tired, we look back at how young and spry we once were, and we grieve just a little. We have inevitably lost our physical youth. Ah, but what have we gained? As our physical bodies age and change, as they must, our minds are filled with memories and thoughts and ideas processed and lessons learned.  We have lived. No matter if our life spans ten years, fifty years or a hundred years, we have lived. That counts.
  5. Transitions. We all go through those times in life when things change. We graduate kindergarten and move to the first grade-real school! We finish high school and decide to go to college-or not. We get our first job and begin to pay our own way in the world. We pick a life partner. We have children. We lose a parent, We move to a new city. Transitions are those perfect Janus moments that let us say goodbye while looking ahead. We mourn the loss of certainty, yet we eagerly anticipate the joy of discovery. We are in one of those global times of transition in our country right now, on many levels. We are deciding who should be insured and have healthcare. We are deciding if women control their own bodies. We are deciding who can love who can marry. We are deciding how we fit into the world economy and the culture of man.

Like Janus, we look forward to these transitions as we walk through the gate of history. We anticipate the future. We want it to be bright for everyone.

Also like the god of doorways, passages and time, we look back at the past with some nostalgia, sense of sadness and loss. This is normal and should be embraced.

However, we turn our back on and ignore the lessons of the past, the signposts left by those who have gone before, at our peril.