Traditionally, Our Sunday Visitor publishes stories of why Catholic readers around the country converted --…
You will be rebuilt
About two years ago, the labrum in my right hip tore. Diagnosing the tear wasn’t a simple process. Injuries are often complex — the injury in my hip is connected to arthritis in my toe, which is connected to my pronating running gait, which is related to the pain in my knees. Thus diagnosis often feels like following a thread through a labyrinth. The thread takes you further and further from the homeostasis you enjoyed, leading you farther and farther from what you thought was “normal” and to an unknown region known as “sickness.”
But diagnosis is an essential part of being injured. Diagnosis gives you a name for what ails you. This is beneficial, because once you have named something, you have power over it. Diagnosis gives a shape to your amorphous fears and pains. But the label that makes your pain tangible and treatable also makes it unavoidable. A diagnosed pain can’t just be written off as “nothing” or an anxious psychosomatic overreaction. A diagnosis can often be overwhelming. Because a diagnosis comes with a responsibility to respond.
I received my diagnosis on a bright autumn Tuesday. I left the orthopedist’s office angrily sobbing into the phone to my mother on the other end. The diagnosis was distressing but not surprising. Multiple runner friends had predicted that the pain in my hip — underneath the hip impingement, flat arches and patellofemoral pain syndrome — was a labral tear. And sure enough, in the magnetic haze of the MRI portrait, the lining of the ball and socket joint of femur and hip could be seen very visibly ripped. Not a great sight.
The good news — of which nearly everyone took great pains to assure me — is that labral tears are eminently manageable. Studies show that potentially 40% of the population has asymptomatic tears in their labrum. Although potentially manageable, labral tears are difficult to fix. Except in rare circumstances and only slight tears, the labrum can’t heal itself. The labrum can only be mended through surgery. But being told that you have an injury that can only be mended with hip surgery is hard medicine to swallow as a 20-something woman on a bright autumn Tuesday. At that moment, all I heard is: You are not fixable. You are broken.
The labral tear meant that I either had to commit to getting an invasive hip surgery or accept managing this injury as a new part of my life.
In this injury, I learned how quickly I turn on my body when it fails me. I have not always been kind to my body, but it has always been good to me. It has logged double digits of running each week, carried moving boxes from one apartment to the next 10 times in the past six years; it has run through multiple finals weeks, term paper and sprints to deadlines on minimum sleep on nothing more than Nutella and willpower. But at its first moment of weakness and signs of vulnerability, I responded with anger and resentment.
Theologian Anthony Godzieba argues that our bodies are living symbols of our own inherent vulnerability. We are all fundamentally vulnerable to our bodies. Our bodies are made of unconscious somatic processes that we need to survive and have little or no conscious control over. We are susceptible to a misplaced footfall or lifting a poorly loaded box. We are fragile and breakable, and, often — maybe even asymptomatically — broken. We want to avoid acknowledging this vulnerability, but our bodies, by their very existence, demand we acknowledge our vulnerability.
One hard truth that I have grappled with throughout this injury is that God loves me and desires my flourishing and happiness, and yet I am not owed anything by God. I am not owed or guaranteed a working hip. There is nothing I read in Scripture that assures me that I can run 13.1 miles ever again.
Providence is not a specific promise.
And the testaments of Scripture are erratic, at best, to what sort of coverage the insurance of Providence provides. The Psalmist declares he will not even stub a toe, thanks to God’s angels. Job, meanwhile, is covered with sores, everything he loves stolen, killed or destroyed.
What to make of this God?
Timshel, writes John Steinbeck in “East of Eden,” is perhaps the most important word in the world. Timshel, “thou mayest,” means that the way forward is open. Healing may not be a return to what is normal, safe or certain, but being broken does not foreclose the possibility of moving forward.
Wiping away my post-diagnosis tears, I made a promise to myself that I would get better, that I would walk without pain; I would sit without discomfort. And, most importantly, I would run.
We are easily broken. But we are capable of being mended.
In the months since then, healing, for me, has meant not denying but leaning into my vulnerability. It has meant handing myself over — physically — to others: to doctors, to physical therapists, to friends who moved all the heavy boxes from our last apartment to the new one. It has most importantly meant recognizing myself as a being that needs the care of others to thrive.
Having a chronic injury has meant surrendering control of my own narrative for something greater: the realization that there is no normative perfection. The images in the medical textbooks are not templates for our bodies. Our bodies are made up of happenstance and chance, but we desperately want to be healthy in a way that is “normal.”
I see this discomfort I had with my own injury reflected in the distress people like me — employed, insured, financially secure — have with the crippled society in which we now live. Our way of life is injured. Some vulnerable members of our population are directly suffering because of it. Some, like me, are not. But in our discomfort with the disruption of daily life caused by disease, I can recognize my own resistance to accepting my own injury. We abhor deviance. We yearn for normalcy, for a health we can recognize.
Who we can become
We want healing to mean going back to before we were broken. But health is not achieved by cleaving to an imagined “normal.” There is no reversing a diagnosis. Health can be regained even when our bodies deviate from the norm. In fact, there is no norm. When we heal, we do not grow back into who we once were. Rather, we have the chance to grow into who we can become.
The community that has helped me heal physically has restored to me the sense of possibility in the current moment. The doctors, physical therapists and healers I have worked with have constantly reminded me of timshel. That the way forward is still open. It may be difficult and painful, and it may not feel like what it did before, but the story is not that we have never been broken, but that we are healed.
This April, Christians throughout the world celebrated Easter, the triumph of eternal life over death. Even the casual reader of the Gospels’ resurrection stories can see they are not spring pastels and opium for the masses. Stories of Christ’s resurrection are strange and disconcerting. Witnesses react in fear and trembling — doubt, even. The Risen Christ walks through walls, eats, is touched, vanishes and appears suddenly. His close friends do not even recognize him.
Life on the other side of death will not look like we expect. Life on the other side of injury, of pain, of sorrow, can never be what it was before. New life will always challenge us and baffle our expectations. Christ’s resurrection shows us a path forward differently than we expected. But the way is open.
Renée Darline Roden writes from New York.