Sometimes it takes a painful, physical experience to unlock an imprisoned mind. It was early sunrise the day after our country’s birthday. I had hardly slept a wink that night. Now I was on my way to the hospital emergency room with my worried husband at the wheel. Neck pain that seemed to escalate with every breath finally convinced me to wake up John and admit that I needed help – a hard acknowledgement for me. I am pretty self-reliant and have a high tolerance for handling pain. In fact, I can escape to a pleasant lake scene in the dentist’s chair, eschewing Novocain. Now as I lay on the hospital gurney, I welcomed the calming effect of the morphine shot.
Why is this happening? I tried to think as throbbing pains spiked up the back of my head. On our farm, I had not had an accident. Yes, I do some heavy lifting of large water buckets or hay bales for our sheep, but this has never bothered me before. Was it the powerful tugging from our nine-month old Border Collie puppy who needs to be leashed until his leg heals? Or perhaps the constant cranking of my neck on the ATV, keeping track of our six other dogs on their evening run around our pasture? These farm chores could have conspired to bring me to this moment, but only if there was a physical weakness waiting to escalate.
The X-ray tells the story. The buildup of arthritis, almost fusing three cervical vertebrae, points to a deterioration of the discs, complete with disc spurs that form a bridge over the vertebrae.
Yes, a painful physical experience can jolt the mind into new thoughts. I now accept that receiving rehabilitation is the order of the day. My physical therapist has me doing neck stretches and muscle strengthening exercises that don’t come naturally to me. But doing them seems to release fresh ideas.
I see a similar story playing out around us in the body politic. After months and months of being discouraged by the extreme partisanship in our political posturing and governance, I can feel the tightening of the powerful spinal muscles of that body. Does this translate into pain? You betcha (as my Norwegian ancestors would say)! Our national backbone has become fused by an unbending righteousness, a stiffness of positions that prohibits flexibility and causes unrelenting pain to the whole body politic.
To fix this painful situation seems a daunting task. It would take radical changes in our habitual patterns of governance that maintain the purity of rigid categories and pledges. But that’s what a democratic diagnosis calls for to heal this great body.
So how do we start? Well, the way I started was to tilt my neck very gradually to the right shoulder, even as my body resisted this exercise. After all, it does make one look rather silly and weak and feels a little unbalanced.
Then, in like fashion, I gently tilt to the left shoulder, trying to relax and hold the stretch. This sends a message to the brain that loosening up is good and critical to healing.
I would like to send out a clarion call to all who are disheartened by what is happening to our body politic and who feel powerless to do anything about it. Let’s not forget that we the people of this great body are the ones who have the power. With clarity of mind and purpose, we can proclaim the truth about the frozen backbone of our nation. We can unlock our hearts and minds with courage and intervene with boldness, challenging targets of power that are no longer viable. We can teach, coach, and demand that our leaders put people first in their decision-making.
Above all, we need to support leaders who value an ethic of working together – who aren’t afraid to flex their backbones and bend toward civility, fairness and compromise. Men and women, no matter what they look like or who they worship or who they love, but who are clear that they serve the full range of citizens in this body, can become a tipping point for change. These leaders’ first thoughts about a proposed legislation should be how does it promote the common good, not how it would play out with certain constituents or help them get re-elected.
It’s time for citizens as physical therapists to help heal our dysfunctional body politic, using all our endowed rights to assure that our democratic muscles are working in concert with one another for the good of all parts of this great body.