I had my patella tendon repaired almost a year ago. I feel fortunate that this was my first serious injury and surgery. I’ve still never broken a bone. But apparently, being really out of shape, not stretching or warming up in any way, and taunting a child is not the best way to begin an athletic endeavor at 37. One of the other ultimate players brings his kids out to play pick up, and one of them was giving me a hard time about being old. My last words to him before I destroyed my knee: “I guess being old doesn’t make me slow. I’ll tell you what: If I get hurt, then you can take my place.” Fifteen minutes later, I was on the sideline with ice on my knee, watching him play. After the game, his family loaded me in their van, took me to Urgent Care, waited for me while I had x-rays, took me home, and came over two weeks later to bring me dinner and play board games.
I had been in physical therapy twice before. I had back problems in high school, and in Divinity School I pulled/tore most of the muscles around my rotator cuff playing ultimate. But this was different. My youngest brother told me the night before I started to try not to hate my physical therapist. I didn’t understand what he meant…until the next day. I walked in and sat on the table, and Tom told me to take off my brace. I couldn’t do it by myself, and I told him so. So he helped me. I was so afraid. I felt helpless with my leg in his arms. But I didn’t hate him until he started bending my leg. Over the next couple of months, Tom and Taylor gradually bent my leg further and further, cutting through scar tissue and exposing me to the worst physical pain of my life.
I’d gotten used to crutches and my immobilizer, so I still walked with a limp around the physical therapy office/gym. Tom’s words to me were simple: “Walk better.” So I did. It was like I needed to be reminded that I was healing, that I was capable of more. I’m also really glad he didn’t say, “Walk right.”
In shame-inducing cultures (in my case Christian fundamentalism), “better” isn’t usually an option unless it’s followed by “than (someone else).” As a child I was taught that I was deeply and hopelessly sinful, incapable of being or doing anything good. My inherent wickedness had separated me from God, and the only solution was to accept someone else’s righteousness as my own. This was often illustrated in the “bridge diagram,” a depiction of a great chasm between God and me, a cross serving as the bridge between us. God is holy, and holiness is incompatible with wickedness. Because of my sin God could not even look at me except through the blood sacrifice of his son.
We were all guilty by association. There’s a story in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) about a man who reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant to prevent it from hitting the ground. God immediately struck him dead because he’d broken divine law. Trying to explain this story, one of my youth leaders in high school stated that the problem was that this man thought he was better than the dirt. Seemed totally plausible to me. I certainly believed I was less than dirt.
For most of my adolescence I was obsessed with my own wickedness. My thoughts became a battlefield on which the only path to victory was through constant vigilance. I had to protect my mind from evil thoughts by filling it with good ones. I remember sitting in a classroom in 8th grade saying to myself over and over, “I love God. I love God. I love God.” It wouldn’t take Freud to analyze the meaning of once “accidentally” saying instead, “I hate God.” The only god I knew was incapable of tolerating, much less, loving me as I was. I was confused. I was scared. And I felt hopelessly unworthy of anything good.
Imagine if my orthopedist had minimized my injury or berated me for needing surgery or if my physical therapist had told me on my first day to take off my immobilizer and run around the room. Since my leg only bent 35 degrees when I first started seeing him, that would have been a problem. Instead, he gave me the simplest instruction, and then helped me when I couldn’t help myself. But that’s how I imagined God, with endless demands and intolerant of anything short of perfection.
So many of my patients bear the familiar markings of shame. No one, except one doctor with whom I worked, made fun of me for being on crutches or limping around my workplace after my knee surgery. Nor did my physical therapists or my orthopedic surgeon expect a miraculous or instantaneous recovery. But we set unrealistic psychological expectations for others, and we’re awfully hard on ourselves when it comes to emotional recovery. Just walking better isn’t good enough. And so we attempt the impossible in lieu of mastering the attainable, further frustrating ourselves and everyone around us with our miserable failings. If anything short of perfection is unacceptable, then it is foolish to believe anything we do or are could ever be good enough.
I know some reading this story will say that’s the whole point of grace. We need salvation because we can’t be good enough on our own; we need God’s goodness instead. But I wonder how the equation would change if we didn’t begin with the assumption of our own depravity. I wonder how we would see ourselves if God didn’t start out on the other side of the chasm.
I still remember my first shower after my injury. I remember walking gingerly toward the bathroom, immobilizer off, naked, terrified that the slightest misstep would set back my recovery. I saw myself in the mirror, taking baby steps, looked at my own face, and just started crying. I was a child, toddling, exploring, wondering if I would be ok. And as I let the hot water rain over my body, my eyes tried to keep up. I cried because I’d been so ashamed of every imperfect step. I cried because the water felt so good. It was enough. And so was I.