Dancing through the pain

I turned my ankle walking in the park the other day, which is good going for someone who used to hike at every opportunity and now, in lockdown, barely gets more than a block from his house.

It hurt a little, but the more notable thing is that it revived some memories.

Ten years ago, I broke my leg quite badly. It required surgery, and they screwed the bone back together with bits of metal.

It never really gives me problems these days, but any injury to the same leg gets me wondering and even worrying: Have I done something to the screws? Am I going to have to go through all of that again?

I dealt with my park injury as I usually would, but the real problem was the sensation of “having done something to my leg”. Every bit of sensory information coming from that part of my body now goes through the lens of history, memory, and emotion. Does it feel weird? Does it feel different? Is there a problem there? I have to try and separate out my historic feelings from the present experience – not rejecting them, but recognising them for what they are.

Pain is a great source of information, if only you know how to process it.

The great choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that:

“The dancer learns early to take pain for granted and that there is great freedom in choosing how to respond to its appearance. The thing NOT to do is deny pain. It must be acknowledged. Sometimes the right way of moving forward will be to push through pain. Your choices determine who you will be, who the world will see[.]”

Ultima Vez / Wim Vandekeybus + Mauro Pawlowski: “What’s the Prediction?” (ImPulsTanz Vienna 2010)

Right now, at every level, people, communities, and organizations are suffering the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many kinds of loss and harm are being experienced in the context of a deeply uncertain and unsteady time.

Inevitably, sensations and emotions become part of the information we use to make sense of what is going on and make judgments about what to do next.

Many of us experienced the first phase of the pandemic as an adrenalin-fuelled critical incident. As described by US Air Marshal M. Guthrie, our reaction under such stresses “has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead it has almost everything to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions. It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will.”

“Training”, Guthrie goes on to say, “is all about trying to give the amygdala better choices. Because you won’t consciously be deciding much on ‘that day.’ Or maybe it’s about getting your body so used to adrenal stress that you can actually think, somewhat, during pauses in the action. Or more likely a combination of the two. End of the day, training isn’t about what most people think it is.”

Last year, I drew on the writings of Guthrie and others to reflect on how we might force ourselves to slow down at the height of pandemic panic, attend more closely to the situation we find ourselves in, and make better informed decisions about what to do next.

This year, the pandemic has entered a phase that feels, for many, less like the immediate adrenalin-washed moment of crisis, and more like the uncertain phase of waiting for a complete diagnosis. Is this injury chronic? Will the discomfort reduce with time? What will my life look like after treatment? How will I come to terms with it?

Tangled up in these questions is the issue of pain.

Tharp identifies “three kinds of athletic pain: challenging pain, warning pain, chronic pain — and countless ways to respond to each, some helpful, others doomed to make you miserable.”

“Challenging pain,” she explains, “is the beneficial unpleasantness of breaking through a fitness barrier – the scorching lungs and muscles when you take the final fifty yards at top speed, eager to ‘feel the burn’.”

Then there’s “warning pain”: “the sharp twinge, tear, pop, or ache that signals you’re doing something wrong. Best stop doing it.”

Finally, “chronic pain is all the stuff – the torn muscle, the bone spur, the hip that needs replacement – you have to tolerate either because there’s no fix or because you resist surgical intervention. Chronic pain is not going away, but it’s not an excuse to give up.”

Tharp recommends starting a pain journal to better understand our experiences of pain and our reactions to them. Learning to adapt, and gather knowledge from adversity – “whether it’s how to avoid experiencing more pain or how to respond with spirit and intention when it presents itself again” – is, to Tharp, key: the only sin is squandering an opportunity to learn from what we’ve gone through.

As we move beyond the early, panicked days of the pandemic, we find ourselves experiencing different kinds of pain, at the institutional level as much as the individual. The suffering of others asks our compassion, as we strive to help one another through difficult times. Our own pain, collective or individual, also brings what Tharp calls, “a great reservoir of information. Part of grappling with your mortality is figuring out how to live with your pain – both physical and emotional – without making pain the whole of your life.”

If you reflect on the ways in which you, your community, or your institution have suffered through the pandemic to date, what can be learned? Which pains were warnings that you had done something wrong? Which were the sensations of challenge, to be expected when you pushed beyond what you thought were your limits? And which pains signalled chronic issues that you may have to tolerate, or address with more profound intervention, over the longer term?

Perhaps some of these pains precede COVID-19: they may have flared up under the pressures of pandemic. The psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom writes of this in his book Staring at the Sun. When a patient comes to him in despair, finding that she is once again plagued by issues from which she’d worked hard to liberate herself in previous treatment, he comforts her by quoting Nietzsche: “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.” In the same way, some old pains that we thought vanquished may have reawoken during the pandemic. For all we don’t wish to revisit them, it may be necessary to do so with the same compassion and resolve which Yalom offers his patient.

Understanding the information we’ve been presented with can help us to make better choices – even when that information comes in the form of pain. As Twyla Tharp says, reflecting on her own chronic injuries as well as those of others, “Pain is a consequence. It reminds us that life, for mortals, is a trade-off. We face loss, but we also learn.”

After my own little twinge, I sat with my worries a short while, just as I’ve spent so much of this year sitting in Zoom rooms and other video meetings with people trying to make strategic decisions that will get their organisations through the current moment: listening, reflecting, allowing myself to try and make sense of all the information I was receiving, finding a way to move forward.

When I felt confident my leg wasn’t about to drop off, and whatever I’d done really wasn’t all that severe, I put some music on and let myself – gently! – dance.

Because eventually all of us – indviduals, communities, institutions – have to find a way to keep moving. And if strategy, too, is a dance, then maybe it requires a dancer’s toughness and discipline to execute.

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