When the scrappy outside back (White) battles the opposing team’s forward (Blue) to win the ball near the touchline, we cheer her on. One shields, the other pokes. One leans, the other muscles in. The referee lets them play. All fair. No foul.
Blue turns sharply toward the field just as white lifts her head. White’s head collides with blue’s jaw. Blue goes down holding her chin. White hovers. I can see her mouth the words, “Are you okay? I’m sorry.” Blue doesn’t respond. I hear the hiccups of her tears coming. Her coach is running on. White still hovers. Her eyes fixed on blue who is standing now, crying and holding her chin. She does not look at white. White does not leave.
Coach examines blue and wraps an arm around to usher her off the field. Parents on the sidelines offer quiet applause in support of blue’s effort, a sideline salute. Our applause is muffled in gloved hands. White takes a step with blue and her coach and then turns back to the field, to her position. I am watching her face. Freckled and frowning, all compassion, all confusion. There is nothing to be done. A white teammate in-bounds the ball and the game goes on.
I am surprised by the tears that well up in me as I have watched this scene. Where do these tears come from? These are not tears of pain, nor sympathy, nor concern. There is something more here. Something that can’t be seen, only felt. It’s what starts the tears in me. Watching a kindness, especially an unreciprocated kindness, in a place not known for kindness or concern, gets me ‘right there.’ Where is right there?
It’s the same place in me that fluttered when…
- I saw the NC State jumbo-tron photos of Ian in memorium
- I heard Curtis Finch sing gospel
- I got news that my daughter was safe when I feared otherwise
- I saw the woman in the wheelchair ringing a silver bell in support of runners going by in the race
It’s that “choked up” place that, for some of us, is connected to a spicket that accesses our tear ducts. A gentle place. A tender spot.
A friend once told me that tears mean the Spirit is present. Tears like these.
I have come to expect them. Spirit tears. They are different from the “regular ones.” (My spicket has several on/off valves for sure.) But these…they seem to come even without warning. At unpredictable times, at least by other peoples’ estimation. They’re almost a signal to me from some place inside of me that says, “This is a special moment, a Holy moment. Hold onto it. Remember it. Revere it.”
It’s funny how the holy gets hold of us that way. Sneaks up and grabs us to get our attention. And all that’s left are a few Spirit tears, that distort our vision for a moment.
I blot them, and usually look around to see if anyone just saw me crying. I mean, who does that? Tears up when a 15 year old, pony-tailed kid, bends over to see if a girl her age that she’s never met before is okay? Ha. Just the memory of it has my vision blurring again. Another Holy moment. I can’t command them and I don’t know when they’re coming, but I am ever so glad to know when they’re here.
I’m seated on the hamstring curl machine at the gym. I get all the adjustments made for leg length and seat height and resistance. I place both feet in position to squeeze the padded bar that pulls the lever toward me. And I do. Evenly. Right and left executing the same force.
I think perhaps I am mistaken. Ever since my hamstring injury and repair a year and a half ago, the left hamstring has worked – it’s connected and it does what it’s supposed to – but not like it used to. It lets the right lead and it follows along. But not now. I try again, just to be sure. Extend. Activate. Flex. Sure enough. Both legs…together. Evenly.
The resistance actually feels light now, distributed between both legs. I stare in amazement and, as I flex I say, “Thank you.” As I extend I say, “God.” I repeat this over and over again. With eyes closed. And there was praise and there was worship, right there on the workout floor.
I don’t know how many reps I completed. I didn’t count. But when I was finished, I opened my eyes and looked around, part of me wondering whether people would be staring. They weren’t. But mostly looking around to see if anything else was different, because I was. Nope. Everybody just continued on about their business.
Amazing how two limbs working together to do something so simple could be, well, worship.
Thank you – God – Thank you – God.
What a national conversation we’re now having. Around an issue very close to home. Illness of the mental variety. We’re afraid of it, because we can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t manipulate it to see where it hurts – like the other illnesses we’re used to.
We are a nation of fixers. If something is broken, fix it. Patch it up, immobilize it and let it heal. But what if we can’t see what’s broken? What if we can only tell by the way someone acts or how they respond? What if there is no way to pinpoint the injury or measure the severity? What if the injury is not structural, but functional? Is there really injury…or are they just making this up?
What I am describing, actually, is brain injury. Something I am up to my elbows in working with youth athletes, and the NFL is up to its pockets in with inquiries and law suits. We are being forced to see that the brain can be injured, its function impaired, and we can only tell this by spending time with the injured person. Currently, science does not have good tests to determine the extent of the injury, but thankfully the national conversation is attending to it. We’ve stopped looking the other way and pretending it doesn’t exist.
Like we still do with mental illness. We fear mental illness because we don’t know what to do about it. We have been pretending it’s “all in their minds.” In our minds, if they were just better, stronger people they could just get this inconvenient maladaptive thinking under control and forge on. But mental illness is not just “wrong-thinking.” It is dis-health. A disease of the functioning of the brain.
The first step toward addressing it is learning a bit about how the brain functions. This is foreign to the average American, I’ve observed. We know there is “gray matter” and perhaps “white matter.” We know the brain’s approximate size and shape and folding characteristics. We know layman’s anatomy – from tv shows or books or perhaps a high school class. But that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of the huge connection of nerve cells sending electrical signals hither and yon at amazing speed, with amazing accuracy, and amazing consistency. Until they aren’t.
This is what happens in concussion. And this is what happens in mental illness. The circuitry and chemistry is malfunctioning, or perhaps better put, functioning in a way that results in disruptions in behavior, sensation and thinking. This is, after all, what our brains are designed to do.
Once we can think of brain function as a biological, chemical, and cellular issue, we can address it. People would not choose concussion or illness of any type, but it chooses them. And the first step toward helping them is to understand what it feels like to them, how it orients or dis-orients, what hurts. Not at first to “fix” but to help. Then the healing can begin.
As for me, today I admit: mental illness scares me. But the more I understand it and the better acquainted with it I become, the less I fear it and the more I see I can do. Concussion is a disruption of brain function which needs to be recognized and treated. Mental illness is a pattern of brain function which needs to be recognized and treated.
We’re all in this together. It’s a national conversation. Let us heal.