Rant 28 November 2005: Who are you?

Winter is nearly upon us in Canada (or for those of you out west and up north, you’re already enjoying it). Although the smog alert summers that include “air with texture” and the sensation of a rhino sitting on one’s chest put a damper on things, on the whole global warming has treated us here pretty well. Fall has been sunny and warm, and the leaves have fallen about two weeks late. We may be the one region in the world doing OK from this whole climate change thing.

Nevertheless the skies are darkening and the wind is flexing its muscles after a few months off. Late fall, after the enjoyment of the harvest, is a time to contemplate the winter ahead. Many ancient cultures explained the cycle of the seasons by alluding to a periodic journey of a favoured fertility deity. For the Greeks, the goddess Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (the harvest goddess) was the one responsible for the annual winter as she descended into the underworld to be with the underworld god Hades. For the Celts, it was the god Cerunnos’ short lifespan from birth in winter to death in summer. For the ancient Sumerians, who lived approximately in the region we’d now call the Middle East, it was the descent of the goddess Inanna into the underworld to see her sister Ereshkigal.

In the process of descending into the underworld, Inanna is forced seven times to stop and remove some item that signifies her status. First, she must remove her crown, then her jewelry, and so forth until at the last stop she must remove her royal robes and enter the underworld naked, “bowed low”, and humiliated. The fun doesn’t stop there because frankly, Ereshkigal is a bit of a bitch.

The Annuna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded [Inanna].
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death.
She spoke against her the word of wrath.
She uttered against her the cry of guilt.
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse,
A piece of rotting meat,
And was hung from a hook on the wall.

Depiction of the goddess Inanna on clay tablet, approximately two millennia BCE

Kinda gross, but it’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for total physical and spiritual abjection. Basically, Inanna is forced to give up every shred of power and dignity that she has in this process.

Eventually, of course, Inanna is able to return from the underworld, thus allowing for the cyclical nature of feast and famine.

“I got a feeling that from here on in, things are gonna get real shitty.”
—Thelma and Louise

The story of Inanna is an instructive one for those of us undergoing life crises either large or small.

Over the past year I have had many challenges, twists, and turns in the road. Regular rant readers will recall that a mystery pelvic injury emerged in February. As it turned out the damage was more extensive than I had originally imagined, and stemmed from an injury that I gave myself many years ago. While I am now about 95% functional, I still carry this damage with me. I discovered that I am the proud owner of a herniated disk and scar tissue along the dura, the sheath surrounding the spinal cord. Most of the time it’s no problem – weight training keeps me as functional and strong as possible. The doctors were pretty impressed at how well I was doing, in fact, and said stuff like, “I can’t believe you’re not in MORE pain!” I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that. 🙂

But now I have limitations. Because the original injury years ago was between lumbar vertebrae, I can no longer stabilize the lumbar spine enough to deadlift without injury. I can no longer tolerate the axial spinal loading that back squatting imposes, so I’m squatting with weights that were formerly an easy warmup (I’m still squatting though, dammit – you’ll take my squat bar from me when you pry it out of my cold dead hands). As you can imagine, this puts a bit of a dent in my self-concept as a butched-up lifter.

Other challenges have confronted me. I’ll spare you the whiney details. But in each case, it was not the challenge itself that was the hardest to deal with. It was the challenge to my self-concept and identity.

For instance, before my injury I had considered myself largely invincible. I think of myself as generally healthy and fit, and that’s an identity that I value very much. I’d hear other people say, “Oh, I have a bad back,” but never take any steps to alter that, and I’d mentally roll my eyes, because instead of trying to solve the problem they’d settled for “bad back person” as their identity. Even in the worst moments of pain I wouldn’t have said that because that was not how I defined myself. I didn’t want to be that person. Instead, I defined myself as a healthy person who was experiencing a temporary loss of function in one area. When the doctors asked how I felt, most of the time I’d say “Great!” and mean it.

Earlier this year I applied for a job. I didn’t get it. I didn’t think I would. Well, I did think I would until I walked into the interview then I realized I wouldn’t (God I hate that. I wish we could all just spare ourselves the pleasantries and agree to just quit now rather than drawing out the excruciating formalities. “I’m sorry, we don’t like the cut of your jib and we can tell you don’t like us either. That’s why Interviewer #1 is acting like there’s a bad smell in the room and Interviewer #2 is staring absently out the window. Why don’t you take the few hours you were going to spend on this interview and go buy yourself some nice shoes instead?”) The dumb move I made was not failing the job screening process, but pinning a lot of hope on this job as a means to reinforce my self concept.

It dawned on me as I was angsting about this job issue that the real issue wasn’t job related. It was that I had defined myself as this thing, and now this thing might or might not happen (because hey, what if I never found another job opening and if I did what if they hated me, blah blah), and thus what I was really asking was not, “Where do I go now that XYZ is no longer open to me,” but rather, “Who am I?”

“Who am I?” is the question that most of us are really asking when we fret about challenge and change. I remain convinced that for most people, a chronic injury or illness is not spiritually debilitating primarily because of pain. In the majority of cases, the pain and lack of mobility is controllable and manageable, and does not dominate every waking moment of consciousness. Rather, the psychic blow comes from this damage to our identities, to our sense of ourselves as physically whole.

This is also true for other behaviours. People starting a fitness and nutrition plan after a long period of sedentary living often have to cope with several issues that go well beyond losing a few pounds or eating more carrots. For example, they may actually be a player in a family or social psychodrama that depends on them being a stable identity, such as “the fat kid”. Once change is initiated, family and friends may respond negatively to this disruption in interpersonal order. This response can range from passive aggressive negativity (“Aren’t you getting a little obsessed with all that exercise stuff?”) to outright sabotage (“Here, I baked you another tray of butter-iced brownies”). Or, the person themselves may have constructed an elaborate identity and justification for being “the fat kid” or “the person who is smart and thus is sooo above having to care about appearance” or “the person who is a bookworm and hates to associate with jocks” or “the person who has no self control” or “the person who isn’t sexually attractive to other people” and so forth.

When change occurs, the person unexpectedly has to confront these other issues. S/he may be unprepared and may backslide, reverting to the comfort of familiar surroundings, relationship dynamics, and behaviours. Screwups are often taken as reinforcing evidence that no change is possible, rather than as temporary setbacks.

In my case, my earlier identity was “doomed by genetics” with a side helping of “thunder thighs”. In order to get where I am now, busted ass and all, I had to confront and beat the snot out of my earlier identity. Then I had to let it go and limp away. I had to find a new identity, as someone with a productive and positive relationship with her body. The thighs did get smaller when I lost the 40 lbs I was hauling around, but what really changed was how I looked at them. Now I love their size and strength and I don’t feel it’s particularly my problem when I can’t stuff them into boy-cut jeans.

The application of the Inanna story to our lives is threefold. First, it demonstrates that we are none of the things that are external to us. As Brad Pitt’s character put it in the movie Fight Club, “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.” What is external to us does not define our selves. Moreover, as the Inanna story points out, these things can (and often will) be taken away from us, if only temporarily. We’re all one bump on the head away from permanent disability; only a few paycheques away from living in a cardboard box. And when this occurs, we are left naked and humiliated, trying to figure out what the hell happened, but most importantly, trying to figure out who the hell we are.

The second point is that we need to develop a strong core – and I’m not talking about Pilates or jumping on vinyl balls. We need to develop, maintain, and care for a strong sense of internal self. Fitness is part of this project because it helps us test and surpass our limits. It teaches us skill and confidence, and it forces us to meet challenges. If we stick to it through difficulty, then we are rewarded in ways that are often hard to see.

Today during wrestling training I got dropped on my head by accident. It sounds funny now, but for five minutes afterwards, it really scared the crap out of me. Although I was actually uninjured and didn’t even bite my tongue, the idea of what could have happened was distressing (not to mention the anticipation of the freakout I was gonna get from my chiro). OK, I admit it, I snuffled a bit, but hey, nearly every tough male competitor on the second season of Ultimate Fighter has bawled like a little baby so I don’t see why I can’t. But then I got up, wiped my snotty nose on my partner’s gloves as payback for dropping me on my head, and got back in there. Every little mini-obstacle that you overcome in training makes you stronger inside. Strength is an expression of the body but more importantly it is also an expression of the will and the spirit. To struggle and surpass; or even to struggle when there is no means of surpassing – that is strength.

Finally, the Inanna story ends on a positive note: pain and suffering is temporary. Life is change and movement. Eventually we return from the underworld (and make someone else, in this case Inanna’s husband, go down there! Ha ha ha!). As my grandma likes to say, “This too will pass”, and she should know: she went out to work when she was twelve and her mother died, and she raised four kids in a small northern town with a domineering husband. If that’s her advice, I’m taking it.