There is something to be said about being part of a tribe – even when that tribe is only two people wide.
This message was hit home for me today at work.
My back has been acting up for the last few days. This isn’t a little soreness from pulling weeds or playing with the kids a little to strenuously. This is more of an ongoing on-again, off-again issue that has plagued me since I had a herniated disc a year-and-a-half ago. At the time, I was in excruciating pain, the kind of pain that compelled me to call my parents to take me to the emergency room, with me in tears as they wheeled me into the hospital.
Reason for the problem: wear and tear. I’m 46 years old. 24 of those years have been battered down by the life of a chef. Add to that a couple years of running, and you have a slam dunk of a diagnosis. But my back got better after four months of rehab. Since then it’s flared up now and then. It’s becoming a bit more frequent now. I often need to take several days off in a row. Rebounding is never quick. But I am used to it.
In the last few weeks, I have stopped running. I have stopped my workouts with my physical trainer. I have an appointment with an osteopath in a week and am going to book an MRI as well. I am going all out to get to the bottom of this. I need to.
But back to the tribe.
As I have been trying to navigate this, I have been open about my frustration in finding something that will satisfy me in the way that running does. I am a strong believer in the mind-body-spirit connection, and it holds true for me. When I move my body in a meaningful way, I feel more connected to myself and to the Universe. I feel more intact and whole. I am more integrated into myself which helps me in dealing with others and life in general. In return, being of sound body reverberates to a greater soundness of emotion and mind. Of spirit. It’s the whole enchilada, baby. So when the physical is taken away from me, it’s like removing one leg from a stool. Total imbalance.
Many well-meaning folk have suggested many alternatives to me – yoga, pilates, power walking, swimming, aqua fit, CrossFit, weights, walking the dog, tai chi, etc. These are all wonderful suggestions, and yet…they don’t work for me. I tried to express my gratitude to these people for coming up with new ways to get some fitness in, but it still irked me. It wasn’t them who got under my skin, but it was something in my reaction. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I spoke to Steve today.
Steve is a waiter at my work. He has had an array of injuries that make mine looked a stubbed toe. Steve has a similar build to mine, and only a few less gray hairs. He was an athlete growing up until he was injured and found himself no longer able to do anything physical. He was out not for weeks like I was, but for years. He was suicidal at one point not only because of the physical pain, but also the pain of losing his identity. Steve knows what it’s like to be in pain, and feel left out. He understands the mental and emotional roller coaster of not being able to do what you wanted. He told me he felt robbed of his childhood.
This wasn’t trauma, but in some ways, it felt like it to him – complete betrayal of his body towards him. Helpless.
I told him about how I was struggling, and that no one quite seemed to understand that this was more than just not being able to run. It’s not the actual movement of running that I miss, although that is part of it. It’s what running represents to me. Yoga and other more gentle activities and practices don’t touch the place within me which needs attention. There is very little satisfaction in doing those things. But I couldn’t explain whyI felt frustrated and annoyed.
Steve then dropped some truth onto me.
“People don’t understand unless they’ve been there, Paul”, he said as he leaned against the wall near the elevators. He watched as I smoothed my lower back out, trying to massage the pain out. “I used to do intense workouts. If I didn’t almost puke after my workout, it meant that I didn’t work hard enough at it. Pushing myself was the only way I knew how feel alive. When I ran, I was doing wind sprints and intervals. When I lifted weights, it was quick sets with short recovery time. When I played rugby, it was full on abandon until I bled.”
I nodded. I am the same. When I do intervals, I love the high I get of feeling like I am running rather than jogging. It’s the difference between listening to an aria by Pavarotti at Carnegie Hall and listening to some kid playing the kazoo on the subway. My body feels it differently. It gets into the place of light.
“Those other activities Paul, the pilates and all that stuff, that’s not us. We’re not cut from that cloth. It doesn’t speak to us because it isn’t us. I can’t do that stuff and feel at peace. Others can and that’s great. I am built for what I’m built for and I have paid a price, and so are you, but that doesn’t take away from who we are.”
I eyed Steve up and down, his knees recently shot up with liquid to keep him buoyant and to be able to do his job, to live relatively pain free. I saw the hernia belt and other appendages he wore sticking out from the top of his uniform pants. This guy was speaking my language. He was reading my mail. I could feel that connection strengthen. I knew I was talking to someone who understood, who got it. And I knew he got me because in the past he has watched me walk for only a second or two and knew that I was in pain. He knew it the way an alcoholic knows another alcoholic. It’s sketched in the auras surrounding us, and only we know how the decipher them.
“Listen man, the elevator’s coming, I have to go, but we’ll talk again.” Steve gave me a slight salute, turned and joined the other staff on the way to their shift.
I felt energized because I felt like someone was finally receiving what I was trying to transmit.
I felt validated.
I felt seen and heard.
I felt that I wasn’t alone.
Steve gave me the gift of fellowship. And of course, the Universe being the Universe of abundance, found me talking to a security guard no more than five minutes later, who had seen me and asked about my condition. He confessed he had the same thing, and told me that it was the only thing that made him cry with pain. He too understood it. I felt that pain of his, through my own. Another tribe member.
Of course this all comes down to the idea of belonging. Of commiserating from shared experiences. Of lifting one another, of giving unconditional support, of feeling like our condition is not unique and exclusive. I know there are millions of back pain sufferers out there, but I haven’t met any like Steve who also understood the psyche of someone competitive, someone who likes to feel the grind, of someone who wants to touch the sky to feel complete.
Fellowship has been vital for me in my healing and spiritual growth, in all aspects of my life. I have my recovery fellowship, my family fellowship, my writing fellowship and my running fellowship. I have bubbles of community which soften the blow of my overactive mind and my prideful self. Fellowships light the way for me, and show me that others have traveled the same path. Fellowship extends a hand not out of pity or gain, but out of compassion and empathy. Out of paying it forward. Balancing the cosmic ledger. Allowing the spirit of generosity to fly free.
I am grateful for my fellowships. I am grateful to Steve who really helped me to see things in a different way. I am grateful to the men and women who have helped me in all aspects of my life, for fun and for free. I am grateful to have a free mind even though I sit with a back locked down. My job now is to pass it on to others, others who feel that they are alone, to add to their own tribe.
We alone are enough, that’s true, but man, it’s nice to have some homies along for the ride. They’ve got my back.