A few years ago I was lying on my back, on the cold asphalt ground, screaming, staring at my right leg in utter disbelief.
A moment before I was happy…confident. I knew the future precisely. It was unfolding in front of me with a smooth ease. The student was doing the hip throw incorrectly, and I knew why. So I partnered with him and showed him how I could stop him from throwing me by centring my weight down. Showed him what I expected from him, and asked him to try again. He kinda waffled through it, looked a bit hesitant and nervous. I told him to really put some oomph into it. I wasn’t going to let him go until he performed at least the lift part of the throw correctly.
I was prepared. I expected a strong sweep and twist of my upper body. I would lift my foot, and keep my free arm out for a breakfall if the worst happened. No problems. I’d done this a million times before.
When the sweep came, things went wrong really fast. My foot, in new shoes, on new asphalt, stuck to the ground instead of lifting free. With the twist happening on my upper body, my knee locked straight and took the full force of the sweep. I felt it lock straighter than it should ever go, and then felt the sickening snap as it went the wrong way. It was a hellish moment of feeling an extreme wrongness in my body…and then it got worse. The throw continued. My knee, now free of the constraints of one tendon, twisted freely, I felt another snap as I twisted and started to fall. I think the student, at this point, had started to realize something had gone wrong and was trying to stop what had already happened. I fell over his outstretched leg, twisting my knee even further as my foot, agonizingly, refused to leave the ground. There was another snap. My foot came free, and there I was, lying on my back, screaming in pain, wanting to clutch my leg but afraid to touch it.
Yesterday I was folding laundry. Folding laundry is one of the ways I actively practice being a Stoic. I dump the laundry in a pile on the bed. I want to eventually wind up with separate piles: socks paired, shirts and pants folded, towels rolled, etc. I look at the pile and grab a sock. Put it aside. Look at the pile again. Grab a shirt. Fold it, put it where I want the shirt pile to go. Look at the pile…
My eye first lights on a towel, but out of the corner of my eye I see the matching sock to the one put aside. Stoic decision making is about teaching ourselves that the original thought is usually the most correct. But how can you tell what the original thought was? The next jumps on to the first almost before you’ve completed the original thought. When you try to go back to the original thought, you start to rationalize and add to that original thought, which can corrupt it as much as the following thoughts. You cannot just think that first thought and keep it in mind naturally. You have to train yourself.
So I roll the towel, and only think of the towel. I turn back to the pile and pick up whatever my eye falls on next. One thing, then the next. I work at just experiencing one discrete object at a time, one discrete set of instructions at a time. If the thought of the sock nags at the back of my mind? That’s another lesson. Nothing should bother you. If you can take care of it in the moment, take care of it. If you can’t take care of it, let it out of your mind. It’s not your issue to deal with. In this case, I don’t want to burden myself with the thought of an unmatched sock any longer. It’s in my power to find the matching sock and pair it, so I do. One piece of laundry at a time, I teach myself to think and act like a Stoic, free in the moment.
I have only been in an animal state of disbelief in the time it takes me to fall to the ground. When my back hits, my mind takes over. Breathe, I command myself. My whole world shrinks down to the control of my lungs. Stop yelling. Breathe in. In the time it takes that breath to start its ragged way in, I go after the pain. I don’t ignore it. I don’t try to stop it, or control it. I let it flow over me. I try to understand it, to feel it as deeply as I can. I immerse my self into it. My lungs are full. I force myself to let the breath out, slowly, with control. I can hear it shaking it’s way out of me. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. I repeat that over and over to myself.
I’m into the pain now, hunting down it’s source. It’s not the whole leg. It’s the knee. It’s a part of the knee. It’s three discrete points in the knee. My breathe is all the way out. I leave it out for one count. Slowly back in. The spasming muscles in my leg relax, and my foot collapses back on the ground. My knee is bent again. A fresh burst of agony shoots up, but I’m already at the source of it, I can feel precisely what it is. It’s a known quantity and I’m paying attention to it.
I stop thinking of the pain as a fear of what has happened to me. I stop thinking about how wrong my leg felt. I stop thinking about how much pain I should be in, and just be in the pain I am in. One heartbeat, one pulse of existence at a time. Within three breaths the pain is gone. I start to come back to the world. Later the doctors tell me that I tore both my ACL’s, the inside LCL, and the medial meniscus. I’m supposed to be off my feet for weeks, and walking on crutches. I go to work that night, and walk on a cane.
The Stoic virtue of Prudence (Wisdom in later translation) is very misunderstood these days. It’s the sense of time and place we all have, our understanding of when and where we are. To be Prudent is to know that the past is remote and gone. The future is unknown. We have only the present. We view each phase of time a specific way. The past we reminisce about, but we do so free from emotion. The present we try to know, understanding cause and effect. The future we look forward to with tempered optimism. Balanced with the other three virtues we can live a balanced life.
But only with practice. Like folding laundry…