The one and only time I’ve ever been on a gurney was earlier this year when I finally elected to go ahead with a procedure called “Tenex” on my right achilles tendon. It’s a procedure far less invasive than other options for that tendon, but it still required going under the knife.
Before I ever got into bike racing or triathlon, I enjoyed more than anything else long runs through single-track trails. And I mean really long. Ultramarathon-distance long—distances I probably didn’t have much business running when I was 19 years old.
Nonetheless, over the course of about three years, I racked up race finishes from the 50k distance all the way up to the penultimate 100-mile race. At that age, I could, for a time, take recovery, and things like proper biomechanics, for granted. Sadly, my achilles tendon gave in before my gumption when I developed an ache that just wouldn’t go away.
I looked into joining Auburn’s triathlon team as a way to keep up my endurance but not risk hurting myself too much. Cycling and swimming are much kinder to the achilles region than running.
I told myself the transition to the triathlon world was because I was getting lonely on the trails and that I was ready to train on a team. That wasn’t really true. I did triathlon because running was hurting me beyond the point that I had the means to fix myself.
I had molded my identity as an athlete as an ultra runner. Cycling was for the injured runner. Bikes, in the ultra community, are dubbed “IPOS machines.” The “I” stands for injured. I’ll let you figure out what “POS” stands for.
While it took some humiliation to admit to myself that I needed to change the way I trained, I found I really did enjoy going to races with my crew and learning a whole new sport. My body started to change as I put on a touch of broadness in the shoulders from swimming and width in the quads from cycling.
I kinda liked this.
For the next eight seasons of racing, I was predominately competing in half-ironman distance triathlons and a variety of bike races. I felt like I wasn’t just a runner, but an athlete who could also run long distance.
After six seasons in a row of triathlon, I decided to hang up the triathlon bike and see if I couldn’t get myself back into ultra running shape.
My first love died hard.
Sadly, whatever achilles thing sprang up on the long, lonely trails of my ultra days was still there eight years later. After about a year and a half of denial, I finally decided it was time to look into surgery after exploring a multitude of other options to no avail.
So in the spring of 2021, I found myself for the first time on an operating table with a very thick needle-like device firing ultrasonic waves at the damaged tendon.
In the meantime, though, I found CrossFit. If triathlon was a slight modification to my training regimen, CrossFit was a paradigm shift entirely. Five-hour bike rides were replaced by five minute METCONs.
It took a chronic injury for me to finally accept that I had to adapt in order to stay the same. I had to manifest my physical drive in a whole new manner in order to stay an athlete. And that would not have happened without an injury.
In my efforts to relieve my achilles pain, I also found cross country skiing, both skate and classic varieties. I also got a gravel bike and learned how to mountain bike because I wasn’t just a runner anymore. I was an athlete that could back squat, snatch, run, row, ride, swim, snowshoe, bench press, clean & jerk, rope climb, ski, and move heavier and heavier objects in a variety of ways.
While the jury’s still out on whether I’ll get back onto the ultra scene, my injury made me better. I just had to be willing to alter the expression of my athletic drive.
Trauma gives us two lives.
A moment of paradigm breakdown can do us the biggest favor. It’s not pleasant. It’s not fair. And it’s not easy. Nor is it enviable. But what it is is an opportunity. Dare I say a gift. A second chance.
We discover a new life only by processing pain. It requires an entire shift in our way of being and too often, when we haven’t experienced a healthy rite of passage of some sort, we confuse this heartbreak for death itself. Which is to say, we can only see the pain as purposeless, which may not be different than the idea of hell itself.
But there is a plan in all of this. Any hero story you read or watch in a movie has a moment where the hero loses some of his power and the suspense comes in trying to figure out how he’ll escape certain death this time.
Consider the first Iron Man movie. Tony Stark had a miniature power plant next to his heart that helped him take on the bad guy and keep him alive, but it was stolen and he had to use his less powerful original version. In his efforts to overcome, he began to discover what was most valuable. Pepper Potts labeled his old ‘power plant’ with a plack that read, “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart.”
It was Tony’s reconnection with love, in one sense, that allowed him to win. But of course, that process always comes with a cost. Remember that his arm was in a sling at the end, not to mention all the physical damage to his lab.
More broadly speaking, what is that cost? Sacrificing something that’s most valuable to you so that you’ll receive something of greater worth later. Tony’s heart was of more worth than his updated version of a mechanical power plant.
The motif of sacrificial living is as ingrained to the human psyche as our DNA is into our cells. Sacrificial living coincides with the “discovery,” or awareness, of a future reality where more of our potential could be realized. Humans are the only animals with such an awareness.
All religious traditions have some sort of “sacrifice to the gods” as a sacrosanct component of their worldview, from the Aztecs to the Norseman, from the Babylonians to the Hun. While offering up live humans as sacrifice to appease the gods was a perversion of the original principle, the compulsion is still there.
Even stories in the Hebrew Bible recount Moses and Joshua both offering their lives up for the sake of their communities. The New Testament tells us there is no greater love than laying one’s life down for another.
Sacrifice is an act of love. And I may go as far to say that the compulsion of paying the ultimate human price for the sake of love isn’t altogether evil. But it can easily be perverted, and, on the Christian tradition, that ultimate sacrifice of a man has already been made and was enough to satisfy the compulsion of human sacrifice.
However, the need for sacrificial living is certainly alive and well. The figure of Christ shows us the paradigm, that giving up the thing you hold most dear for the sake of something even better, is the best way to live.
It requires giving up our own understanding (our old maps) and, in my parapharaphrase, in all your ways, acknowledge that you have insufficiencies that can only be remedied if you allow your aim to be corrected by better wisdom.
This is the discipline that equals freedom; when you give up your right to be right, only then do you begin to grow.
When we are scarred by trauma, regardless of whose fault, the route out of that dark night of the soul is to make a sacrifice to the “highest good,” which is a process of discipline.
Practically speaking, this looks like giving up an old way of thinking. In place of laziness, it’s responsibility. In place of bitterness, it’s thanksgiving. And in place of isolation, it’s social interaction. It’s a psychological sacrifice, not a physical one like killing sheep and goats as in the days of old.
Trauma isolates us and makes short-term remedies to pain seem more and more appealing. It’s because that appeal is so strong that it requires a state of sacrificial living to break free.
Another story from the Hebrew Bible tells about a man named Jacob, himself not exactly the most righteous and upright fellow, wrestling with God. He insisted that until God blessed him, he would not stop his struggle. Finally, Jacob “overcomes” God and God decides to bless him, but the catch is that Jacob had his name changed and his hip dislocated. His new name, Israel, means, “one who struggles with God.” The hip injury reminds us that there is a cost.
At the very least, the broken hip is the admission that we don’t have it all figured out and that piecing back together our lives after trauma will require no small amount of surrender to God.
Healing from trauma is a wrestling with what we conceive to be ideal. “It’s not supposed to be like this but it is.” We have to reconcile the way we thought things were supposed to go and the way they actually did or are. But if that reconciliation is made, the upper limits to our resiliency and growth may never know bounds.
The ultimate psychological sacrifice is to allow an old way of being—one that may have served you well in your first half of life journey—to die off with a renewed paradigm. It is a radical shift in thinking that says it’s better to do uncomfortable things even when there is the option to isolate and medicate. It’s a paradigm shift that transforms the victim to victor. It’s a shift that rejects the broad road that leads to destruction to the narrow, difficult road that leads to renewed meaning and purpose. And it’s a path of growth from resentment to forgiveness.
And this paradigm shift for all of us requires working through pain and surrendering to a wiser surgeon.
This is why trauma gives us two lives, and your second life has the potential to make you better if you’re willing to give humility a shot.
Now is your chance to live again.