Last Sunday, my right hip hurt so much I could hardly walk. Each step with my right leg was accompanied by an ache bordering on sharp pain on the joint connecting my thigh and hip.
My hips have bothered me for the past ten years. I began noticing something off after a particularly intense jazz workout. I figured I must have overstretched my hip or twisted it the wrong way. Sometimes when I walk, I would feel my hip pop with each step. The pain was never bad enough for me to see a doctor. Last Sunday was different though. I winced while walking. I debated whether to run that afternoon or not. My husband suggested I give it a try and stop if the pain was too much.
That afternoon as I laced up my running shoes, I wondered whether I was doing my hip more damage by running. We started out slow and curiously, I didn’t feel any pain. We ran all the way up the mountain and back. No pain. In fact, the pain disappeared altogether after our run.
I couldn’t believe it. What happened?
I paid close attention to the way I walked and the way I ran. When I walk, my feet tend to turn outward. “You’re a ballet dancer right?,” I’ve been asked many times. “Years ago, yes. How do you know?” “It’s the way you walk,” they’d say. I didn’t think much of it until now. I might have even taken pride on being identified as a ballet dancer.
Running, on the other hand, is a fairly new activity to me and even after a few months of running, I’m still very conscious of how my legs and feet move. My feet point straight forward when I run and I’m still experimenting on the smoothest possible stride. I listen closely to my body and adjust when something feels off.
I tried changing the way I walk but my body would automatically revert to what feels “comfortable,” though now, what is supposedly comfortable is obviously causing me pain. Quick internet research revealed that I probably suffered from piriformis syndrome. Pain is good – pain is a good motivator for me to pursue change even though it is tough work and requires mindfulness. I now walk straight, am pain-free, and moreover, wish I had done this sooner.
But change isn’t something that comes easy to many of us, even when we are in obvious pain (psycho-emotional pain included). Sometimes it’s a matter of sticky habits. Sometimes change is difficult because of what cognitive psychology calls investment trap or escalation of commitment — that is, people persist with a decision or course of action because they have invested so much (i.e. time, money, effort, pride) despite new evidence suggesting the disadvantages of continuing. Sometimes, it’s because we want the safety and security that comes with sameness, even though “Safety is the most unsafe spiritual path you can take. Safety keeps you numb and dead. People are caught by surprise when it comes time to die. They have allowed themselves to live so little.” (from Stephen Levine as quoted by Dr. Bob Tobin in his new book What Do You Want to Create Today?)
When or how people change remains a mystery. I think people need a “moment of clarity”, after which we find the courage to do things differently. Or maybe we don’t really find the courage; rather we simply realize that there is no way we could continue on as usual; to be this unhappy doesn’t make sense, and then, we embrace the life we want with the wistful regret “I wish I had done this sooner.”
On a recent long haul flight, my movie marathon included Words and Pictures starring the beautiful and refreshing Juliette Binoche. The film was dotted with moments that inspired me to create both words and pictures, but the most powerfully moving scene was when English instructor Jack Marcus (played by Clive Owen) went to see his son after having hit his lowest point, defeated by his alcoholism and poor choices. Here was a man so broken and vulnerable, confessing his transgressions to his son and attempting to repair their relationship, and yet it is also this very moment in which his authenticity and raw courage emerges. His life changed because his efforts were genuine.
Reflecting on the dramatic turn of our marriage – from an extremely rough patch the first two years, to now when we can truthfully say we love the life we have together – I think what made the biggest difference is my husband’s willingness to do things differently. When things are not working out, he asks, “I’m sorry I’m wrong. How can I do/say that differently? How about we try something different?” He approaches his work with the same humility and genuine curiosity about other people and how they think and feel. And then he actually takes steps to change. I think, more than anything else, this willingness to do things differently says a lot about the man I love and deeply admire — it says he’s mindful, humble, courageous, willing to risk and allow himself to be vulnerable.
When I feel stuck or in a rut, I ask myself the same question, “How can I do things differently?” and the question has made all the difference.