Range of Motion

I was asking the doctor how to handle tendonitis. Should I extend my arm all the way even if it hurts, or should I be protecting it from strain as it heals? Her response was clear. Avoid sudden, sharp movements. Consider ice and anti-inflammatories for the swelling. But keep your full range of motion even if it hurts. Limiting range of motion will cause problems down the road. Her absolute certainty that full range of motion was the healthier choice helped me think about my arm. More important, it resounded in my head as a vast metaphor for life.

For so many of us, growing up is a gradual process of giving up our natural range of motion so as to avoid the pain that extending fully might cause. It certainly was for me. I learned to not show anger (and later, to not even notice feeling it), because anger was too painful for my parents to handle. I learned to not expect more than I was sure to be able to get, because expectation leads to disappointment--and tears--which there was no space for. I learned to hold back around others unless I was completely confident, because risk was scary, humiliation lurked, and fear was a very painful emotion. I learned to do well at the things I was good at, and pretend I wasn't interested in the ones where failure was a possibility.

None of this has kept me from leading a life that is very good in many ways. Just as I can reach something by moving my whole body rather than extending my arm fully--stand up or lean over instead of reaching--I learned to compensate and manage pretty well. But that limited range of motion has definitely caused trouble--just as the doctor said it would. Being scared of anger, reluctant to risk wanting things, and hesitant to put myself forward or show myself as a beginner have created a steady drag as I've worked to make a place for myself in this world.

The solution, however, is there. Just follow the doctor's orders and it's clear what to do: extend your arm all the way even if it hurts. The pain is just pain. It's not creating a further difficulty in itself. Limiting your range of motion in order to avoid the pain is the real problem. So the direction for my life is clear: extend. Risk wanting, welcome anger, put myself forward despite lurking humiliation--know that it may feel very painful and that's okay. Of course it will hurt to stretch where emotional muscles have been protected for years. Feeling the pain is not the problem; it's part of the solution.

Ultimately, inevitably, the metaphor speaks to me as a parent. What can I do to help my children retain--and regain--their full range of motion? Our impulse to protect our children is so strong--it's hard to see that protection from feelings can actually contribute to loss of range of motion. Yet we have power here. If our children have learned to limit themselves in order to avoid feeling a pain that there is no space for, we can create that space. We can welcome the feelings that are ready to pour out--the disappointments, the fears, the anger. We can think about where they've lost range of motion--where they've given up, where they no longer cry, where they protect. And we can encourage them to stretch in those areas, letting them know that we know how much it might hurt, and being there to help them with the pain.

My mind is still spinning. Every time I stretch my arm these days, that wonderful complete extension (even with the pain that's still hanging around it) reminds me of the full range of motion that we all want and deserve in our lives.