By: Amanda Pittman
I spent my last birthday nursing the foot I broke two days before, not exactly how I planned to ring in my 26th year or spend my first semester in a doctoral program. My only comfort was the doctor’s confidence that it would be mostly healed in 6-8 weeks. To make a long story short, after four and a half months on crutches the doctors concluded that the fracture wasn’t healing and prescribed an orthopedic boot – that plastic monstrosity that lets you walk but immobilizes your lower leg – instead. Three other specialists confirmed the diagnosis of delayed healing, but no one could explain exactly why. It was another two months before I could begin walking carefully in tennis shoes.
I’d been joking for months that I would need to relearn how to walk, it had been so long. Which was funny, I guess, except that it turned out to be true.
I could still walk in a manner of speaking; I could get from point A to point B. But something was off. I could feel it, my husband could see it, but we couldn’t figure out what was wrong. A physical therapist pin-pointed the problem immediately – I was still walking as if I was in the boot.
Once I loss muscle and all the muscle memory in it, I mal-adapted to a gait that was awkward and restricted butavoided putting pressure on parts of my foot that were healed but still achy. I became habituated to a way of moving that was wrong but that escaped my notice because it became second nature. It has taken months of painstaking practice to see improvement – a slow, sometimes embarrassing set of exercises designed to retrain my muscles, tendons, and bones to move in the way they were intended. Even still, nine months later, I have to consciously think about my gait or I start walking as if I was wearing the boot again.
Why tell you all of this? Because I think this happens to all of us.
Over time, whether due to negligence or disruption, we can become mal-adapted. In other words, we develop habits, become habituated, to ways of being and moving in the world that are awkward and counter-productive but second nature nonetheless. And it takes slowing that mal-formed practice down, paying attention to each small movement, learning again the way it was intended to go and learning over time to mimic it again. In short, it requires a new muscle memory.
I think our Christian communities of all kinds and sizes have places where our practices deserve the same careful attention and meticulous exercise that my gait has received over the last several months. A good deal rides on the ways that our practices as the Body of Christ – our ways of being and moving in the world – form us as certain kinds of people and communicate our identity to the world. Over the next several posts, I’d like to explore together a practice at a time, slowing it down, analyzing its moves, and thinking about how that practice could be more fully faithful.