This article originally appeared in the September 29 2018 issue of the News & Updates Newsletter.
About 12 years ago, I injured my left hand. Afterwards, I had only partial use of my little finger and my thumb, and my entire hand was weaker than before and prone to stiffness. Generally I’m right-handed, but I tend to be left-handed when shooting a bow, swinging an axe, and a few other things. And before the injury, my left hand was always my stronger hand. Fortunately, the injury did not affect my typing! Unfortunately, it put an end to my guitar playing. I simply could no longer stretch my hand as I could before, or move my fingers back and forth, or form my fingers into the correct shape needed to make chords.
Then, about six years ago, I began having paralysis in my arms and hands as a result of my deteriorating upper spine (That’s another story!). I had to drop another set of activities, like driving motorcycles or riding horses. I began neurological treatment right away, and my “pain in the neck.” has gotten gradually better. Now, after six years of treatment, I’m no longer having the severe issues as before. But, as they say in this neck of the woods, “Things just ain’t how they used to be.”
Giving up activities that you love isn’t easy, especially if they are activities that you’ve enjoyed most of your life. You feel somehow less of who you are. As if you were once a fuller person than you are now. I know. It’s actually quite silly to think that way. But that’s how you tend to think when you’re wishing you could do something that you used to do. When you’re feeling self pity. And that’s what I told myself. I told myself that no matter how many things I can no longer do, there are still many things that I remain capable of doing.
The thing is, not being able to make music really bothered and nagged me. Music-making has been a huge part of my life since I was around 11 years-old. It was something I enjoyed sharing with others. I recall many nights standing out in an open field (out of earshot of any sleeping households) jamming away under the stars with a few buddies on our old guitars. I’ve only ever played with or in front of a very few people. Just too self-conscious, I guess. Besides, I was never all that good at it. Not THAT skill really mattered! It was joyful and great fun. There’s more to it than that.
When things got bad in my life, circumstances that would drive other writers to pick up the pen often drove me to pick up the guitar. The inability to make music took away a certain kind of very personal joy and solace. In fact, I felt the loss so deeply, especially during the last few years, that I considered trying to learn to make music using my computer.
And, back when I was able to play the guitar, I never once had the nerve to play for my father. And now he’s gone, and I’m sorry about that. There’s a song lyric by Jackson Browne that keeps coming to mind.
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do, for you,
And all the times I had a chance to.
Finally, two months ago, I decided just try to play the guitar once more. Just give it a really good try. Go slow. First, take a few weeks to get my finger calluses back. Then, if I had to, try to learn how to play chords differently. Try to figure out how to move my fingers and hands differently Push through the pain and just try, I told myself.
I think the treatment of my neck issues might have helped my left hand. Because I found out that I could play chords. I could figure out how to play them in new and different ways. That some of my dexterity had returned, at least in three of my five fingers. My thumb and pinkie will never be the same, of course, and they hardly ever cooperate the way they used to.
Okay. Now, as of this newsletter, I’ve learned to play about six songs! I’m NOT saying that I can play them very well. But I don’t care.
Because a special kind of joy has returned!
Because all of what I just told you got me thinking and wondering about things. And asking questions of myself. About myself. About people.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m just an old guy relearning to play the guitar.
But is there a broader lesson here?
Do we give up things that are important just because we can’t do them the same old way as before?
Why do we seem to wait until some crisis before we try to figure out new ways of doing things?
Why do we keep going through the motions long after the spark has died?
It has to do with how we are. There’s a lot of plain old biology at work. The body really doesn’t like to do new things. And our brains are constructed in a way that rewards familiarity and pushes aside or ignores new things. It wants to play it safe. So the brain pushes out fear chemicals when we encounter something different or strange. When we are finally forced to deal with new ideas, we seem to just frame them (or dismiss them) based on what we already believe, rather than adjusting or changing our beliefs. That’s biology.
And that’s part of how our spirits are, too, our character. So much so that even the U.S. Declaration of Independence, written nearly 250 years ago acknowledges this nature by saying “…all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Yeah. We have a tendency to just get by and put up with things rather than go to the trouble of changing things. That is, if we can even change things. Which maybe sometimes we can’t.
But we are more than biology, more than the sum of our parts. We can also be creatures of wonder, moving closer to that which we fear, that which is different, in order to get a better look at it. We can, indeed, override the brain. One part of our mind overruling a different part. We can change. Once we understand that, we are the masters of our own change. Our own redirection, if that is how things go. And to do so we must change or modify our beliefs, if we have any. Or discard them altogether. We have to be willing to go into unknown territory, into the Forest Perilous. And, of course, we drag the rest of ourselves along. All our history, our prejudices, our regrets, our pride, and our delusions. All of our emotional and intellectual baggage.
But once inside the Forest Perilous, and if we are determined enough, we will be willing to drop that weight, bit by bit, so that we can cross over the river, climb over the hill.
So that we can fly.
Because, first and foremost, we are explorers. There is a good in us after all. We really do want to see, to understand, to taste and smell and hear. To know. To love. And to be loved.
On the other side of the Forest Perilous, joyously exhausted from our efforts, we might find our old beliefs waiting for us. Whether or not we pick up our old baggage is our choice. But there’s no escaping the knowledge that we can let that baggage remain behind as we move on.
So, here’s the key: Wishing things were different is the first step. Years can pass from when you first wish things were different until the second step. Deciding to map out a plan. Now you’ve really begun. Eventually you’ll reach the point on your personal path where you’ve come to the edge of the dark wood where the known, predictable part of your path ends, it seems, and the Forest Perilous looms in front of you.
It might seem too much, too dark and scary, or too risky. So you can stop right there if you want to and think about things. But you know that somewhere inside that forest is a fork in your road. It’s the place where you have to decide whether to keep on going as you always have or make a turn, even if you can’t see where that turn may take you. And it’s up to you whether or not you go looking for that fork in the road.
You know that if you look, you’ll find it.
And as you stand just outside the Forest, peering into the dark wood, that’s when you know that your plan, whatever it is, can only take you so far. Right where the Forest Perilous begins is great big blank space on your map. Because you can’t predict what will happen if you keep going. But whatever happens, it will change you. And if you don’t want to change, you will turn back.
But, ultimately, change is what we explorers are looking for, right?
Hm. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. And I appreciate you letting me think out loud.