In my life as a superstar athlete (or not quite), I have had the usual share of breaks, sprains, tendinitis, lower back pain. It seems to me that one might identify various phases of a typical healing process. Or, as if for a scientific article and with a tip of the hat toward the post-Enlightenment ruminations with which this piece concludes, we might adopt a slightly different header: Phases of a certain type of interaction of human beings with aspects of their predicament.
As regards at least tendinitis, sprains (and emotional injuries, grief?), at first there is a tendency not to take the injury seriously, to hope that it “just goes away” without one having to modify one’s behavior—no trip to doctor or physical therapist, no cutting back of one’s training regime or tennis playing, bike riding, etc. If and when this does not work, there may be an intermediate stage during which one tries little things—cutting back a little, ice or heat, a drug-store sleeve or brace. If and when this does not work, there is what seems best described as panic. One goes to the doctor, the physical therapist, the acupuncturist; one reads articles on-line, buys books. One stops training and playing, devoting oneself full time to the injury and its cure—pain medications, stretching, special exercises, massage. It may well be that within this treatment protocol lie one or two things—one drug, one exercise—that is quite beneficial, but now, as a result of one’s panic, new problems have been created. One has become so focused on one’s injury that, in a sense, it cannot go away; it is now held in the psyche at least as much as in muscles and tendons. Insofar as it is organizing one’s life in new ways and perhaps bringing new pleasures (e.g., the caring and tenderness and break from work provided by a physical therapist), one may become adapted to the new routine and not wish to change it. Change can seem frightening. In addition, the constant focusing on the injured area stresses it physically and psychologically. I often find that a good way to deal with an injury is to simultaneously leave it alone and stretch other parts of my body (or go chat with a psychotherapist). But in this panic phase what is hardest to do is to leave one’s injury alone. And, inevitably, while some approaches may be salubrious, some are noxious, and the overall intensity is not good.
So now we are getting closer to the faith-healing phase. All these efforts and no cure; one becomes despondent, fatalistic. There’s nothing I can do. It may never get better. I may never get better. In Beckett’s famous phrase, “il faut continuer, je ne peux pas continuer, je vais continuer .” (One must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on). Plato’s Socrates speaks of aporia—resourcelessness; not knowing what to think or even if one is thinking. Reaching this state, this feeling, is the essential first step in a true learning process. (Which does not make it a pleasant state to be in!)
I can’t resist pausing to quote (a translation of) the fun Beckett has with all this at the beginning of L’Innomable (The Unnamable), the novel that ends with the phrase quoted above.
What to do, what am I going to do, what should I do, given my current situation, how to proceed? By pure aporia or rather by assertions and counter-assertions invalidated as I go, or sooner or later. . . . There must be other approaches. If not, there would be no hope. But there is no hope. By the way, before going any further, forging ahead, I should say that I am using the word “aporia” without knowing what it means.
“Ce qu’il faut éviter, je ne sais pourquoi, c’est l’esprit de système,” the protagonist soon decides. What must be avoided, I don’t know why, is systematic thinking. And so, returning to our injured body and the setbacks and despondence that break down our ability and desire to think systematically or to think at all— Well, here we can see that thanks to aporia we may well be on a road to a cure (though perhaps not the only road). We are still going on in some haphazard fashion, going on with the various drugs and stretches and so forth, but this is a semi-automatic going on, with any sense of commitment or obligation well diluted by futility.
And then one day, after weeks or months in this aporetic bath, one may decide on the spur of the moment to go hit a few balls on a tennis court or, instead of putting on one’s special orthotic equipment, to just walk over to the dry cleaner’s in one’s flip-flops. It doesn’t feel great, but it proves do-able. It doesn’t feel all that bad. Among other things, slowly but surely (or is it like falling down the stairs?) one has lowered one’s expectations, one’s definition of what it would be be to feel healthy, to move in a normal fashion.)
Hallelujah! One may yell the first, or perhaps it is the second or third time one set outs equipment-free. Hallelujah! I can walk again! I can see (or again think that I can).
I shall leave it to readers to recall moments of disappointment (when one’s wishing to be cured was stronger than one’s muscles and connective tissues), and readers may also make or refuse various connections between this process of recovering from a sports injury and well-known forms of faith-healing (e.g., the preacher who gets the cripple to drop his crutches and walk up to the stage). For myself, I wonder if it does not come to the following. Faith is worthless or worse in those moments (or historical periods) when an individual, organization or society is overestimating or even accurately estimating its capacities, but faith can be of great value in those moments when we underestimate our capacities (or have lost our grip on any concept of capacities, be it true or false).
This conclusion would seem also to offer an explanation for the current, post-Enlightenment return to something like faith or even religion. And, btw, it is not only others—ignorant or brainwashed or foreign or lower-class people—but some of the best minds of our generation (Muslims, church-going Christians and underpaid people included!) who now find themselves struggling with faith. (And here “struggling” does not imply that all these people necessarily know they are struggling or that it is with faith that they are struggling. And “faith” is meant in the broadest sense of the word, including such things as faith in the goodness of Nature (or “the environment”), faith in some unknowable being or non-being, or in modern science and technology, faith in the possibilities of interpersonal or of self understanding).
It would seem that one emerging “fact” is that as a species we have lost or are fast losing faith in ourselves and have reached or are approaching an aporetic moment. We feel that we can’t go on “like this” (consumer capitalism, global warming, nuclear weapons, increasingly complex, interlinked technological and social systems), and yet we go on. And we may in moments of courageous open-mindedness realize that we have no way of stopping or even of changing our course very much.
. . . étrange peine, étrange faute, il faut continuer, c’est peut-être déjà fait, ils m’ont peut-être déjà dit, ils m’ont peut-être porté jusqu’au seuil de mon histoire, si elle s’ouvre, ça va être moi, ça va être le silence, . . .
. . . strange pain, strange failing, one must go on, it has perhaps already happened, perhaps I was already told, perhaps they have brought me to threshold of my life, and if it begins here this is going to be me, this is going to be the silence . . .
Some have yet to fully accept the despondence, the futility. Others, a sort of avant garde, are ready for the next phase, what I have been tempted to call the flip-flop phase. Jacques Derrida toward the end of his life placed his faith in the unexpected, in the possibility that larger or more subtle forces than we can understand might alter our situation in ways that we cannot even imagine. (This is my explication, not his.) Picking up where Descartes and many thinkers before Descartes left off, we might say that if God or some other force beyond our understanding could make something out of nothing, then what else might they not do—tomorrow, for example. There are plenty, and plenty with Ph.D.’s from elite universities, to say that this is a yet another instance of backward thinking. But there may come a day when it will be clearer (if not necessarily true) that it was only thanks to the miracle of faith that homo sapiens were able to throw off their crutches—be these electronic devices, corporate personhood, anti-depressant substances, mechanized transport, various forms of organized religion (you may name them, enumerate all the many crutches we might throw off)—and walk again.