There are times when I catch myself moving in a way that makes me think I’m very close to a clumsy stumble. I most often take my bipedalism for granted, but there are times that I wonder at the magic of it — how we manage all of the intricate, spit-second inputs and muscular motions that keeps us moving, standing, dancing, jumping or running. I’m most certainly made aware of it when my toe catches something and I do one of those embarrassing trip-stumble-recover things (and then attempt to adopt a demeanor somewhat akin to a cat that has just fallen awkwardly from some perch: “What, I didn’t do that!”). It’s at times like this that I appreciate just how fine we cut things (the truth is that my foot is probably skimming about an eighth of an inch above the ground most of the time).
In evolutionary terms, this makes sense: why waste energy lifting the foot any higher than it needs to? As I recently heard pointed out, natural selection favors the gazelle that can just barely outrun the cheetah, not the one that leaves it miles behind. That’s why I can look down and realize that the big bump that generally trips me up is actually a small crack in the pavement, lifted up only a fraction of an inch. Most of the time, we judge correctly, and those times when we don’t, we’re still pretty close, and can recover our balance. Once in a while, though, we’re going down.
When I stepped off the concrete pad down to the mostly-dirt lawn beyond (carrying my standard extra load of briefcase and gym bag) I somehow landed on the edge of my foot and kept going in a way that created a singular sharp sound of tearing that shot right into my brain. I didn’t fall, but I stumbled, and knew I’d done something wrong. I also knew I had only to wait a few minutes for the confirming pain from swelling in the tight compartment of flesh, bone and muscle that is the foot.
I stumbled into my studio and set down my bags, still not in severe pain, still trying to act as if what had just happened hadn’t just happened. This was the moment when I was surprised by an urge to pray to God for deliverance, or healing, or whatever. What I wanted most desperately to do was to roll back time to the moment before I failed to take my mode of forward locomotion seriously enough to avoid seriously injuring my foot. I wanted to deny reality. And in response to that desire, my brain offered me God. Interesting. But even in that desperate moment, my reasoning brain had to say “Thanks, but, no thanks”.
As I continued into my studio my mind raced as it double-checked all of the sensory inputs: did I really hear a distinctive tearing sound? Maybe not. Maybe it’s just a muscle injury (since the sound was neither a “snap” nor a “pop”). A muscle tear might mean swelling and some damage, but I can live with that. At least it won’t mean the expense and recovery time of surgery. But how could a tearing muscle make a sound that would carry through skin and sock and leather boot? Surely it’s not a tendon, I thought. Wishful thinking, clearly, as my thoughts were mostly efforts to undo the undeniable reality of what I had just done.
But the queasy feeling in my abdomen gave confirmation that I had been deeply injured in some way, and I was suddenly like any other wounded animal. My mind began racing ahead through my afternoon and the days ahead, working out the ramifications of my potential inability to move, work or care for myself.
But unlike an injured animal on the plain, I could go to a hospital. Despite the pain, I was wrapped in a kind of euphoria as my body pumped adrenaline and endorphins into my veins. It wasn’t until I was in the emergency room, talking to the nurse, that I felt my animal wariness drop: sensing safety and the care of others, my animal brain allowed the reality of my situation to sink in. I could have cried.
An x-ray would later confirm the the broken foot, and a skilled human would advise me on how best to accommodate the healing of sundered bone (that was the sound I heard). Pills were prescribed and I was issued an isolating boot and crutches.
But even with all of the modern helps, I am still an animal used to walking, walking, walking. Now every change of location requires a re-thinking. Now the mind is looking ahead for where the challenges will be: what plans must be changed, what activities will have to be managed with new methods, or with help from others.
Being a social human, I have help available. I have friends and family, and I am not an elk with a broken leg who is in danger of being singled out by a fanged predator. I know from experience that it will take a while to get used to my injury (to feel out the boundaries of it by trial and error). And, of course, it will most likely gradually improve. We have all been sick or injured and we know the drill, even if we don’t yet know an unfamiliar injury.
As I write, my brain is trying to work around my broken foot, adjusting to the reality of it. I still don’t want to believe I can’t just get up and walk. When I sit for a while, and the foot doesn’t hurt, it’s easy to forget it’s a problem at all. But then I stand up, or bump it against something, and realize with uncertain clarity that even if I had to, I couldn’t run from anything right now. That is disturbing to the animal in me, for deep inside my animal brain persists. (We have left little of it behind us in our evolution: we have only layered a more modern brain on top of it).
I’m still fascinated (and not a little bothered) by the part of my brain that — in the midst of madly scanning for ways out of my injury — pulled out the idea of God. In a way, it confirms what I’ve come to understand about my human brain: it is, indeed, a believing brain (as Michael Schermer calls it in his book, reviewed this blog). But it’s worth noting the conditions under which this nonbeliever was given that idea to consider. We know that our brain files information and experience in a contextual way (see “Kluge” — reviewed this blog) and I’ve noticed that when something happens that demands a response, the brain simply pulls every file that it recognizes as having anything at all to do with the subject at hand. This doesn’t mean that the brain will always (or even often) pull the “right” file off the shelf of memory. It just grabs everything it can and throws it at the conscious mind like a badger throwing dirt as it digs after prey. So, because I have past experience as a believer in God, that file was still on my shelf (and always will be, along with every other experience I’ve ever had).
But there was still an emotional component to the idea. Though my rational mind dismissed it right away, my emotional brain really really wanted to use it. Why? Because I was afraid and desperately trying to construct a bulwark against the reality I was trying very hard to deny.
My mother called family members to pray for me. And I was deeply relieved when the doctor told me my fracture would heal on it’s own, without surgery. Were I a believer, I would have stood up in church (on my nevertheless broken foot) and called that a “miracle”, or an “answer to prayer”. (neither of which would have been true, but I would nevertheless have found a tide of intellectual support for the notion).
The reality is that I will always have a “believing brain”, and I will always have those past experiences of belief. Never mind that there was no actual God to call upon in my moment of animal fear — at least no intelligence with the cosmic power to turn back time and undo the physical damage I had done to my own body. I know enough now about neuroscience and the human mind to understand what’s going on in my brain during a crisis like this. But that moment of rapid-fire thinking reminded me of the emotional pull of belief, a pull that so many humans give in to for comfort and hope. I get it. But, then, I think I always have.
I’m a physical animal in a physical world, and I took a bad step that overstressed the collection of bones and tendons in my foot, leading the weakest part of that assembly to give way first. In pain and fear I wanted desperately to alter reality. But I could not. Thanks to helpful humans, I am helped in my recovery, which comes down to giving that foot as much rest as I can so that the physical process of healing can proceed all on its own. We move, we trip, we are injured, we are helped and we heal and move on.
One of the most remarkable finds in ancient human bones (including the Neanderthals) has been the number of serious injuries that healed. These are the kinds of injuries that would have disabled individuals for a time, a time during which they could only have survived with the help of their fellows. For all the animals that are out there, it makes me feel very lucky, indeed, to be a human.