A few months ago, my wife had a minor medical emergency. Any kind of medical emergency is scary—even more so during a time of rampant Covid spread. Even for symptoms unrelated to any upper respiratory illness, just the fact of needing immediate medical care is disorienting and disruptive (and mildly terrifying). As the spouse, I knew I was needed as caretaker. Unfortunately, I was recovering from a stomach ulcer and was still in considerable pain despite being on the mend.
So there Amy and I are—a married couple and co-owners of a small business—we’re standing outside our apartment with our arms packed with gear for a karate class we were planning to teach outdoors at a local park. I’m still experiencing stomach pain and am aware that I haven’t eaten enough (because, stomach pain!). Meanwhile, Amy’s discomfort has increased to the point where we’ve decided she should probably go to an urgent care center the next day if there’s no improvement in her symptoms. My phone is in my hand and I’m staring, blankly at the screen, trying to decide if we should reach out to students to cancel classes for the day.
Then, suddenly my mind drifts to consider a boss from a previous workplace. The thought crosses my mind, If I were taking to [my former boss], what advice would I give them in this moment?
The answer was immediate. Go home. Even if we have to cancel classes, it will be fine. Just take care of yourself. Then a final thought intruded: You’ve already done more than enough. You have nothing to prove. Was this advice for my former boss or for myself? Sigh. Yes (both).
I share this with Amy. We immediate start the process of reaching out to students to cancel classes, unpack, and prepare to rest at home for the remainder of the day.
In case you’re worried, both of our medical ailments are resolved. After a rocky week or two (and several more cancelled classes!), we were both more or less back to ‘normal.’
But this experience has stayed with me. This and the entirety of the pandemic has opened my eyes to internalized assumptions around health, wellness, and self-care which I am only starting to interrogate, let alone challenge or reject.
Amidst this personal health crisis, I was inspired to reach out to our community. While I was still emotionally and mentally processing our resistance to self-care, I felt inspired to share this struggle with our community in the hope that it might inspire or help others. I felt also that I had an obligation to share values I’ve started to absorb from my studies in Zen Shiatsu, a Chinese medicine-based system of bodywork and healing. In email correspondence detailing changes to the schedule due to our health situation, I included the following message:
Some thoughts on wellness
It is a value Amy and I both share (and have set as a goal to model in our business) that when we are sick or in physical, mental, or emotional disharmony, we prioritize rest and self-care. Rather than shaming folks for prioritizing their physical and emotional health, we strive to make the (much harder) choice to devalue “pushing through” and support folks in making the health choices that are best for them. These things are easy to say, but much harder to do. One of the reasons you received such late notice last Thursday about class cancellation is that we too are still learning and practicing.
We know that it is essential that we as your teachers and leaders lead by example and model the kinds of health choices we want to empower others to make. Accordingly, we’ll take sick days, such as last Thursday. You may sometimes lose class times. But what that also means is that you will always have a teacher in your class who is able to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present for you in and out of class. We know that the quality of class and the quality of the connection between students and teachers is among the things you value in classes with Culture of Safety. These kinds of choices are part of how we will maintain that.
We will also do everything in our power to take care of ourselves so that these kinds of disruptions are minimal and as rare as possible. Being your teachers is one of the greatest honors in our lives and we very much appreciate and value the trust you have placed in us as your teachers (and your kids’ teachers).
Now that some time has passed, I have started to recognize and interrogate the influences from various environment in my life– graduate school at an elite university, non-profit workplace culture, the martial arts, and yes, the “Spirit of Capitalism”—that have sold me on the insidious belief that if we take time off, if we need time off, let alone if we need space to heal from an experience, then there is something wrong with us.
Simone Biles, world-famous gymnast, has been in the news recently for her decision to resign from multiple events this year’s Olympics to take take of her mental health. By and large, the public response has been exceedingly supportive. This is one among many cultural changes that is long overdue.
While some businesses and non-profits continue to create and celebrate workplace cultures where taking necessary time off for one’s wellness is shamed and discouraged, many modern workplaces have learned what the data has long shown us—not only are workers happier and healthier when a culture encourages them to value their physical, emotional, and mental health, but these workers are more productive, more cooperative, and the businesses themselves more financially successful.
The martial arts world faces a similar struggle. Many dojos and martial arts spaces continue to promote the ethos of pushing through no matter what the physical or emotional consequences. And, like rigid hierarchy, some values that historically are associated with martial arts practice are no longer appropriate for modern life.
Rather than training and working through injury, illness, and imbalance, I choose to listen to the wisdom of my body. I am choosing to practice resisting the cultural norm of “pushing through.” More radically, I’m trying not to be apologetic about it. (Thank you Sonya Renee Taylor!)
It is not easy. There are days when injured, ill, or imbalanced, that I can be found at home kicking and screaming , swearing at my body for having these highly inconvenient needs.
But there are other days when, with a sigh, I’ll grab my phone to cancel plans for the day. Then set about with my new ‘plans’ of rest and nourishment, letting the decades of cumulative bodily wisdom be my guide.
My current goal is to have more days of the latter than the former.