I’m pretty good at handling cosmic injustices — cancer, two burned down houses, my mom’s Alzheimer’s, and my dad’s myasthenia gravis. My kid gets migraines, my husband has gut problems, and my tomato plants got a funky disease last season that left them with a spongy black spot on the bottom of their otherwise perfect fruit.
These issues don’t cause me angst because no one did them on purpose; they fall under the “stuff happens” category, and everyone has a story about their own unique pile, even people whose lives look perfect.
But when I see a human being who chooses to be mean instead of kind, I tend to lose my mind. Injustice prickles my skin and inflames my passion. It pisses me off.
That’s why I love my new fitness class. Five days a week, I let a soft-spoken Irish guy harass, cajole, and inspire me to use muscles my body forgot. Chemo took some of my physical power in exchange for saving my life, but now I’m working to get it back. It’s true that under my breath, I curse that Irish guy sometimes — while I try to do a sit up, for example. But it’s also true that I simultaneously bless him for helping me recover. When the workout is over, I feel strong. My balance is coming back.
Jason, the coach, is creative. Some of the exercises we do sound more like the names of cocktails: Romanian Side Winders, Sling Jacks, and Prison Lunges. But my favorite drills involve the punching bag.
“Jab, jab, cross, hook,” Jason instructs us. “Then elbows and kicks.” I pull gloves on with my teeth the way I saw Rocky do it in the movies, and I approach the bag. Then the room goes silent, everyone fades away, and I’m alone with the guy who assaulted me on the beach in Mexico. The priest who abused my sibling. The guy who sold my husband and me junk insurance before our houses burned down. Sometimes it’s the jerk who sexually harassed me at work when I was 16.
On that bag, I place faces of perpetrators, and I beat the crap out of it. The faces all have one thing in common: They had a choice, and they decided to hurt people, on purpose.
This week, though, I beat that bag too hard. Lost in my own cathartic cardio mediation, I slammed my elbow into my life’s injustices, feeling that satisfying crack, the thud reverberating throughout my body. Healing grunts erupted from somewhere within my soul each time I made contact.
But in that reverie, I forgot about my lymph nodes.
“Protect your right arm,” a nurse told me during cancer treatment. “Wear gloves when you garden and oven mitts when you cook. Don’t get pricked, burned, scraped, broken, or bruised. Have your blood pressure taken from your left arm and don’t let anyone use the right one to draw blood.”
Before cancer, I’d never heard of lymph nodes and didn’t know that they filter diseases and fight infection. But cancer from my breast spread, and some of my lymph nodes were removed. To avoid a disease called lymphedema, I now have to be careful about my right side. Slamming my elbow repeatedly with full force against a big black bag is not in my long-term best interest.
I came home from the gym this week and watched my arm swell, and felt a painful zing from my fingers to my elbow. Although I love boxing invisible opponents, I’ll have to find another way to build my balance and strength. After all, the point of exercising is to improve my health, not to damage it.
I tossed my boxing gloves into the backseat of my car and felt a pang of loss. But then I remembered something important, something I know to be an essential truth: The real path to peace of mind, strength, and balance comes from within. Gloves and a bag can help me expel angst and regain physical losses I gave up during my fight for survival, but they’re no match for the real fight. Forgiving myself and others is the best way to win this game.
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