Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #22 — On Being Tested: “But I shouldn’t have to do this!”

#22 — On Being Tested: “But I shouldn’t have to do this!”

In 1963 a 20-year-old pitcher named Thomas Edward John, Jr. was signed by the Cleveland Indians. The young left-hander showed some early promise, but not enough to keep from being traded, and in 1965 he went to the Chicago White Sox. There he spent seven respectable seasons, using his sinkerball to induce batters to hit grounders and start double-plays. Yet in 1972, John was traded again, this time to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he finally came into his own. As a regular part of the starting rotation, he proved to be a consistent winner, and midway through the 1974 season his record was 13 wins and only 3 losses, and he had accumulated 124 career victories.

Then, without warning, there was a misstep and a strain, causing permanent damage to the ulnar collateral ligament in John’s pitching arm. No one had ever come back from this type of injury, and as far as anyone knew, his playing career was over. But then an orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Frank Jobe proposed a new form of reconstructive surgery in which the damaged ligament in John’s elbow would be replaced with a tendon transplanted from somewhere else in his body. Even then, Jobe put the chances of the surgery being successful at only about 1 in 100. Nevertheless, John agreed, and the surgery was performed in September 1974. While it seemed unlikely that he would ever pitch again, John spent all of 1975 in recovery, working at his own form of rehab. Throughout that year, he had daily workouts to strengthen his arm, and he developed a style of pitching that would not strain his arm or the repaired elbow.

By the start of the season in 1976, John was ready to pitch again, and if anything, he was even better than before. His 10 and 10 record that year was considered “a miracle,” yet it was only the beginning. He won twenty or more games in three seasons after that, one with the Dodgers and two more later with the New York Yankees. By the end of his career, he had posted 288 wins, 164 of them coming after his surgery. At the time of his retirement, John had established himself as the seventh most successful left-handed pitcher in major league history. Yet beyond all the victories, he has been consistently credited for his courage, his fortitude, and his daily persistence in overcoming a seemingly impossible hardship. He did not complain. He did not seek redress for the unfairness of what life had handed him. Instead, he simply focused on what he had to do next and then doggedly went about doing it.

It is often said that the true test of our character is not in how we deal with success but in how we deal with adversity, and it is through the unexpected that life tests our character. Not surprisingly, it is often life’s unexpected hardships that bring people into my office for therapy. These people may have experienced an accident or illness, a betrayal, a loss of some kind, or any number of other possible intrusions into the lives they had been planning or had started to live. In many cases it is necessary for therapy to begin by addressing the trauma they have experienced and to help these people through the immediate process of healing. Sooner or later, however, the focus of therapy moves to the adjustments they must make. Life can no longer be viewed or lived as it had been before. The issue then becomes less about the changes that have impacted these people and more about the changes they must make in themselves in order to move on with their lives. For many, this is where the real challenge begins.

Presented with this challenge, people often resist because, after all, discomfort is the price of change. Some people simply refuse to accept that change is necessary, often demanding some justification for what life has dealt them. They may ask, “Why did this happen?” or “Why do I have to change?” Of course, such questions can never be answered to their satisfaction, since life offers no explanations; it just is what it is. At the same time, others may have the opposite view; they want change to be immediate, without all the time and effort that might be necessary — as if all that was required was the pressing of an Enter key or a swipe on a touch screen. Yet, whether it is impatience and the demand that things be “fixed” or the dogged insistence that change should not happen at all, both viewpoints result in utter futility. Life simply doesn’t care.

What’s more, people often think of changes that impact their lives as some sort of aberration interrupting whatever situation they consider to be “normal.” And yet adapting to change is an ongoing process that literally lasts a lifetime, and while it may be imperceptible in the moment, change is happening constantly. This means that dealing with change, uncomfortable though it may be, is an inevitable part of daily life, demanding both acceptance and patience. Moreover, no one is likely to achieve or sustain any substantive change without making a commitment to the process of change itself. This starts by first accepting that life permits us only limited control, and often the things we really want to change are beyond the scope of that control. We must also accept that a lot of patience may be required because the needed changes cannot be forced. Like growth in a garden, life’s changes proceed in their own time.

My own experience with open-heart surgery offered me compelling opportunities to appreciate what it really takes to be accepting and patient (See #3.). In preparing for and entering surgery, I had to accept that, while I was in a very serious situation, I was ultimately helpless and I had to let go completely and trust the surgical team. Following the surgery, I was tired and weak and in pain; yet I was informed right away that it was important to be up and moving in order to keep the newly repaired heart active. Even as I wondered if I had the strength to do it, I began my own rehab, with my loving wife guiding, supporting, and encouraging me literally step by step. Patiently we both followed a program of exercise and walking, gradually increasing day by day. It took a great deal of patience as I slowly built up speed until I could easily walk an extended period at a brisk pace that my cardiologist deemed “therapeutic.” Even being back at work, I continue to follow that regimen of brisk walking.

Famed Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda once noted, “The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.” In working through life’s hardships with acceptance and patience, we each have the opportunity to demonstrate for ourselves the truth in Lasorda’s comment. The irony to all this is that in many cases no one else will understand or appreciate fully what we accomplish. Still, you never know. No one expected much from that young left-handed pitcher. Yet thanks to his willingness to accept what life put in front of him and the patience to keep working day by day, that procedure which is medically termed ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction will forever be known as “Tommy John Surgery.”

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