Politics

Adding Insult to Injury

During a recent group email for my book club, one member said she couldn’t make the next meeting because she’d accidentally frost-burned her rear end with an ice pack meant to soothe a strained muscle. That’s nothing, a second member replied, describing a friend who’d thrown out her back sneezing on the subway. “It seems to be the season for silly but painful injuries,” she wrote.

The runway thus cleared, it was impossible not to own up to my own debilitating excuse. After sitting with a cat on my lap for over an hour, I’d managed to tear my meniscus while uncrossing my legs, I wrote, hitting send before I could add a single exculpatory detail. For a month, I’d been enhancing this story with a preamble about going on a 15-mile bike ride beforehand, mumbling some nonsense about overly loosened muscles. The unvarnished truth was that I’d hurt myself trying to stand up. There was no valor to be found here.

The human body has all sorts of ways of getting hurt and just as many ways of thinking about those injuries. There are minor bruises and major mishaps. There are injuries visited upon one’s body by someone else and those that are self-inflicted. Deliberate wounds and accidental injuries. Active and passive ways to subject oneself to pain. Like many writers, I tend to think of injury in terms of the kind of story it tells: comedy or tragedy, a tale brave and self-sacrificing, or mortifying but useful at a cocktail party. A good account of injury can reveal strength, character, forbearance, humility.

The most exemplary stories of all are of the Jeremy Renner-run-over-by-a-snowplow-while-saving-a-nephew variety. Both tragic and heroic — and who would expect anything less from an Avenger? Similarly heroic are injuries endured by women who give birth under all manner of difficult but “natural” circumstances. And of course, there are sporting injuries that involve skydiving, parasailing or jumping across rooftops. The story of Tom Cruise’s broken ankle makes for an excellent tale, by turns terrifying, excruciating and inspiring. These are all instances of well-earned pain. They even have happy endings.

This is not how I come by my hurt. Which isn’t to say I don’t get injured all the time; I do. As someone with both low pain tolerance and low body awareness (I move through the world like a pair of eyes, as if no shoulders or limbs were attached), I am constantly walking into poles and walls. I chipped the bridge of my nose fumbling to the bathroom one night. I walked into a glass wall at a Miami restaurant after only one drink. An old boyfriend nicknamed me Lumpy, and careening with three left feet from one unexpected doorstep to another, I couldn’t even pretend to be offended. Growing up, I’d managed to fall three times from high places and land flat on my back, once off the second story of an A-frame house.

This last produced enormous merriment among my brothers, and in hindsight, it makes me laugh, too. (I was too concussed to find humor in the moment.) Of course, of course, it’s terrible getting hurt; injuries aren’t funny. Yet the stories we tell about our injuries often are, especially for people who, like me, have a banana-slip sense of humor. I’ve had to defend myself many times for laughing at injuries, because it seems to betray a sadistic streak or profound malevolence. What could be more sinister than laughing when someone gets hurt?

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