Paper snowflakes dangle from the ceiling, lending a festiveness to the hard work being done beneath them.
My partners in pain are scattered around the physical therapist's office, in various stages of stretching, strengthening and resting, of being massaged, iced and electronically stimulated. We’re all on the road to recovery.
A guy with a bad back lies on a padded table. Sitting nearby is a woman with electrodes attached to her shoulder. Another patient concentrates on his knee. A fiercely focused woman seems to be exercising her wrist. I invent stories to match their maladies. An old sports injury, a car accident, the physical repetitiveness of a job, the aftermath of a joint transplant.
I’m working on my ankle, to which I’ve done too much damage for far too long. If I want to keep hiking as often and as long as I’d like to, and keep racing my grandson to the car or whatever other target he selects — without needing 30 minutes with an ice bag to be even somewhat mobile the next day — I need to make the joint stronger and more flexible.
It’s a long road I’m traveling, and I don’t mind. I actually embrace it. I look forward to the work, and it is work. I do one routine at home every night, and another much longer and more taxing at the therapist’s office in Babylon. And though I can’t say my ankle feels any better from Monday’s appointment to Thursday’s session, it does feel better than it did last month.
The change feels good in another way, too. I find it spiritually satisfying. Some kinds of progress you just can’t hurry. But it’s rewarding to notch the mileposts. It’s the fulfillment that comes from putting in the effort to make slow but steady change.
This is not a recent revelation for me. I’ve never liked the infamous easy button, and I have a reflexive distrust of miracle cures and overnight solutions, in health (some surgical interventions notwithstanding) as well as in other facets of our complicated lives. Overnight transformations are worthy of skepticism. I remember too many doping scandals in which an athlete’s rapid improvement was, indeed, too good to be natural.
And yet, it’s become fashionable in some political circles to decry what they call "incremental" change. Their terminology helps their cause. Incremental change sounds far less appealing than gradual improvement or constant advancement. If you see a problem, their thinking goes, blow it up and — Presto! Shazam! — instant change. And problem solved. But the truth is that what’s left after the explosion often is just the debris.
The housing discrimination scandal on Long Island recently exposed by Newsday is like that — a complex problem with no easy fixes, a long-festering cesspool that demands as much persistence in solving it as went into creating it. The same is true of immigration and health care and climate change. Acting on these problems quickly is one thing. But staying on them, and notching one victory after another no matter its size, matters more.
One can bray as much as one wants, but there usually is no substitute for cracking open the text book and studying for hours before the test, or staying late at work a few nights to make sure the presentation is perfect.
I’ll head back to the therapist’s office this week to find communion with my fellow travelers. We’re generally a reserved bunch. And that’s OK.
Loud and noisy promises often carry the day. Quiet determination usually wins the race.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.