This is a hard one. How can someone use those two words together? It seems antithetical to our purpose: to eliminate depression. Yet those who suffer from this illness know that elimination is tricky business. Depression lingers in the background. Even when it’s absent it seems to lurk. The dread of a relapse into a depressive episode often precipitates the next event. It’s a conundrum, a terribly difficult problem, one steeped in paradox and nuance.
This is a bit of a tangent, but it will come back to the topic at hand. I love baseball. I love the slow pace of play. I love a pitching battle. I love a slugfest. Watching a pitcher like Roy Halladay work a batter, baffle him with the way his ball moves first one way, then another, at different speeds, different angles. Never knowing what will come next. It’s an art form. At its best baseball provides ample opportunity to find metaphors for the way we live. And baseball, all of sports for that matter, provides a metaphor in the simple expression “playing hurt.”
Playing hurt means that the injury is painful but does not fully prevent the athlete from competing, if not up to the usual high standard s/he sets, then up to an acceptable standard. When an athlete “plays hurt” s/he can still play well, still contribute, still offer help to the team. But it’s not easy, and may be downright painful. At the end of the game there’s icing down to do, analgesics to take, perhaps a massage or a heating pad. Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) tonight; play hurt again tomorrow and more RICE. The athlete who can play hurt is an exemplar of tenacity; s/he perseveres.
Acceptance is an attribute of the spiritual warrior. To accept that the “noonday demon,” Andrew Solomon’s pithy depression metaphor, has arrived, has caused injury, and is the source of great hurt, is an act of courage. One must clear out all traces of denial, look with clarity at the situation of living, and live radically. To state with willingness, perhaps even with some measure of alacrity, that this disruptive guest has arrived once again, and I am ready to “play hurt,” willing to be a part of humanity in the midst of my suffering, is an act that is deeply paradoxical to the way this illness makes us feel. But it may be the only way out of the suffering. Playing hurt, playing as well as I can and accepting that I will play more poorly than I would like, and that it is acceptable to play at this moment in this condition. Playing as part of my team, part of my cadre of friends, family, co-workers. Playing for the sake of playing. Playing without preconceived notions of success or failure. Playing because it is my birthright to play. And playing each day to the full, even when that “full” feels empty. But knowing that I must play, even when playing hurt.
When I play hurt I win, even when I lose. When I play hurt I conquer my self, my needs, my desire for things to be other than they are. Each one of us knows what it means to play hurt; we’ve all been there in the deep pit of physical injury and emotional despair. But when we’re willing to play hurt we accept that this deep pit may hold me but it cannot contain me and it certainly cannot define me. And then even in our imprisonment we are free. And being free, we are fully human, fully ourselves.
Believe me, I have no illusions about how difficult it is to play hurt. I have failed to rise to those occasions many times throughout my life. But when I’ve practiced acceptance and been willing to play hurt, I’ve always had the experience of transcendence, knowing that I’m part of something more important than myself. It doesn’t come at once, it may take weeks or months, even years, to realize, but it’s there.
If you struggle with depression consider the possibility of playing hurt. A few years ago a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Curt Schilling, did just that. Remarkably, with blood streaming from his injured ankle, he led the Sox to their first World Series win since 1918 when their #1 starting pitcher was Babe Ruth. His courage and perseverance were inspirational. I invite you to learn more about Schilling’s courage by watching this link to YouTube:
Listen for two statements he makes: “It wasn’t gratifying until it was over” and “I can be a very good pitcher regardless of my velocity.” I think there’s wisdom for us all, if only we’re willing to “play hurt.”