As I write, I am several days into resuming my normal exercise routine. I’ve spent the last two weeks sidelined with a knee injury – not the first time this has happened, and probably not the last, although I hope it is. But as I shake myself clear of my Ibuprofen-induced haze, as always I am aware of an overwhelming truth:
Walking is wasted on the able-bodied.
Seriously, there is nothing like losing an ability to make you appreciate it. When you have a leg injury, your entire perspective changes. Whether you’re limping along unaided or using a cane or crutches, suddenly distances seem to increase, because you need more time to travel them. Public transit, you realize, is far less convenient than you once believed, due to the distances between stops or the need to walk up to the platform. Even going from the living room to the bed room can seem a long journey that needs to be planned; if you forget something, you are not exactly going to nip back to pick it up.
When your legs aren’t functioning properly, you feel more vulnerable, too. The vulnerability is especially strong in public, where, if you must be a cripple, you hope you can at least appear to be a sturdy one who is capable of beating wallet-snatchers off with your cane. Yet, in the safety of your home, the vulnerability is only marginally less, if, like me, you hate being dependent on someone. A few days of limping, and you can work up a fine cloud of depression at your increased helplessness.
You start to wonder if what you’re experiencing is a foretaste of old age. If so, you conclude, you are probably not strong enough to endure the experience. The line “Hope I die before I get old” becomes, not a line from the heyday of The Who, but a completely reasonable point of view.
After a few days, you have to keep reminding yourself that your condition is not permanent. A couple of weeks, and civility is stripped from you like the veneer of civilization that it is. If you can’t impress through physical activity, your hind brain insists, then you will impress through crankiness instead.
Then, just as despair threatens to win, you wake up one morning feeling strangely lightened. You are still not walking well, so you take a while to realize that the chronic pain that you’ve been living with is faded to a dull ache. Suddenly, you have something to anticipate.
A day or two later, and you are walking on your own again. You are taking short, unbalanced steps like an upright hippo probably would, but at least you are walking. Ten minutes of being upright tires you like sprinting a couple of kilometers, but at least you can do it.
When you stand, you can feel the muscles in calves and thighs shifting to propel you upright and keep your balance. From the way you hurl yourself upright, you realize that most of the effort in standing has been made recently by your arms, and that you can transfer the effort back to your legs again.
Start to walk, and you wonder how you ever took for granted the interplay of muscles that make you a bipedal ape. You can feel muscles that generally you are hardly aware of contracting and pulling against one another. The physical awareness is such a joy singing through you that it feels a like a brief return to your teens. The fact that bipedalism is the result of endless evolutionary compromises only makes it seem all the more wonderful.
Soon enough, you start to forget the marvel called walking. It becomes automatic again, and you stop thinking about it. But for the first day or two after you return to walking, you find yourself looking at all the people around you who are oblivious to this simple delight and thinking, “You ungrateful bastards. You need a week on crutches to appreciate what you have.”