Middle Age 2: Lessons from Physical Therapy

I have, for years now, been going to physical therapy (PT).
Bad shoulders, bad knees, and other parts of me creak. Much of this
self-inflicted from years of lifting weights, running, and generally trying to
keep this aging meat sack fit and capable.
At the core of physical therapy is the concept that around
the large muscles are a number of smaller muscles that support and stabilize
them.  Exercising the large muscles may
not adequately exercise the little muscles and, when stressed, they become
tight and ineffective. This of course can lead to pain elsewhere I now have
golfer’s elbow (and I would NEVER play golf). This is partially from not
exercising my forearm muscles and partly as a consequence of stresses in my
back and shoulders.
My rotator cuff is getting stronger, thank you.
But my recent rounds of PT have made me think about it as a
metaphor for other things.
Organizations usually have core functions, but also lots of
auxiliary functions. Depending on the organization these auxiliary functions
may be given the attention they require, but sometimes not. This is where
private sector organizations have a huge advantage over government agencies (on
which I have a bit more expertise.) Corporate leaders have a great deal more
freedom to deploy resources than their public sector leaders. If a corporate
head believes human resources is critical and wants to build a great human
resources department that can think strategically about the organization’s
needs and future and how to build the human capital to meet them – they can do
it. They will ultimately have to justify this to their board of course, but if
they can demonstrate that this is important to the revenue line they can earn the
necessary support.
(There is a significant argument within organizational
studies as to whether private sector firms are in fact better at adapting than
public sector agencies. It is also possible that rather, private sector firms
can go out of business, so that when one becomes too inefficient to survive it
dies. Public sector agencies are almost never eliminated.)
In the government, output is more complicated. It is not
simply about making money; it is providing a range of services that cannot be
withdrawn. Often the service outputs must be balanced against an enormous range
of other values – environment, diversity, transparency etc.
Taxpayers and legislatures really like to fund the tip of
the spear – Navy ships, law enforcement officers etc. But supporting the back
end: human resources, facilities, IT, and logistics are less exciting. These
support functions become like my rotator cuff: cramped and unresponsive –
ultimately inhibiting the function of the total limb.
This can be extended on a larger scale. A weightlifting
champion friend of mine explained that in the U.S. we emphasize the front
muscles (particularly the pectorals on the chest.) The Russians in contrast
emphasize the back muscles, the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. Of course both
are essential. Bench presses without rows will lead to a major imbalance. In
current terms one can think of the perennial State-Defense wrangling. We build
one capacity, but not the other. This ultimately leaves us weaker.
Mind as Muscle
But since I’m sliding into middle age, I’m also thinking a
bit about you know, me.
In the Robertson Davies (my favorite author) novel World
of Wonders
, a carnival fortuneteller explains that everyone who comes to
her asks essentially the same thing, “Is this all that life has for me?”
Our minds and psyches are similar to our bodies. They
contain capabilities we like to exercise and which grow stronger. But th

ey also
have capabilities that are less exercised and become weaker. This is something
writers think about a great deal since the core ability is so very hard, but
leaves little energy for anything else. So that many of our other capabilities
are cramped and it is painful to use them.

Someone who diligently does their personal budget, but does
not exercise their imagination may find as they enter middle age a certain
lapse. With more time and freedom, and a decline in pleasure from whatever was
enjoyed before, imagination is needed more than ever – but is too weak for the
task. The alternative is also true, an active imagination but inattention to
finances could lead one to face a different set of problems.
Of course, someone might have both of these aspects of life
in good stead, but there will always be a deficit and weakness. It is
inevitable that some part of the person has been underused and in middle age it
is cramped, stressed, and needs exercise.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some sort of PT for the
mind and the soul?

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