Many years ago, when confronted with a serious spinal infection, a body-mind practitioner provided me with wise advice, “When the body is injured, it returns to its original blueprint, providing an opportunity to mess with the system.”  As a professional dancer, I was highly tuned into the complex workings of the musculoskeletal system. But I was confused. How did she want me to mess with it?  What was I to do?  

Today, as I sit in my bathrobe lacking the inertia to get up, I reflect on the state of the world. Just like my spine, every major system is broken – our earth, bodies, communities, and democracy. COVID invades the body, health care and food delivery systems are crashing, people can’t work.  Economic disaster. And all this during an election in which voter suppression and peaceful transfer of power tear at the very fiber of democracy. As multiple failing systems collide, the impossibilities mount, so the same question resonates. It’s so complicated, what are we to do?     

Whether it’s the evolution of bodies or political systems, over time, everything trends toward complexity. For instance, nature favored movement in the evolutionary process. Just look at a fish. Forward is the only direction, backing up is not possible. But nature couldn’t stop there, it got fancy, eventually progressing toward the multi-directional movements of the agile human body. Think gymnasts. The human body is quite an accomplishment no doubt, but there is a downside, the complexity of our bodies make them near impossible to comprehend.

Psychiatrist Jean M. Goodwin explains the problem in her 1987 article, Impossibility in Medicine, “A brain cell is not a switch.  It has a memory; it can be subtle.  Each brain cell is like a computer.  The brain is like a hundred billion computers all connected together.  It is impossible to understand because it is too complex.” 

Perhaps we humans invent mega systems in order to better understand ourselves, and in doing so, we have created some awe-inspiring things. During the space adventures of the 1960s, the command “all systems go” sent chills down my spine.  Thousands of wheels were set in motion in order to make something extraordinary happen. It was with great anticipation we watched a person land on the moon. 

But even smartly built systems are vulnerable. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986 resulted in a nearly three year hiatus in the space shuttle program.  The Rogers Commission pointed to NASA’s organizational culture as a key contributing factor to this disaster.  NASA managers knew there were flaws in the O-rings, but they failed to speak up! The problem, of course, was people.

People are mucking up just about every system right now. The earth is blasting us with fire and water and yet climate change denial runs rampant. Every time the Constitution is shredded, spineless politicians run for cover. The pain from systemic racism invades bodies as well as our justice, educational, and political systems.  Personal freedoms supersede the simple act of wearing a mask.  

I reflect back on my spinal injury.  During recovery, movement habits built over a lifetime were interrupted. My muscles tremored as my body spastically tried to attempt a simple plié, an action I had honed over decades. Without past patterns to inhibit it, the nervous system began re-patterning every synapse. As I returned to the blueprint, I had the opportunity to consciously insert new possibilities.  What if I shifted my weight back? Would that ease the strain on the knee, which reported to the spine?  The blueprint directed me toward new efficiencies. 

As I remember this tingling and healing sensation, the lethargy in my muscles begins to spring back. Perhaps the multiple systemic failures of our world have created a cataclysmic moment in which real change has a chance. A blatant knee on a neck has already encouraged a mass of white folks to recognize our complicity and silence. Our collective responsibilities toward the earth have been ignited by the California and Australian fires. A victory and peaceful transfer of power for folks with a spine might prove that lack of courage carries political weight.  As COVID invades our bodies, we are lured into thinking that we have to lie down and take it. Well, we don’t.

My body therapist posited another probing idea. “Do you believe you can make yourself sick?”  Of course, I said.  “Well then,” she responded, “can you agree that the opposite might be true as well? You have the power to make yourself well.” 

Back then, this thought was enough to get me out of my bathrobe. Today, as I wrap myself in a sweater and take a walk to the polling place, I think, perhaps the blueprint of the constitution is hollering, “go vote.”  It’s that simple.

Jan Erkert is a professor and Head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.