25 years ago I critically injured my spinal cord in a head-on collision on a rural highway in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I could tell that I’d broken something in my back, and I had no feeling or movement below the waist. I was subsequently airlifted to one of the best spinal trauma units in the country, where the doctors gave me less than 5% chance of walking again.
In the days that followed, I listened carefully to these esteemed physicians, asking them questions about my condition. But despite my prognosis–I not only had broken vertebra, my spinal chord had been displaced by 40 degrees–what they were saying never really registered. Even with their brilliant educations and considerable experience, I did not feel they were giving me a “truth.” Some part of me knew that I would walk again.
Education and science were highly prized in my family. Both of my parents and both grandfathers received college degrees in the sciences; my sister is a physician, my brother an engineer. I was young and had no training or experience in disbelieving experts. After all, these were esteemed physicians at a prestigious medical center. Why did I not believe them? Why did I have an internal “knowing” that was different from what I was being told?
I wasn’t feeling resistance toward what they had to say. I was not blocking out their advice and information and I wasn’t proclaiming that I would “do my own thing” and prove them wrong. I was not locked into a battle with them or the information they were providing to me. On the contrary, I was open to their advice and wanted to learn whatever I could from them. What was happening for me was a knowing on some other level–a level where I could understand and process their information, but then make my own determination about what to do with that information. The “knowing” did not come from my rational mind, but from some level that I could not see or explain. I just knew.
Another unusual thing was that in the six months prior to the accident, I was focused intently on rigorous physical exercise. Every night after work, I played two hours of intensely competitive racquetball with my male coworkers, followed by an hour of lap swim. Although I’ve always been an active person, this period of time involved an abnormal amount of highly focused daily exercise…as if my body was preparing for what was to take place. Again, this was not a rational knowing. I was simply following some unarticulated inner wisdom.
In both instances, I was trusting in something that I could not see. I can’t explain why I get frazzled by minor traffic tickets or bad hair days, but when face-to-face with the best medical doctors in the country telling me that I would be permanently paralyzed and unable to use my bladder again, I was unfazed. I simply did not believe them. After several weeks in the hospital, I was able to walk with the use of a cane. Twenty-six years later, no one would ever guess at the extent of my injuries.
In my work with clients, I tap into this deeper way of knowing through metaphor. Metaphoric wisdom is ancient, powerful, and non-verbal. The earliest humans did not have verbal language; they communicated metaphorically by gesturing and drawing pictographs on cave walls and tuning into the natural world around them. In a metaphoric, synaesthetic feeling way, the earliest humans learned from and communicated with the raging river, thunder and lightning, sunrise, plant life and animal creatures. They knew things about the external world in a way that was not “rational.”
Metaphoric wisdom is what I was accessing years ago in that scary situation, and it has been my friend and companion ever since. It is our primal, instinctual language.