Gary Thill

Credit: Gary Thill

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There’s nothing like a little pain to give you clarity. I’ve got it in abundance — pain and clarity, that is — ever since I broke my right small finger in four places and enlisted the brainpower of a small phalanx of orthopedic surgeons to help get me better. (Getting better does not, by the way, guarantee full range of motion.)

As I type this, my right hand (the dominant one, of course) is encased in a plastic sheath that, through the miracle of modern chemistry, is molded to my hand and arm. But it’s what is going on with my pinkie finger that really makes people stop and stare. It sticks straight out from the hand like a bird perch. And it’s surrounded by wire that’s connected to the tip of my finger with a spring. My niece advised me to put some cheese on the end, if that helps your mental image.

But my point was pain and clarity. Ever since this happened to me last week (I’ll spare you the details, except to say that I won’t be playing softball anytime soon) I’ve been asking myself, “Why did this happen to me?” Depending on my level of pain, which has ranged on a scale of 1 to 10 (doctors seem to love these scales) from about 4 when I first broke it, to 15 a few days after the surgery, this question has varied in tone and insistence.

It was only during my worst pain that I realized I’d been asking the wrong question. Rather than why, I should have been asking what — as in, what can I learn from this experience? In today’s Oprah-infused parlance, it’s what might be called a teachable moment: taking something that might be difficult or negative and using it as an opportunity to discuss and learn.

My teachable moment came in the form of a crushed knuckle, which is forcing me to appreciate and understand disability and others’ pain in a way I never could before.

But teachable moments needn’t be so violent, or painful. For facility operators, they can come through daily operations.

All it takes is a slight tweak in attitude. Rather than asking yourself why you’re saddled with an incompetent staff, for instance, ask yourself what you can do about it. Rather than hiding a sex predator incident, use it to open a discussion with your patrons and staff.

Sure, it takes more effort and can be a little uncomfortable. But isn’t it worth a little discomfort now to avoid a lot of pain in the future?