Our Bodies, Our Activism

What pain, injury and illness can teach us about how to be a conscious citizen in today’s world

Micah Sifry


East Matunuck State Beach, RI, a few days ago (Photo by Micah Sifry, 2022)

Today I woke up with a nasty muscle spasm behind my right shoulder. On a scale of zero to ten, the pain is a seven — just barely tolerable. I tried lying on the floor with a tennis ball underneath me to try to find the trigger point that could help the muscle release, and now I’m writing this column while on my back with my knees propped up. I have no idea why my shoulder seized up overnight. Maybe I slept hard on it. Or maybe my body is sending me a message to slow down. I’ve been trying to write a lot the last few days, in anticipation of wanting to be able to shut off the spigot entirely when my wife and I go on vacation next week.

As I get older, I’ve started to learn that pain, injury and illness are often the body’s way of talking back. Years ago, I noticed how sometimes I’d get sick while on vacation. It was as if choosing to slow the engine that keeps me working at a highly productive pace also had the effect of lowering my body’s guard against the common cold and other nuisances. I’d laugh ruefully about it, get better, and go back to my usual grind as soon as vacation was over.

Doing digital work doesn’t help. For the last year, I’ve been publishing about 5,000–6,000 words a week between what I post here on Medium and on my Substack newsletter, The Connector. On top of that, I finished the draft of a novel that’s about 107,000 words long, writing and rewriting big chunks of that total since last summer. Is that a lot compared to other working writers? I don’t know. But it does amount to a lot of time spent hunched over a computer screen with my hands torqued inward, a position that I’m sure contributes to back pain. Other time spent holding a phone in my right hand scrolling with my thumb undoubtedly also contributes to back and neck problems.

That’s also not counting time spent reading online, which also hunches our necks and, for some people, messes up healthy breathing patterns. Years ago, Linda Stone, a researcher and tech executive, gave this phenomenon a name: email apnea or screen apnea, for the tendency we have to hold our breath or breathe shallowly while reading online. It’s easy to address, but first you have to be conscious…