Use it or Lose itI’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, use it or lose it. If we don’t challenge ourselves to do difficult things, over time it becomes harder to do them.

But what does this idea have to do with a snake? I have never been bitten by one (thank God!), but a story I recently read made me think a little differently about them. While working in his garden, a man felt a stab on his finger, and, looking down to notice teeth marks and blood, he watches as a snake disappears into a hole in the wall.

He runs into his house, wraps a rubber band around his finger, and asks his wife to drive him to the emergency room. When the doctor removes the rubber band, the man is overcome with pain and vomits within minutes.

Two days later, he is released from the hospital, unable to move his finger and ordered by his doctor to start occupational therapy immediately. That’s where he hears about the “learned non-use” phenomenon.

What is the “learned non-use” phenomenon?

In 1987, Eduard Taub, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, began research to determine if constraint-based therapy could help recover movement in the limbs of stroke patients. For example, for a period of intense therapy on an impaired arm, the patient’s “good” arm would be restrained.

Taub believed that stroke patients often stopped using body parts affected by their strokes because using the impaired limbs seemed too difficult. This “learned non-use” led to further deterioration. Use it or lose it.

I’m all about ease and no effort—but there are exceptions.

Back to our snake-bitten man. He learned that he must fight the pain and make an effort to do what was difficult for him: To force himself to use his wounded finger. Otherwise, it would no longer be painful but paralyzed.

We often hear about using it or losing it in the context of physical movement: If you don’t exercise, you will lose physical strength and endurance. A study done at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago showed that this concept is also true for the brain. Reading books, writing, and stimulating your mind helps fight off Alzheimer’s and dementia.

But the “learned non-use” phenomenon is a lesson for life itself. To maintain our physical, mental, and emotional fitness, we must constantly push ourselves to do hard things.

Think about the emotional behavior you tend to avoid. Showing your feelings. Being vulnerable. Standing up for yourself. Making yourself visible. Forgiving.

It is so easy to live in our comfort zones and say, “That’s too hard! So what if I’m not perfect?” You might live your whole life unable to show love or enjoy true intimacy with others because you keep finding excuses not to push yourself beyond your limitations. Imagine how accomplished, fulfilled, and proud you might feel if you stretch yourself—really stretch yourself—to do what’s difficult.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and other world leaders did the impossible and made history. They made a difference in their own way. The thing is, you and I can make a difference too, in a different way.

We can make a difference by living with compassion even when it’s hard.

We can make a difference by forgiving (ourselves and others) even when we don’t want to. By saying, “I’m sorry,” even when we’re embarrassed. By standing up for ourselves even when we’re scared. And by continuing to stretch ourselves so we can grow, expand, and live at full power.

Let’s make it practical: What is going on in your life right now that provides you with a good opportunity to try something difficult?

What challenge do you face right now that requires you to rise and take action—or else you will never be able to do it?

Share in the comments below what you are willing to do to step out of your comfort zone.
I’ll start.

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