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Point of Failure

If you don’t already know the full story, I tore my Achilles tendon while playing volleyball. I hadn’t played in 3 years, then I started playing once a week for about a month. After only a month, I was playing in a league’s championship tournament. I played two very difficult matches, and my legs were doing amazing things. I was getting all kinds of balls and making astounding plays. Then in the championship match, I went to take a step forward to start a play, and I felt a pop in my lower calf. Next thing I knew I was on the ground unable to get up.

When I think of major injuries like this, I think of a slow build up until eventually it reaches its breaking point. In a matter of speaking, this is true for the Achilles tendon, but I found it interesting to know that as far as stiffness goes, the tendon will get stiffer and stiffer. Then it will suddenly feel less stiff. This is the calm before the storm. There will be relief when it goes back to feeling normal before it ultimately fails. I think this relief for me was the two games earlier in the night.

This “calm before the storm” as I put it is due to scar tissue build up. Overuse over time, putting so much strain on the tendon, damages the tendon. Tendons have less blood flow than muscles and thus take longer to repair. With less blood flowing in, there is also less blood flowing out, that means the scar tissue is unable to be taken away. This causes it to build up over time. This extra scar tissue has been shown to disrupt collagen fibrillogenesis (the creation of new collagen fibers), making the tendon even less likely to heal. The exact mechanics of it are still being researched, but somehow this scar tissue leads to a dissipating of energy. The force acted upon the tendon is able to disperse among the whole tendon more easily with high levels of damage. This is why it feels less stiff. Below is a graph from one such study: stiffness and hysteresis (the amount of energy dissipated) versus low, mid, and high levels of damage.

As you can see, there is a radical difference when you have a high level of damage, aka right before mechanical failure. This concept seems so strange to me, but then I started thinking about it in reference to other areas of my life…

When life slowly gets harder and harder, you’re able to adjust accordingly. Eventually, even when life is really difficult, you forget to notice. You’re so used to it, and you’ve built up such strong defenses, that the toughest challenges seem easy. It is then that you let your guard down because you’ve forgotten that it was actually difficult. You had a kind of peace and so you stopped being vigilant. This is when we fall hardest.

This is true in our faith lives too. The devil is waiting for us to let our guards down. He is tempting us every day. For the most part we probably do a good job, but if we give him the tiniest opening, he will take it. This is why the first letter of Peter tells us:

This week I would encourage you to increase your defenses. Take some time in prayer to ask God to show you where you have let your guard down. Where have you forgotten to protect yourself against Satan’s temptations. When we let up and forget to fight because things seem to be going well or things seem easy, that is when the devil will pounce. That is the calm before the storm. I pray that you may recognize it for what it is and be strong. Be vigilant.

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