On being schooled by a nun about leverage

Carolyn… Carolyn…” a thin, worried voice called down the hallway of my grandmother’s apartment. I’d finally drifted off to sleep on a twin-size air mattress we all told my grandma was “so comfortable.” It was not.

Her voice jolted me awake, and I bolted from the floor, speeding across the living room and dining nook, past the kitchen and bathroom, and finally to her bedroom. I was still mostly asleep when I turned on the light to see my grandma on the floor.

She’d fallen trying to get out of bed. She was stuck on her knees and unable to move. And she was scared.

When I tried to help her up, she wouldn’t budge. I grabbed the phone and called the emergency number, summoning the building engineer to her apartment.

The two of us, a burly man good at fixing things and an MBA good at fixing things, tried our best to pick her up.

Our efforts were useless.

“Sister Agatha is on the way,” he said nervously, as if to reassure all three of us.

Sister Agatha arrived minutes later wearing a dark green track suit. She was in her early seventies, and spent her days working in the retirement community, rather than retiring herself. She was maybe five feet seven, a giant compared to my grandma, who was now under five feet. And she carried herself with athletic competence, like a person who moved all day and always sat up straight. The green track suit seemed functional and fitting. I wondered if she slept in it.

She surveyed the situation quickly. “First, let’s get you off your knees and lying down,” she explained to my grandmother, somehow conveying skill and warmth to my grandma – and exasperation with the two boobs who had to wait for a 70-year-old nun for help.

As promised, Sister Agatha moved my grandma off her knees and onto her side on the floor. Then she placed a long strap – a mobility belt – around herself, then under my grandma’s arms.

In one swift movement, my grandma was sitting up. In the next, she was on her feet.

Just like that.

Now that’s leverage.

That’s a word I’ve avoided for a while. It’s so over-used, we’ve lost its meaning.

But a good lever changes the geometry and physics of a problem, making it possible to do things we couldn’t on our own. When properly applied, real levers solve difficult problems. And we need leverage, not only in crises, but in times of change. In other words, most of the time. In these moments, however, it often seems like we don’t have much. And that feels very defeating.

So let’s adopt a different view.

We don’t have leverage, we create it.

And we can do that in surprisingly small ways.

In Sister Agatha’s case, she did something brilliant. She first moved my grandma to a more secure and much safer position on the floor. That hadn’t even occurred to me. My lack of skill had actually made the situation worse, maybe not permanently worse, but circumstantially worse. For my grandma.

But Sister Agatha’s wise move made it possible for my grandma to not fight against the help.

And that is huge.

It may seem counterintuitive to take a step back or to find our footing. But often that’s the most important step. It allows leverage to work. And it lets us see solutions and simple next steps, including calling for help.

The truth is we can’t do much by ourselves using only the tools at our disposal, especially when we’re stressed. We need other people – and their thinking and tools.

But it’s a balanced equation.

They need us too.

So let’s use a little imagination. Because often what we need isn’t a lot more money, or people, or time. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, we just need a little boost. That starts by reducing the drag of our own dead weight.

Then a force (or force of nature) in an unlikely package with an obscure tool can come to help. Like a nun with a strap.

And that’s enough leverage to propel us forward.


carolyn solares
I help people re-wire, re-think, and create leverage.
(My brother calls me a workshrink.)

Work with me at murphymerton.
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Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash