The other night when I placed dinner in front of my seven-year-old, he smiled in delight. "Chicken rings! Yum!" But the instant he cut open the first ring, his smile disappeared. "It has corn in it!" The offending vegetable made his lip quiver. "Why do you always make something I hate?" he wailed, and ran to his room.

I had actually thought it was a particularly kid-pleasing meal, but this is my Picky Eater. It's tough to get anything past his lips other than peanut butter or hot dogs.

I had a sudden, unlikely inspiration. I called my son in to tell him about the time I was recuperating from my third knee surgery, many years ago.

This particular surgery was a major affair. I'll spare you the details, but in brief it involved moving bones around and putting in two shiny titanium screws that look really interesting on my x-rays.

After I came home from the hospital, my foot hurt a great deal. My orthopedic surgeon was unavailable, and so I spoke with his partner, who had something of a reputation among the women at the physical therapy gym for being less than sensitive to women patients.

"Try to stay off your feet," he suggested.

"Um, yes, I haven't been out of bed much since the surgery," I replied.

"Well, just keep the leg elevated, and apply ice."

I assured him that there was plenty of ice in the special pump that was circulating cool water over my knee 24 hours a day, and I said I was puzzled as to why my foot hurt so much when it was my knee that had been operated on.

"Well, you can expect some discomfort after surgery," he helpfully informed me.

"Right," I said, losing my patience, "but this is beyond discomfort, and I'm concerned."

"Call tomorrow if it isn't better," he said.

The next morning, the pain in my foot was in fact gone. Unfortunately, so was all other sensation.

The next morning, the pain in my foot was in fact gone. Unfortunately, so was all other sensation. I couldn't feel my foot at all, nor could I move it. It was quite an unpleasant revelation to know what paralysis feels like; I issued a command in my brain for my foot to move, and nothing happened.

This time I reached my own doctor. He showed up at my apartment in his shiny Porsche about half an hour later. Since I was used to waiting for him for two hours in his well-appointed waiting room, I figured this couldn't be a good sign.

He told me he had already called to have an operating room ready to take me back in. But when he unwrapped my mummified leg he found the problem: my leg was extremely swollen, and the nurses had wrapped the bandages much too tight, causing compression of the peroneal nerve, which serves the outer side of the shin and the top of the foot along to the big toe. He rewrapped my leg loosely and told me everything should be back to normal in no time.

Sure enough, the sensation did return shortly to my foot. But my injured nerve was angry. Anyone who has experienced sciatica or other forms of nerve pain knows the feeling: intense burning. Sometimes it hurt constantly; other times the pain would jolt up my leg in great lightning bolts.

The pain grew worse day by day. Sometimes I sat on the sofa and cried, while my poor husband looked on helplessly. I felt like an alligator had its jaws sunk into my foot.

I did my best to avoid touching my foot; I stopped wearing socks, and I gingerly washed my foot only once a week. I slept -- when I could sleep at all -- with it sticking out from under the covers. Even the breeze from my fan felt like knife stabs. My doctor told me to have patience. I nearly lost my mind.

Finally, after six weeks, my bones were healed enough to return to physical therapy. The therapist I was assigned to was named Winsome. This was undoubtedly some sort of cosmic irony, since she was, in fact, a rather dour person who rarely smiled. In any event, she put me through my paces, and I told her I was most concerned about this nerve pain that was completely debilitating me.

Winsome handed me a stack of ten cloths of various textures, the coarsest one being a step below sandpaper. "Here," she said, "start rubbing these on your foot. One minute for each cloth, starting with the smoothest and ending with the coarsest."

She might as well have suggested I rake my flesh with metal combs, or immerse it in boiling water. My eyes must have been as wide as saucers as I carefully explained that I wouldn't even let a silk hanky glide across this foot, much less spend ten minutes rubbing coarse cloths on it!

Winsome explained to me that by avoiding touching my foot, I had made my nerve hypersensitive. The nerve was no longer able to process normal sensory stimuli. In short, by coddling my foot, I had made it much worse.

So I gritted my teeth, and started rubbing. It was excruciating, but within a week my nerve did begin to improve. Eventually it returned almost to normal, with only the occasional twinge to remind me of the alligator that sat on the sofa chomping my toes all those weeks.

There is a time for self-nurturing, to be sure, but babying ourselves too much leads to weakness.

So, I concluded, bringing home the point for my corn-averse youngster, sometimes when we avoid what is difficult for us, we debilitate ourselves. By refusing to eat most kinds of foods, I told him, you're making your tongue too sensitive, and it is becoming more and more difficult for you to eat what's not on your short list.

"This," I pointed dramatically at his plate of corn-festooned chicken rings, "is your first cloth." Eat this, I promised, and before you know it you'll be ready to eat all sorts of heretofore unimaginable gastronomic delights with nary a shudder.

After a bit more whimpering, he did eventually eat his dinner, and conceded that it wasn't all that awful.

I don't know if this will be the end of the picky eating in our house, but I have found myself thinking about my own metaphor.

How often do we avoid what is hard for us, coddling ourselves in inaction because we know that something might be difficult or even painful? There is a time for self-nurturing, to be sure, but babying ourselves too much leads to weakness.

Will I coddle myself by sleeping late in the morning, or will I get up early to pray before the kids are awake? Will I let myself tell gossip to my husband (because after all he's my husband, and I'm not telling anyone else and it hardly really seems like gossip), or will I reign in my tongue, disciplining myself to keep the laws of speech?

Will I go for protecting my immediate comfort, or will I keep the long view in mind and challenge myself to grow, even though it hurts right now?

Hand me the first cloth, God. I'll try to be winsome about it.