“So, what advice do you have for our readers?”
Um. Big swallow.
I was recently interviewed for a local magazine article about ordinary women who do extraordinary things. The interview was casual and generic with lowball questions about how to become a runner. Until that question.
I suddenly felt self-conscious and pressured to say something profound and life-changing (which is neither how I believe change works nor how people are inspired). I scrambled to break the long pause.
“It’s ok to be uncomfortable,” tumbled out of my mouth.
The journalist cocked her chin, nodded hesitantly, and leaned forward to shake my hand and pull the curtain on the interview. We thanked each other and I walked away feeling like an idiot.
I headed into the woods, on a run, silently considering my response. The more I evaluated it, the more I thought that perhaps it was meaningful after all. Let me explain.
Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable is originally my friend Steve’s idea, though not within the context of running. At the time, I had recently packed my entire life into my car and abandoned my city, leaving the ashes of a big relationship still smoldering behind me. I was alone and I had no map.
Steve advised me to sit in the discomfort. Don’t push it away. Give yourself permission to feel it. It will be alright. The psychological term for this is radical acceptance. It doesn’t mean you don’t care (or that you agree), but it does mean you shrug your shoulders and smirk a little when life isn’t fair or shouldn’t be this way. It suuure isn’t.
It all seemed very zen and abstract. Steve is like that.
I found the idea unpalatable immediately. It is impossible to sit in conflict, feeling tense. Feeling tempted. No one wants to marinate in sadness, grief, worry. If you plaster on a retail face, switch off, and go about the day without burdening someone else you eliminate the drama of a poor reaction. There are no words you wish you could take back or apologies that cannot be made. On the other side, there is no brunt of someone’s feelings to bear or bruise beneath either.
It’s easier to absorb than delegate. Some unfortunates have a nearly bottomless capacity for this.
It seems ironic to sit still in pain when there is obviously a problem. How do you pleasantly acknowledge a knife in your ribs? Passivity fixes nothing. It is by definition unactionable. It observes everything.
No. Sleeping is passive, so is sunshine. Money. Tornado shelters. These are the opposite of ineffectual, useless. The word itself connotes weakness and indecision. In reality, passive means “accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance.”
Willingly powerless. That is not a position I have chosen.
Not without being messed up first. Back then, many of the times that I was vulnerable did not stem from genuine acceptance but rather numbness. Numbness is a pseudo-acceptance. It does not care. Half the time it does not even remember. Injury is not something to fear if you are unfeeling.
I have played emotional chess enough times to realize that when you are cornered by the queen and forced to “allow what others do,” you toe the brink of great loss. It is the moment before something invaluable and sometimes irreplaceable is taken.
Powerlessness linked inextricably with loss bonds to become a toxic emotion. It burns into a panic-inducing, cannot-breathe-while-disassociating, ear-ringing hurricane of terror. The association is too strong to break with some cool, clement thinking.
Vulnerability is neither positive nor negative without context – it is defined and given significance by its housing. I once wrote a poem suggesting that this type of openness might be like listening to a hummingbird’s chest. It is the unperceived thrum of life in stillness. It’s a well kept secret until it is sought out.
When people reach out to me to start running, I do two things: congratulate them for their motivation and immediately warn them that their shins will hurt, their shoulders will ache, and their lungs will be on fire the first few times out there. Start with the expectation that it will be uncomfortable – at times intensely so. It will be alright, in time.
This is a good practice for me, too. Learning to deal with physical pain is excellent rehearsal for handling emotional discomfort. Turn the distress over in your mind, like an interesting stone, open your eyes and shrug passively. Yep, the mountain ahead is massive.
I saved my longest, hardest run for the very end of this week, after I had eighty miles in already. I am entering the peak training weeks before the Triple Crown of 200s begins, which means stacking and layering workouts to push myself widely outside of my comfortable limits.
From the first miles, my legs groaned. My upper back was sore from strength training and my hamstrings were ratcheted painfully. It was going to be a long twenty-some miles. The thought stopped there. There does not need to be a judgment about it (“This is going to suck”); it was going to be a slow, steady run. And it was. I kept running, and the discomfort faded into a beautiful morning in the forest.
If we aren’t radically accepting the facts, we are rejecting or manipulating them. Perhaps that is through numbness, addiction, or half truths – the ways in which we reject our reality is probably worth thirty other posts. The conviction remains immutable: sit in the discomfort until you can tolerate it.
As I grow stronger, I will try to ease into a place of powerlessness. The alternative is unacceptable. I’ve witnessed the gradual descent into delusion. Those roads lead into the deepest places without escape. If it costs everything, that is the one road none of us can afford to take.
In this photo, I have just made the decision not to drop out of an ultra even though I have already run 140 miles and I still have 100 miles left. My foot is ripped and ragged; it hurts like hell and is bandaged poorly by my own doing. Every step reminds me of the scorching rip in the pad and the skin peeling away from my toes. I suspect this may be what radical acceptance looks like: it is not consumed by emotion even though it has feeling, it is functioning, it is self-aware.
I am both crying and smiling.