The Ironman distance is so compelling because it pulls us into a deeper conversation with our limits. Shorter distance races are battles of fitness, talent, strategy, and execution. But Ironman adds in another variable: attrition. Over the course of an Ironman, it’s not just our musculoskeletal systems that break down. It’s our mental capacity to endure. Stripped of defense mechanisms, strategies for coping with physical destruction, and drained of the glucose that sustains clarity and cognition, there is either a gradual or abrupt departure from ingenuity, and we resort to our default response to overwhelming sensation. There’s a point in which the attrition wins and we don’t even remember why we thought we wanted to break through in the first place.
On another level, the past 2 years have been harrowing. Caught inside the spinning of our daily lives, we might underestimate the degradation that this punctuated time in history has had on our resources, coping mechanisms, and generative creativity. When we look at the whole of what needs reckoning and reform in our world, it is understandable to be pulled towards overwhelm. It is tempting to settle into a reluctant acceptance that we’re all generally doomed. Whether on a small scale or a broadened timeline, attrition invites us into conversation only when our walls are already on shaky ground.
You know the conversation. It’s the one that always pops up on thresholds. On the one hand you have your goals and dreams for the future. On the other hand, your lungs are on fire and your legs don’t give a flying fuck about your goals and dreams for the future. It’s a conversation we’re constantly looking for escape routes out of. Perhaps we could just distract ourselves from the conversation, through music or through partitioning the remaining time into bite-sized chunks. Or perhaps we could back off or slow down just a little bit. Anything to escape this dreadfully taxing conversation, the one we’re so sure will convince us that we don’t have what it takes.
Admittedly, the tragedies that have become commonplace on mainstream news cycles are distressing, yet don’t often make the cut for something that will actually make me stop what I’m doing or change anything about the way I go about my day-to-day existence. I might feel sad, or outraged, or disgusted, but I only allow these emotions to rise up to a digestible level, which still allows for me to continue going about my very busy, self important daily occurrences. You know – things to do, bills to pay, etc. It’s not that I don’t care, I’m just not convinced that I’ll have the capacity to sustain my efforts for long enough to make meaningful change. Running on limited fumes, I’m afraid my efforts will be all for naught, when the magnitude of a compelling moment regresses back into mundane reality. Moreover, if I surrender to the sensations that are begging for attention, how can I be sure that they won’t lead me astray?
Here’s the thing: I’d love to blame at least half of our collective problems on anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, the anti-science movement, and dogmatic religious institutions. If you find yourself empathizing with my apparent political affiliation, you likely just experienced a rise in dopamine associated with my not-so-subtle categorization and implication of these groups as unintelligent. If you find yourself in opposition, you may have immediately started rushing to recall all of the pre-written narratives that defend your worldview, as an understandable reaction to being minimized.
Pause. Take one deep breath.
The unpleasant truth is that we’re all just trapped in our own devastatingly repetitive algorithms. Since we’re all talking about it anyway, let’s talk specifically about vaccines. If you believe in the science that upholds vaccine effectiveness, like I do (notice that seemingly inescapable self-righteous tone), the rest of the narrative which runs on a loop in both your internal and external conversations is sadly predictable:
“It’s not that hard to wear a mask.”
“Anti-vaxxers are dumb.”
“The pandemic would be over by now if it weren’t for the anti-vaxxers / anti-science movement.”
It’s not that I don’t empathize with these statements, it’s that I’m uninspired by their repetition and lack of nuance. Isolating, predictable narratives perpetuate an isolating predictable world. And aren’t we tired of our own monotonous, ineffective rhetoric?
If, at the very least, you’re open to entertaining a different conversation, I have an idea. I’m not asking for much. In fact, I’m not asking for anything at all.
My proposal: do nothing.
To clarify, I mean don’t react – at least not at first. Somewhere along the line, we learned to mistrust our own bodies. Sensation is perceived as a threat rather than simply a source of information. In order to build a bridge back to the inherent wisdom of our senses, start with stillness in the presence of discomfort and uncertainty. Instead of rushing to fix or to numb the rising sensation, close your eyes, breathe deeply from your belly, and allow the sensation to move through you. Don’t shove it down. Don’t push it away. Don’t cling to it. Do literally nothing, except breathe – slowly and deeply.
More specifically, be still until the minute you notice that being still is maddeningly uncomfortable, and then take one more deep breath before going about your business. After that one deep breath, you can go right back to reacting exactly the same way you would have before. I promise you will lose no time out of your day.
In this article from the Harvard Business Review, David Rock, cofounder of the Neuroleadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, outlines the need for collective rehabilitation from the pandemic, based on 3 of our most basic, intrinsic psychological needs: certainty, control, and connectedness being held hostage for the past 2 years. Psychological depletion is incongruous with our ability to use our senses. To be still and breathe grounds us back into our bodies, where we have access to more wisdom and choice than we may realize.
Viktor Frankl famously said that in the space between a stimulus and our response, we have power to choose, and in that choice lies our growth and freedom. There will not be true liberation for any of us if we don’t reclaim our power to choose the way we respond, and we cannot choose a new way to respond unless we first create space.
If change is our rallying cry on a systemic level, and we’re not willing to at least investigate potential change in the way we respond to our daily circumstances, where do we expect the change to come from? Isn’t that slightly hypocritical, if not the definition of insanity? If we don’t simply take a minute to breath and stay present with the physical sensations that tend our behavior towards fight or flight, then all of the problems will always be outside of us. And if all of the problems are always outside of us, the solutions remain outside of us, and nothing ever changes.
When I’m still, the most honest thing I can come up with is that I have no idea what the “right” answers are for how we move forward. My best guess is that the solutions are probably complicated, context-dependent, and nuanced, as most things in life tend to be. What I do know is that no one has ever, at any time in history, changed their mind as a result of being told that their specific way of being qualifies them as bad or wrong.
And since facts, data, and shaming are proven to be inadequate persuasion techniques, it’s at least worth making space for an alternative. Rigid certainty cannot be our lifeline, for no other reason than its fallacy. To claim certainty is to claim nothing more than intolerance for ambiguity.
It’s really no wonder that all of those fearful and seductive voices show up at the threshold, trying to persuade us to go back to the safety of known evils. A threshold, after all, is a doorway, and those fateful temptresses are the bouncers. We find ourselves at thresholds only when we are tired and broken down. There are no invitations to innovation that arrive in neat little packages. There are no outlines or instruction manuals. There is no well-lit path through the wreckage of our worn-out ways of being. We arrive at thresholds with our lungs on fire and our legs shaking beneath us. The beauty and the gut-wrenching agony of the threshold is that we don’t need to know where we’re going next. In fact we can’t know because we’re building something entirely new. There is no light of experience to guide us. We can only rely on our senses and stay present for long enough to take one more deep breath.