Every December, as the year approaches its end, I go through a similar thought process of contemplating and analyzing our accomplishments and shortfalls of the past 12 months. No matter how good or how bad the year has been, I tend to always be overwhelmed by a certain sense of inadequacy. Being an inherently positive person, this feeling does not typically last very long, but I try not to gloss over it or fail to address the recurring prominence of this self-doubt. Of course, success is a wholly arbitrary notion, superficially defined by external expectations, but only real within ourselves, in the form of our own sense of satisfaction and contentment.
With running taking up such a large part of my life, whether through racing, writing, photography, or coaching, I tend to be particularly demanding of the activity’s worth and meaning for myself and others.
In my early to mid-twenties, I worked in the nonprofit world, with the most impactful time of my career spent in Kenya in children’s education and primary-school building. While the work was not without hurdles, I did have a strong sense of helping communities directly, in a very socially accepted manner. Humanitarian work is broadly seen as being a worthy contribution to society and therefore it is easy to feel worthy and attach meaning to our efforts. On the surface this is a valid statement, but the reality of the work hides political and ethical complexities that good intentions cannot by themselves reconcile. That is to say, I could not find a true sense of worthiness in my work without digging deeper into its real impact, not just the overall perception of what is good. What I found is that, beyond the politics, beyond the greater implications of the work, the small things that matter most, our shared human experience, our ability to touch somebody and feel reciprocated emotion and connection. When I think back to my time in Kenya, the bigger picture of what was good or bad dissolves and only details remain–small things, bonds of friendship, of realness, of transcending our circumstances and finding the universal connection in our existence.
When I think about running, I apply a similar logic. At first, when I process the past year’s events, I immediately jump to the bigger picture, of performances and race results, of what I did or did not produce, and I am dissatisfied. I want more, I want better, and I compare myself vainly. What I fail to acknowledge, with deeper, more astute observation is the quality of the experiences I have had, which is where their depth and meaningfulness truly take shape.
Now, this is not a cop out, an effort to dodge where I came up short, rather it is an affirmation of what truly creates meaning in my life. Inherent worth is not defined by general perception, it is something much more intimate. It is easy to get wrapped up in results and performances and by doing so disassociate with our surroundings and the heart of the experience. Sometimes, by living vicariously through someone else we are able to make light of our own reflexions and gain further understanding of our personal exploration.
At this year’s UTMB, I watched as Tony came staggering in to Trient, looking sick and depleted. He had been vomiting on and off for the past several hours and was struggling to sit upright in the aid station. Renouncing the will to keep on trying to compete, we decided that the best course of action was for him to lay down for a while, to let the nausea pass. Laying on the mattress, he refused to remove his shoes at first, as this was somehow in his head accepting defeat. Performance and expectations still weigh heavily on his mind, but are soon trumped by the more pressing need for self-preservation and desire to simply finish.
After a few hours of rest, I observed a dramatic shift in his demeanor, not just from feeling physically better, but also from a mental adjustment. In the moment, you are only as good as you are and to have that realization is near epiphanic.
For me, it is the coming to awareness that we are no greater or lesser than anyone else and that circumstances such as these let us be vulnerable. They allow us to expose ourselves in our best, most untainted light. The will to finish is what is celebrated, yet beyond that it is the commonality of our struggles and the openness of being that touches us. What transpires is that the end result is irrelevant, but rather that the richness of the details make up the wonderful complexity of the life we live. What matters most are the small things that make us feel, express, and share.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Are you inclined toward self-doubt? Do you look back upon your accomplishments wishing you had done more, moved faster, seen more?
- In running, do you attach self-worth to the numbers on the clock at the finish line or to the journey you had between the start and the finish? Or maybe some of both?
- What happens when you focus on the details of your experiences, like Joe expresses having done about his past? What do you see? What do you feel?