A few months ago, I shared a list of the top five things that walking 500 miles helped me understand in a deeper or different way. Here is a bit more context around the fourth lesson- stand by your choices– When the going gets tough, lean into the discomfort, after all, you’re the one that chose to put yourself in this situation
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I first discovered the notion of “leaning into discomfort” last year, from my father. In a spur of the moment decision that still baffles me I had committed to run a half-marathon. I printed a training schedule I found online, got a good pair of running shoes and motivated myself with the promise of New York’s best donuts (I stand by that claim) at Peter Pan after every run. I was soon forced by an interminable string of snowstorms to train indoors on a treadmill. Let’s be honest, running in place inside in bad lighting is far from a stimulating experience. I dealt with the drudgery of burning lungs, aching muscles and being forced to awkwardly stare at my wheezing tomato-red reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors strategically (perversely) placed in front of the treadmills by zoning out. I would pick a point on my shirt, somewhere near the collar, directly under my chin, stare at it in the mirror and blast music (or podcasts, thank you Debbie Millman) in my headphones to slowly force my mind out of the gym. My runs were a chore and while with time I came to appreciate and look forward to the way I felt after a long run, the act itself was something I just had to get through.
That changed when one weekend I visited my parents and went on a run with my father who is an avid runner. He told me to leave my music at home and said to focus instead on the way the air felt in my lungs, the crunch of the ground under my sneakers, the noise of the birds overhead–to lean into the experience, discomfort and all; to be fully present in the moment. This all sounded like a terrible idea but I trust and look up to him enough that I was willing to give it a try. It was on that run that my feelings about running started to change. I acquired a new appreciation for the act itself, I began to enjoy the feeling of running, not just the feeling that came when I stopped. There was still discomfort and pain but I discovered a strong sense of joy in those aches. This was my body, moving, strengthening and even though the process sometimes hurt, I felt incredibly excited by experiencing the fullness of the process.
I injured myself two weeks before the race and was told by my doctor that I had to stop running for a few months until I recovered. I’ve since given up on the idea of running a half-marathon but I’ve kept running. I don’t want to force myself to run in place on a treadmill for up to an hour and a half to reach a certain number of miles by race day, but I come alive when the weather is pleasant and I’m out for a run.
The last stage of the Camino Frances goes through the luxuriant hills of Galicia. The second I crossed over into Galicia three things happened: I was awed by the breathtaking greens hidden and revealed by opaque layers of thick fog; it rained all day every day, and I came down with a massive cold. I’m not talking little seasonal sniffle, no, this was the real thing–mouth breathing, body aches, sore throat and fever. I tried to rally and thought about my father’s advice to embrace the fulness of each experience by leaning into all its components, including the uncomfortable ones. That got me through most of the first day but by the third day, walking from morning to mid-afternoon in torrential rain, slipping in mud, and lugging my heavy pack, I fell prey to whining and self-pity.
After spending the better part of the morning telling myself that this was awful, that I hated it, that it was the stupidest thing I had ever done, I was reluctantly forced to come to the unavoidable conclusion that I had no one to “blame” for this but myself. No one had made me walk, it had been my choice and it had been something I had really wanted, something I thought would be important. The mud, the rain, the cold, the constant running out of tissues and burning sore throat, all that was a consequence of a choice I had made. It was part of the package.
I have always been obsessed by notions of identity–who are we? how do we know? why does it matter?– There are so many layers to get lost in when trying to formulate a sense of the self. In the bustle of daily life it is so easy to avoid owning up to who we are by hiding behind habits, labels, complacency. We make excuses–we’re too tired, too busy, too stressed, we’d be/act differently if only… It’s astonishing what carrying all your belongings on your back will do to help you clarify things. In the end, when all the noise is removed and each day comes down to lacing up your boots and walking down the path you have chosen, the questions crystalize. Do you walk through the breathtaking landscapes but also the cow shit and the mud pits? Do you own your choice or not?
My walk helped crystalize some thoughts around selfhood, voice and experience that have been brewing in my mind for the past few years. I feel a bit vulnerable sharing this insight because it seems so definitive and if there is one thing I find ridiculous it’s certainties. But for me, at this stage in my life, at least, I reached the end of my walk and the conclusion that the measure of who we are comes down to wether or not we are willing to stand behind our choices.
In some way, choices are cheap– A or B, stripes or polka dots, adventure or safety. We may agonize for extended periods of time over which choice to make, but the actual decision takes only a moment. The real work comes after, will we reaffirm our decision each day and embrace the consequences or will we whine and blame and become alienated from ourselves and our experience in the process. It’s been said before, but there is an expiration date for blaming your parents and circumstances for wasting the numbered amount of moments you are given.
This is about taking ownership for the lives we live; it’s about living with intent, courage and perseverance. Do you want to go through life running in place in bad neon lighting, blasting music through your headphones until your mind is numb or do you want to live the fullness of who you are by accepting accountability for the decisions your make? It’s not our choices that define us, but our capacity and willingness to stand behind them.