November 5, 2014
On my own secret envy of robots, animated pedagogical agents, and my MacBook Air.
Yesterday morning I went running. As I mentioned earlier, I love running particularly running distance. There’s something indescribably amazing about when you hit that magical point where your body is on auto pilot and your mind is completely clear. Running distance is intensely painful, intensely boring, and when you’re in the thick of training for an event people are pretty much convinced you’ve got some sort of bizarre clandestine relationship because all your free time is occupied and you suddenly now can’t stay out past 8 p.m.
The author Shauna Niequist spoke at a conference I attended last week that to really know yourself you needed to be as mindful of yourself as you are a person you’re first beginning to be romantically interested in. I think it’s a genius metaphor as it’s so true.
In many ways training for a distance event is the perfect situation for this newfound self romance to flourish. Distance running really is a bit like having a crush on yourself….being mindful of your own body like it’s this wonderful new world that you can’t help but be dazzled by.
When training, you suddenly notice all the strange nuances of your own body. Meals once mindlessly eaten become somewhat obsessive concoctions of protein and carbs and electrolytes so that you can make your body the best it possibly can be. You do things like yoga and get massages and take long baths because you suddenly realize how important things like legs actually are. In addition there’s a whole mental side of getting to know yourself as you learn to silence the negative naysayers that tell you distance is too far, you are too weak, there are better things to give your life to than hours spent essentially running alone.
You learn, when you are training, to listen like a mystic to the voices constantly buzzing through your head then dismiss 99.8% of them, only heeding the fraction that may actually be from muscles in crises, core temperature escalating too quick, or lungs processing just a shade too fast for your efforts. These are the voices that you listen for with a laser focus but the others…so much false urgency ready to try and call you back—tie you down.
Describing the process of training for a distance event is particularly resonant (and dare I say overly romanticized) with me right now not because I am in the midst of doing it myself rather because this year I began the process and then aborted it halfway through the summer. I was hoping to once more run the Chicago 50K but then a combination of physical and scheduling snags all sort of overwhelmed me and at the key moment of deciding if I wanted to actually sign up for the race, I realized that my own list of completed long runs was much shorter than my own list of planned long runs, my body was nowhere near prepared for the rigor of a 5 hour long endurance race, and ultimately the best choice would be to pull out.
It’s such a bittersweet call to make as I both knew that it was the right thing to do and still wondered if saying no to something I wanted so badly actually meant I am a quitter and I am weak—I let the naysayers win out in the end and because of it, I’ll never be invited to the distance party again. I know none of this is true since in my 20 years of running I’ve made this call many times (and even not made the call when I should and then paid dearly and almost did legitimately lose the ability to run distance). But still, in that moment of decision…it’s hard to see beyond anything but your own disappointment and like any loss you need to mourn a bit and then when you’re ready, let go and move on. For the past month, I’ve not been running a lot because running made me feel all the feelings that I hate to feel…like shame because I couldn’t stick with my training plan, and guilt because I chose other things over running, and like the words “weak” and “imposter” had been emblazoned on my chest because I said no to the whole endeavor of distance. I know in my head that these are all lies and running is running and when I take it to cosmic places, it’s me taking it there and not me being ontologically changed by it and yet…it’s hard not to feel cosmic about the whole endeavor because it’s my life.
So, yesterday morning I went running.
As I was running I tried (and mostly got through) all the above mentioned issues because as I said before I am trying, in this season, to just have running be about running and not be the gateway to all the other issues that have the ability to make me neurotic. My real focus while running was ostensibly going to be on how I was going to get through the challenges of this week with the looming events of: my Assignment 2 paper, my 803 practicum, large-ish staff issues I have to make smart choices with, and the ever present issues of student retention/engagemen/completion rates that I have to report on each week to my supervisor.
I was hoping that as I ran there would be some sort of cosmic download of wisdom into my own brain and I’d leave my thirty minute stint with a hearty dose of inspiration and insight so that the this week would be a shining star of productivity. In my head I kind of pictured when my computer runs updates and the little status bar fills up from left to right. When I began my run, my mind was the empty bar and over the course of me communing with my endorphins and taking in lots of oxygen, the progress bar would top itself up and I’d be rebooted for another week of awesome.
Turns out….not so much. Instead of amazing inspiration, my mind seemed bent on telling me what a stupid choice it was to take time to go running when clearly my urgent list was quickly becoming a volcano. In addition because all of last week I’d been on a Taylor Swift listening binge every accusation was also accompanied by a bizarro teenage girl angst ridden mental soundtrack. Yep…Just another glamorous day in the life! : )
That said around mile 2, when I was getting increasingly frustrated at life in general and on the verge or writing my own break up song with pretty much everything about my own brain because it was so uncooperative, I had a bit of a small epiphany. I was upset because my body was acting so totally human, getting distracted, playing mental music and very much not acting on the rational commands I’d tasked it with. Here I needed to download a weeks worth of wisdom in 30 minutes so that I could be the smart, capable leader/student/daughter/friend/citizen that I need to be and what was happening instead?? My mind was singing songs about love. Why couldn’t my own head listen to what I really needed it to do rather than be so messy and unpredictable and so totally human? Why wasn’t I more like my obedient MacBook Air?
These thoughts (in case you happen to be a lucky well adjusted person who has never experienced the perverse desire to be more like your electronic devices) have the blessing of being just irrational enough that they tend to snap oneself out of their crazy navel gazing. Or at least for me they always do. I realized around mile 2.5 that my main frustration in lots of, if not all the things is that I’m not a machine. As crazy as it sounds, I’m not my MacBook Air and I can’t have programmable, predictable outcomes born from a string of ones and zeroes written into my soul. I am a human and as such I’m a massive ball of influences and outcomes…like the most complicated system in chaos theory times seven. And here’s the crazy thing….so is everyone else around me. I can put all the correct inputs and lines of code into my students and they still have to make their own choices. Same thing with the instructors on my team and even worse….my friends. And don’t even get me started on the complexities of my family! I can control and program and design the circumstances around me so that it’s all totally perfect and then someone won’t act on their cue…someone will forget their lines and the whole perfect system will collapse into chaos. Sometimes this disequilibrium feels dazzling and exciting and like an adventure but other times, like yesterday, it feels deeply unfair.
I love being human and I know that it’s a good thing to affirm humanity in everyone I interact with, whether via face to face means or as often is the case in my professional life, mediated by a computer. But it’s hard too sometimes because it is so shifty and so messy. But, in the end it’s the best we can do and does make life the exciting adventure that it is. This week I hopefully will look around at the people who surround me and find ways that they can speak truth into my life—speak inspiration into me and vice versa. And when I look at my MacBook Air, I will remind myself that it is a good element of my life but it is by no means what I should aspire to be…at least not totally. : )