The last day of 2021. A remarkable year. So much promise. So much tumult. Change. Evolution. Love and loss. A year of so many highs and lows in my life like really none other I can remember.
I woke up this New Years’ Eve morning after a night of terrible, restless, barely continuous and certainly unrefreshing sleep to a gray and dreary New England December morning. The house is quiet and cold and in wild disarray befitting my current state of focus. The people I love most in this world are scattered about in the world. I’m alone.
I brewed myself a cup of coffee, looked out the kitchen window and preceded to listen to no fewer than five different versions of “The Sound of Silence.” It’s really only that first lyric that sticks though. I thought I was going to write a retrospective of the year – what made it tumultuous in my own life as a microcosm of the journey we all took this year. It turns out that what I really want to write is something a little different.
What an amazing year. Over the years I’ve learned 365 days is a long time, plenty of room for things to go badly, unexpected obstacles to get in your way, unplanned deviations to change your course. So many opportunities for a few weeks, or even just one event, to color the entirety of the year. This was not that year.
In the span of a few weeks, we went from celebrating my parents in law’s 50th wedding anniversary with two vibrant people to wondering if we would be planning funerals to watching them both bounce back. My mother in law was in the hospital for weeks with an unknown ailment…My father in law went from having a benign tumor to having cancer and a full round of chemotherapy…doubled up so he could go on vacation at the same time. He now is as in better health 2 months later than men 20-25 years his junior. An emotional roller coaster ride if ever there was one. The man is amazing.
My long time neighbor, in failing health for sometime, passed away, leaving her husband of almost 70 years alone for the first time. Watching him handle his sorrow and find himself through it has given me a measure of strength that despite loss – deeply felt loss – the human instinct is to continue on, push forward, be robust and to live, to conquer, to succeed.
We had the good fortune to host close family friends from France at our home for several weeks…and we have the good fortune to have as neighbors good friends who helped support our international efforts. Such an amazing harvest springing from good will. I’m truly fortunate to have so many wonderful people in my life.
In November the sale of my employer was announced and in December it was completed. I honestly don’t know what the ramifications will be. In a year where we made more, gave more away, enjoyed more time off than we ever have, this was not how the year was supposed to end. Just another circumstance to be understood. Processed. Handled. Meanwhile, we’ve saved money, paid down loans significantly.
With the challenges though were the highpoints. We had the wonderful opportunity to visit England to see dear people we consider our family by choice, and to visit several Caribbean countries over the course of a week and a half cruise with my family. My son got the experience I never did and for that I’m forever grateful. He’ll have memories for a lifetime, and experiences that will make him a much more interesting person. A young man of 13, he’s already been to more than 10 countries (Canada, Mexico, UK, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica…) For myself, I had the opportunity to travel to Florida for a half-marathon, Pennsylvania and New Jersey for Spartan races, and Washington for a marathon.
We saw our football team lose a Super Bowl and a chance at a second back-to-back Championship season. We saw our baseball team rise to the level of “All Time Great” teams with a 4th World Series in the last 14 years….after going 86-years without one.
My fitness goal was to run 1500 miles, 4.1 miles every day for 365 days. As of now I’m at 1637, for a daily average of 4.5 miles. I promised myself I would push my limits, and I think I have. Of my Top 5 5k times, 4 were done this year with a 5th off by seconds. I ran a flipping marathon – I didn’t see that coming last December. I ran 3 ultras this year. 49 races all together – maybe one more tomorrow to end the year as it has the last two, with the last race being the CMS Weekly 5k. If I do that, that would be twenty two 5ks on the year of 50 races.
Funny thing though, by far my most common daily mileage (the mode for you numbers types) was 0. Zilch. Nothing. 94 times this year – better than 25% of the time actually – I woke up and decided I wasn’t going to get a run in. I think about those days and conclude that had I done just 1 mile in those days, just one, I’d be within shooting distance of 1750 and had I accomplished 4.1 every day, I’d be up over 2000. Which is a logical fallacy – you just don’t run the day after running a 40-mile ultra – but I know I could have done better for myself.
If I take those “0” days out of my daily average – making it an average of the miles I ran on the days I did run vs. yearly daily average – it comes out to something closer to 6.5 miles. My second highest daily running total? 3 miles at 28-times, 3.1 at 20-times. My target of 4.1? I did that 19 times this year: further proof that one descriptive statistic doesn’t give you enough information at all. My college Psych Research Methods professor would be proud that I’ve retained that.
I ran races with my kids from 5ks to Spartans to a Marathon relay. I met some amazing people who were in the process of crushing their goals.
On Sunday, December 30, I’m running the last of 3 10-mile legs with a friend striving to hit 2000 miles on the year – accomplished with a day 364 50k in an all-or-nothing gambit to complete an ultra-marathon AND hit 2000 miles. He’s amazing.
I met and was inspired by a marine master sergeant with an insane fitness schedule, became friends with a stage 4 cancer survivor – the man running for 2000 miles above – and supported friends through divorce and the passing of parents. TIme can pass so quickly that it becomes so easy to lose the forest for the trees. 2018 has been an amazing year, one that I wish were more common: more up than down, more good than bad, more positive than negative. The year hasn’t been uniformly positive, but it has been incrementally more positive than negative. The most important thing I’m taking with me from my experience this year is the realization that it is the people in your life that are the most important factor in how successful you will be: how much support do you have, how much support do you give, who can you rely on and who can rely on you?
I hope for you, dear reader, that your 2018 was as positive as mine. If not, then I hope the coming 2019 will be the year you should have.
Do you remember the 21st night of September? I bet you just sang those lyrics in your head as you read them.
Even before Maurice has those first few words out of his mouth, I’m moving my arms and doing a chair dance. September is one of those songs that I am absolutely convinced has always existed. It’s brilliant. Nothing shy of brilliant. And it means absolutely nothing. Nothing. It’s just an exhortation to be happy.
Allee Willis, said this of Maurice White: “I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.” ba-dee-ya.
No one cares that it means nothing. Just as no one ever cared that there was literally no meaning to September 21 either. I’m willing to bet that even after 30 years, you don’t even know all the words. The only reason they matter at all is that it gives us all a chance to hear Maurice sing.
It’s about the vibe. It’s about how it makes you feel. It’s musical ice cream: it makes you happy even if the flavor really isn’t your favorite. I love this song for that reason – it just makes me happy, I feel good listening to it. The way Ice Cream feels in your mouth, there’s nothing in this world better.
Compare this with something like “Snuff” by Slayer: even if Slayer is your go to, the vibe will never make you feel “happy” (unless you’re a psychopath) and yeah, the lyrics matter for that reason:
Pleasing to the eye
To this you can’t deny…”
The world holds so much Snuff, and far too little September. Its far too easy to be angry – that ignorant social media post, something shocking in the news, that unfair decision at work. What’s a little bit harder is being happy – just making the decision to be happy. To ignore that social media outrage, to remember very little in the news is actually news, that work is only one part of your life.
So today, on this 21st day of September, even if there has never been a 21st of September in your life worth singing or dancing about, hit the play button right now and give yourself a gift of 3.5-minutes of happiness. Make the choice to be happy.
I didn’t run today, and I feel crummy about it. It was just a rainy, crummy day in New England when I woke up. Of course, it wasn’t raining at 5 AM when more than a few of my friends run. That’s a crazy time of day to do anything – even wake up – never mind go out for a run part of it. It wasn’t raining by quitting time, so I thought maybe I’d go for a quick 3-miles. But, it was humid and, DAMN, my watch had de-charged because I forgot to disconnect the bluetooth. So maybe I’ll hit the Planet Fitness Dreadmill. Yeah, that didn’t happen either.
It’s times like this that reinforce why I worry about falling off track. It’s so damn easy to just go for three miles when you planned four, to just not run at all. Inertia does have a tendency to reinforce itself, and once my inertia of moving forward is broken its ridiculously easy to just let resting bodies rest.
I’ve got big plans, got stuff to do that just won’t get done unless I get up off my fat ass and do them. I’ve got 1500 miles to run this year, a marathon, a relay race with my daughter. I’m pretty sure I’m the most aerobically fit I have ever been, and yet my desire to just take a day off outweighs the opportunity to progress toward those goals.
I haven’t taken a day off in more than two weeks and only then because I ran almost 19 miles the day before. I went hard core yesterday: ran to my bootcamp workout where we worked core and legs, and back, then ran another 8-miles. I’m sore today…almost like I ran 18 miles. I went all out yesterday, and what I’ve found over the course of time is that full bore exercise will reap benefits, but will also knock me out. Hard to know what’s better for me: go full bore, get the benefits and risk the inertia, or risk mediocrity.
So, I feel crummy today, but I also feel like to get the gains I needed to push hard yesterday, and rest today. I’m sore everywhere I should be sore, but I’m sore because I worked muscles that aren’t used to being worked out. This is a good thing. Runners World says, rest helps strengthen your body, sharpen your focus, and reinvigorate your spirit so that you actually want to keep training.
Running daily breaks the body down. A break helps refocus, rejuvenate, recharge. I hope so, because right now I just feel crummy.
Tomorrow I rise, ready to take it on again. Inertia only wins if you let it; a body at rest tends to stay at rest. The question is which do you want to win more: inertia…or you? I’ve put too much work in not to get back at it; I’ve put too much work in to let inertia win. Crummy today; victorious tomorrow.
One of the guys in my running club, someone I consider a friend, is a very good runner. Earlier this year, he time qualified for the Boston Marathon, demolishing the minimum time by some -minutes or so. Then came out to run 5-miles the following day with the group on our weekly “fun run.” I’ve seen him decide that he’s going to run home from somewhere, when his home is some 30-miles away, and complete the track with an average mile of 8:18 minutes.
He seems to live his personal life diving into interests and hobbies with more verve than I think most people dive into theirs. He’s into pinball, and computers so of course he’s got a pinball game replicator – load up just about any pinball came onto the console and play it. He bought a 30-year old truck on eBay.
I think it’s good to know and appreciate interesting people, because they’re the people I’ve found enrich my life the most. And Bill is an interesting guy.
This weekend, he set out the goal of running the length of a local rail trail up and back twice – I’m pretty sure that if it wasn’t on a whim, then it wasn’t a long held plan to do so. This is a total of roughly 34 miles, not a short jaunt in the woods.
“I did turn around at mile 29 and started heading back to the start, but I said “NO. THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE HARD.” and I turned around and headed to Glenwood. Let things be hard. No matter what happens this week, I can always reflect that I ran 34 miles on Sunday.”
“This is supposed to be hard.” Pushing himself to run another 5 miles AFTER 29 MILES. It’s supposed to be hard to run 20 miles, 26.2 miles. After 29 miles and several hours (this took him 5 hours to complete by the way), he was willing himself to finish another 5-miles because it was hard. I wasn’t going to run until I read that; afterward I got up and ran 13 miles BECAUSE I didn’t want to.
“Let things be hard.” Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t about taking the easy way to get things done. Life is about adventure, and growth, and pushing the boundaries of what you think you can do. Let things be hard. If they’re hard, you’re growing. If they’re hard, you’re expanding your horizons. If things are hard, you are becoming your best you.
I spoke with him at one point in the past week and he was reflecting on a recent run. He couldn’t understand why people would run a hill, stop and walk for a half-minute and then run again. “Just keep pushing,” or something to that effect. “I run behind them and keep pushing silently.” I know why they do that, I *DO* that. Or I did. Since that conversation, I’ve had his words in the back of my head at each point I encounter a hill and I imagine him sidling up behind me, staying there, willing me to keep going. I’ve not stopped since.
Bill is an interesting guy. I’ve never once had a negative conversation with him. He’s a survivor, and he is one of the few people I know who consistently pushes those around him to be better, through both example and word.
Do something today BECAUSE it’s hard. Not EVEN THOUGH it’s hard. BECAUSE it’s hard. Don’t give yourself an excuse not to do it, because it’s supposed to be hard. When it’s done, no matter what else happens, you’ll be able to look back and know you’ve accomplished it.
Going back almost 35 years to 1984, I met some of the people who have been the most important in my life – if not consistently, certainly in intervals, and absolutely over the course of time. The boys I met September 1984 were and have remained some of the most important people in my life since.
The important people in their lives have also become important in mine. We’ve been their for the births of our children, the deaths of our parents, the weddings, the divorces. There have been times of strain in our friendships, and there have been revivals. Guys I have reconnected with as a middle aged adult whom I could not have imagined having considered my friend all those years ago.
And then there is one mom. The mother of of my classmates, and another schoolmate. Dave and I were close in school – good friends up to and through college – but as things go, we’ve gone through ebbs and flows in our friendship. As time goes on, we exchange text messages, but have gone years between actually seeing each other. It’s just time and laziness coming between us, nothing more, but it’s that inertia – the same inertia that has gotten in my way of accomplishing of my fitness goals. He’s not on social media, but his brother and his mom are, and they and I are connected.
His mom was always pretty cool. Younger than most of the moms of our classmates, so of course the object of some consideration: she was (and frankly still is) very pretty. But she’s also, as I’ve come to find, a good soul.
Quietly, over the course of time, she has captioned a series of beautiful pictures with a hashtag, #RefusetoContribute. At one point I asked her about it – perhaps even teasing about the origin, because a quick Google search suggests that no such hashtag has trended. Actually, that same search yields results almost the opposite of the intention:
Donate – Refuse Fascism
Only the people taking to the streets in mass, nonviolent, sustained political mobilization can stop this nightmare!
So, what is the intention? Months before I got fed up with the Manufactured Outrage, she was simply posting pictures of paradise, simple tableaus of treasured scenes. She works that hashtag like a boss, and truly her whole feed is family and love.
Here are a few of her #refusetocontribute pictures
Usually captioned only with the hashtag. A small, silent protest against an increasingly polarized world. Cherishing the small, beautiful moments. One voice in the vast interwebs calling for beauty and peace.
No commentary. No judgement.
Let’s all take some time and refuse to contribute.
I take a lot of inspiration from various social media running clubs, groups, and individuals I’ve met – both “virtually” and “IRL” – from these clubs. I’ve overcome – and continue to work on my goals – a multitude of obstacles to fitness. I’ve had an easier path than many.
I’m a solidly middle class, reasonably well-educated middle aged guy who has some means with which to pursue some extra-curriculars. I spent entirely too long sitting on my butt, letting my cholesterol and my weight get too high. That was my obstacle: the inertia of sloth. Literally. That was it.
Every day, I see stories of the people whose paths I’ve crossed on obstacle courses, or at my running club that make me realize just how privileged I am. Injury, illness. Life getting in the way. There’s the instructor at my workout bootcamp whose credit is crap, and whose car was a victim of a hit and run, trying to figure out how to replace/fix her car while maintaining her ability to commute to her various paying jobs while caring for her son.
So, not long after posting my post on “Manufactured Outrage,” one person I’ve come to know only via social media had one of the most powerful messages I’ve read in some time. He’s a union bridge painter. He paints bridges for a living. He’s also a veteran and an immigrant to the United States and from what I can see an amazing athlete. He’s been at various times laid off, due to the seasonal nature of the work, and as recently been working through injury.
Obviously social media is a highly curated version of reality. I don’t know Olando, I don’t know his day to day. I do know what he puts out into the world, and I’m consistently impressed with his positivity and attitude.
His message to the world via status update was this:
“The best part of my day is knowing that i did enough to provide for my wife and kids.”
I don’t know what his day looked like that caused him to write this, I don’t know what his struggles were, I don’t know if today was a great day for him. I do know he is consistently positive, and this message spoke to me. He is proud that he is providing for his family. We should all be so proud as to shout from the roof tops that we’re providing for our loved ones. I’m consistently impressed with his devotion to his family, his dedication to improving every day. The world could use more people like Olando.
I mentioned some time back that I was going to run the Marine Corps Marathon as my first (perhaps last, who knows) full-marathon. What I haven’t done is share here what I’m doing with it.
After I decided I would run the race, I decided I wanted it to mean something more – to give back a little bit. The Marine Corps Marathon promotes physical fitness, generates community goodwill, and showcases the organizational skills of the United States Marine Corps. I wanted to do something that would live up to those values and organizational mission.
With that in mind, I reached out to the O’Connell Valor Fund to pair me with a Veteran in need for whom I can raise money and awareness of veteran’s issues. It was important to me to do this on my own terms – not raise money as part of a fundraising commitment for a charity issued a block of entries where the money goes down a rabbit hole. I’m running this using my own funds, paying my own way, and without a set commitment. I do have a fundraising goal, however, and it’s on the basis of that goal that OVF has done amazing work to vet and pair this fund raiser with a veteran in need.
To that end, The O’Connell Valor Fund, Inc. has presented a Veteran for me to sponsor as part of my Marine Corps Marathon fund raising effort.
He is a current era Army Veteran who was medically separated. He has increasing medical needs requiring frequent trips to the Veteran’s Administration (VA) and emergency rooms (ERs). Before this spring, his wife was full time employed in a good profession and his adult son with special needs also contributed financially to the household.
However, earlier this spring, his son committed suicide in the family home. Consider this for a moment and really, really let it sink in.
Given the nature of the her job, she is not able to return to work at this time and an already struggling family is now struggling emotionally, physically and financially. Many agencies have worked very hard with the family in the last few months to help them while they grieve. They are at a place now in which they are willing/needing to move out of their current residence. These agencies are working with them to increase the level of support services from the VA in the home and working with his wife around plans for reentry into the workforce. The family will need additional financial support to help them move and leave the home where the incident took place and move closer to the VA.
And THAT is where my little idea to give a little back is going. These stories are real, this is the story of a very real struggle. I am forever thankful to help make a difference in another life in this way. The tragedy and greatness of this effort is that the O’Connell Valor Fund has many other cases similar to this one and there are many ways to help – everyone, EVERYONE has the opportunity to give back, sometimes you just need to set your mind to making a difference. You don’t have to give a dollar to a nameless, faceless organization or fundraiser. The OVF spends 99% of all received money on the veterans it supports. This is literally helping local.
To help in my fundraising efforts, please visit my fundraising page or, even better, donate directly at the O’Connell Valor Fund website. Thank you for your support, even if that is a share on Facebook. What matters is making a difference.
About the Event: The mission of the Marine Corps Marathon is to promote physical fitness, generate community goodwill and showcase the organizational skills of the United States Marine Corps. Annually ranked as one of the largest marathons in the US and the world, the MCM has been recognized as “Best Marathon in the Mid-Atlantic,” “Best for Families” and “Best for Beginners.” Runners from all 50 states and more than 50 countries participate in the MCM and an annual calendar of events including the Marine Corps Historic Half in Fredericksburg, VA in May and the MCM Event Series conducted aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico. Organized by the men and women of the United States Marine Corps, the MCM is the largest marathon in the world that doesn’t offer prize money, instead celebrating the honor, courage and commitment of all finishers.
About the O’Connell Valor Fund:
Our goal is simple – help our U.S. Military heroes, next-of-kin, and families better cope with daily life so they can heal with some peace of mind knowing basic essentials are covered. This might include a monthly utility bill payment, groceries for the week, making sure their child’s birthday is a little extra special, and many other basic essentials many of us take for granted. Please donate whatever you can using the Donate link above. Thank you! The O’Connell Valor Fund, Inc.
Contributions made to this campaign are tax-deductible.
Thích Quảng Đức was a Buddhist monk who on June 10, 1963 led a procession of monks to an intersection a few blocks from the South Vietnamese presidential palace, assumed the lotus position where an associate poured gasoline over his head. He recited a homage to Buddha and subsequently lit himself on fire in protest.
I never fully comprehended why a man of faith would willingly take his life. Indeed, in Buddhism, life is precious and its destruction is to be avoided. But then again, my own world view is that of a Western Christian, and Christianity’s view on suicide is very clear. Buddhism doesn’t work with absolutes. According to one author, Buddhism sees human birth “as incredibly precious, an opportunity not to be wasted. That the human predicament includes stress and suffering is the First Noble Truth; the Second, Third and Fourth Noble Truths guide our relationship to that suffering.”
But I see here, Quảng Đức was not escaping from suffering or stress. He was drawing the worlds’ attention to the ignoble condition of the Buddhist population in South Vietnam – a country that was then 90% Buddhist and ruled by a Catholic minority, intolerant of the Buddhist world view. “Not to be wasted” is not the same as “having ended.” It makes sense in a way: Catholics are very black and white about life and death, about subservience to authority and hierarchy; Buddhists tend to be more complacent, willing to accept their lot. Where Christianity is very much ordered around the ten commandments – concrete rules not to be violated – Buddhism is ordered around four noble truths, guides without much in the way or explanation. In Christianity we’re taught “right from wrong;” In Buddhism the meaning of Right includes an ethical, and a balanced, or middle way.
So, why would the practitioner of a religion teaching life as incredibly precious and the destruction of which is to be avoided, self immolate in protest? The middle way.
The idea that he wasn’t escaping suffering, but rather he was embracing suffering in hopes of bettering the lot of those of his countrymen.
What was shocking to the rest of the world – his ability to remain in lotus. In The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam wrote “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him…” He had accepted his suffering, embraced it.
The Four Noble Truths liberate people from suffering. Here they are from Lionsroar.com
Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside.
2. The Cause of Suffering
The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid “I.” The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.
3. The End of Suffering
The good news is that our obscurations are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified and awakened mind is always available to us.
4. The Path
By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take exactly the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the buddhas do. We too can wake up.
So, by immolating himself, he was actually freeing himself and his countrymen from suffering. Reread that passage from David Halberstam: “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound…” Suffering people do not sit still. He had let go of the samsara, that belief that he was separate from others. He gave up this existence and its suffering: to be sure, he believed in reincarnation – that he would return to the earth in another form, and not to be sent to an afterlife to sit before judgement.
The Catholics in charge of the country could not comprehend why he had done what he did because they believed in an absolute prohibition on suicide, and in the certainty of sitting before God’s judgement. When Quảng Đức’s action did not yield immediate results, several other monks self-immolated as well. Interestingly enough it was not the leadership of South Vietnam who came to understand, but rather the rest of the world, horrified by what was now happening, pushed the government to action.
Now that I’ve described my understanding of what happened on that day, I want to share a video taken of the event.
At a time where public protest was not the norm, at a time video recording was a novelty – if not luxury – there is a video recording of it. Think of what a video recorder in 1963 would have looked like – as the first 75 seconds of the movie show, it must’ve been large and bulky, and judging from the angle, frowned upon by the authorities. We see the thousand or so protesters encircling the monk, jostling perhaps for a better view, and the authorities pushing them back.
I can’t help but to think how this man was about to light himself on fire for these people, people who clearly had not reached the level of enlightenment he had – likely people with less strength of belief as his, or less commitment. The protest was allowed to continue, even as the police would have seen the gasoline being poured over his head; perhaps it wasn’t immediately obvious to them that was, in fact, gasoline.
The most powerful moment of that recording occurs at about 2:07 – the moment he lights the match. It’s as if everything else STOPS. The jostling stops. The police turn away from the throngs of people to face him, to a man their arms and hands by their sides: Respect? Awe? Disbelief?
By 2:25 or so you can see clearly how accurately Halberstam reported his lack of movement: it’s not for another 30-seconds of the video before his now charred remains fall over. Halberstam notes just how quickly a human body will burn, so bearing in mind the footage has been slowed down, in real time some the gathered crowd would have begun immediately bowing on hands and knees and this would have been over in a matter of seconds.
As with any telling of story, I’m quite sure there is so much nuance and fact missing from the account. That’s not really what this post is about though. It’s about the strength of mind and purpose, of self control and selflessness, of belief to be able to make a decision you believe to be the middle way – one coming from a place of enlightenment – even if it means putting yourself in harms way, giving yourself up for the good of the majority.
I will remember this lesson just how much the mind controls our perception of the world, how it controls our sensations. How it can allow a man literally burn to death without so much as flinching. I will remember this the next time I am faced with a challenge I don’t believe I can complete.
A friend of mine ran a Boston Qualifying time of just about 3:17:00 at the Providence Marathon on Sunday. On Monday before our group run my buddy Duke and I had done a bit of a warm up, and when we arrived back to catch up with the larger group, Bill was there, ready to run. To highlight his stellar achievement, I mentioned that he had just the previous day run a marathon in the time it took us to do our warm-up run. Let’s not pay attention to the fact that here was a guy who had just run a 7:30 min/mile marathon the day before and he was out for a 5-mile run the next day. This guy is pure animal.
On our way home, my boy – he’s 12, mind you – asked me why I always seem to denigrate myself in complimenting others. Obviously, I protested – c’mon, boy, what are you talking about? I suggested that he was fast running the marathon, not that we were slow running our 5k, but he came right back with the devastating question, “why couldn’t you have just said he was fast?”
And that just kind of hung out there for a while.
What am I going to do? Deny he was right? My 12-year old is a sophisticated enough speaker of English that he recognizes that linguistic habit. He gets the idea that the net effect of doing that is lowering my own standing with other people. In some cultures, that’s not necessarily the case, but in Twenty-first Century America, it certainly is.
I’ve never really thought about it before, but now that its been pointed out to me I can think back as far as high school and see that pattern. To show people how good they are, I have to be less.
That’s not normal.
I think it is a competitive thing for me. I strive to be better, I want to be better, and somehow someone performing at a higher level diminishes my performance. Its a ranking. While most 12-year olds don’t understand linguistics quite to the same level – or perhaps they do, they just don’t articulate themselves that way…or perhaps we just have a relationship that allows him to speak honestly to me – he nailed it. In taking control of the conversation in the way he did by just making an observation, he demonstrated a skill I didn’t know he had and demonstrated an aspect of our relationship I am proud of.
Either way, he not only went straight for the unvarnished truth, he reframed my experience, just. like. that. He listens. He processes. He knows. We all know kids are sophisticated processors of information – as a parent, I’ve wondered and worried for years just what my kids would say about me to each other many years hence. What they’d each remember of their childhoods with me. What sort of counseling they’d need because of me, or perhaps more specifically what maladaptions would they take with them that work to a certain point and then doesn’t?
I feel a lot better knowing that, while he has definite expressions of a strong personality that will both be a great attribute for him and will also get in his way, he knows enough to be able to process these traits. I listen to him and wonder where he picks certain things up…only to hear myself utter similar things hours or even minutes later, so I know I have to show him the same skill he’s shown me. I also know that I should expect a similar response, “c’mon Dad, that’s not what I’m doing…”
He demonstrated he trusted me to listen to him and respect his point. We have some tough conversations and yet at the end of the day, he always wants to check in with me and at the start of the day, he always wants me to walk with him to the school bus. He knows me pretty well and he’s comfortable asking me questions like “why do you denigrate yourself?”
So, it was important that I follow up with him, and thus I did. I told him that I thought about what he said, and despite my protestations I thought he was right and would seek to change my linguistic habits. “Great job” is a lot more positive than “That’s so much better than what I could do.” Positive for the recipient, and without denigrating anyone. Lifting someone up without cutting anyone down. My boy has helped me be a better friend and person. And, I hope, a better father.