Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Happiness and The Why
A little while ago I was asked why I want to qualify for Kona.
It was one of those questions where the answer seems so obvious as to defy explanation.
Easy. I want to qualify because I want to qualify. I just want it. I spend a lot of life wanting. I want the cake, I want the toy, I want the prize, I want the attention. I want all sorts of things, many of which I really shouldn't want. It's kind of a human nature thing. I just want to qualify for Kona.
But that wasn't a really good answer, and I wanted to provide this person with a good answer, so I decided to ponder a little more deeply.
I thought about it.
And then I thought some more.
And then I thought some more.
Ummm. Because trying to get there makes me happy?
But saying because it makes me happy is not a robust answer. So I came up with some better, plausible answers that I have used in the past, which are all sort of true, but not really completely true.
1. It's time away from being a mom, wife, teacher, launderer, food preparer, vacuumer, counter cleaner, picker-uper of abandoned socks, toys, dog kibble, clothing, couch cushions etc. etc. etc. and general slave to the needs and wants of my progeny.
2. Because I don't want to look like the middle-aged mom that I am; I want to look like the twenty-year old lassie I wish I once was.
3. It gives my husband an opportunity to spend lots and lots of time with his wee ones. And Dad time is like, wicked important in terms of kids' psychological development, right?
4. Because I like to exercise. A lot.
5. Because I like to shop for triathlon accoutrements--especially Splish bathing suits.
6. Because I need something about which to blog.
7. Because I want to model "healthy living" for my tots.
8. Because I like to compete.
9. Because I enjoy pain, suffering and extreme fatigue.
10. Because male triathletes are generally hot, and I find it enormously satisfying to ogle them on a regular basis.
These are all excellent reasons. I spew each of them freely when asked why the hell I train so hard and so much. They aren't lies either. There is some truth in each reason.
None of them really get at the real WHY, though. The real WHY is more elusive--especially the why of I want so desperately to qualify for Kona in a sort of sick, obsessive kind of way.
I read an article by Ben Greenfield in last month's Triathlete called What Really Motivates You? Because I had just been contemplating this very question, I read it with relish. In it Greenfield suggests we look a little deeper to find out our true motivation for competing in triathlon.
The article was interesting but not really right on, in my opinion. It suggested that we may be driven by "some illogical reason, a highly emotional want or fear." Yes. I agree with that. But then he goes onto say that if we discover this reason --the ultimate answer he calls it--then we will, perhaps, be on the way to our "greatest race ever."
I totally disagree with this premise. I know, for example, when I look deep within, that one reason I work so hard at triathlon is because I'm trying to prove that I am NOT that fat, lazy teenager who smoked dope, loafed in swim practice and who feigned pride in her lack of commitment to pretty much anything. Deeper and uglier still, I'm trying to prove this to certain people in my past who didn't care then and don't care now whether I can run 10 feet, let alone complete an Ironman.
This "reason" is deeply rooted enough so that it is surely a driving force in my subconscious motivational landscape. It's always there--a little hum in the background that keeps me moving. But it doesn't get at WHY I want to qualify for Kona. It explains, in part, why I work hard at things in general--but not why I find happiness and satisfaction from triathlon specifically, and why I want to qualify for Kona in particular. And at any rate, consciously acknowledging that I work hard because I'm trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I can work hard just makes me feel like a dumb ass. If I hit a big hill in a race and ask myself Why the hell am I doing this? the answer--because you were pudgy and lazy as a little girl and you need to prove that you're not anymore--surely isn't going to get me over that hill. It's not only illogical, it's also full of adolescent drama, self-pity and is seriously fucking stupid.
So at this point I was left with ten or so socially acceptable (except maybe number 10), conscious, sort of reasons I do triathlon, and one ugly, subconscious reason I do triathlon, but the larger WHY, the Big Kahuna WHY of wanting to qualify for Kona, still remained unclear.
I recently read this interesting article in The Atlantic entitled What Makes Us Happy? In it this journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk describes a longitudinal study that has been going on at Harvard for the last 72 years. In 1931, two researchers selected 268 "well-adjusted" Harvard sophomores (including some future big wigs like JFK) and decided to follow them throughout their lives, in hopes of learning from them both the secrets of happiness and the ways to avoid despair. The reasoning was that by studying these men throughout their lives, one could analyze who managed life successfully, and who didn't, and why, and could thereby come up with a set of guidelines by which people could live to ensure a happy, successful life. Sounds good, huh?
It didn't really work out as planned, of course. Turns out that the lives of these men were "too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to find any easy conception of successful living." Nevertheless, the trajectories that these lives took from their "well-adjusted" youths to their last years on Earth were fascinating to read about. Some of the men who appeared most together early on ended up psychologically damaged and depressed in their later years. Many were alcoholics, one didn't admit he was gay until 70, and several committed suicide before hitting middle-age.
Why am I writing about this? Well first, the article was fascinating to me. It hit upon many truths about living that I have been unable to articulate. One truth, though, hit me like none of the others. The researcher who took over the study 20 years after its inception described the process of living as one that entails adaptations to pain. We experience something painful, and the way we react to it determines whether we navigate that pain successfully or maladaptively. Our patterns of dealing with these painful episodes over time determine our ability to make it through life with relative psychic success or, conversely, on suicidal row.
I was quick to discern that many, many of my ways of dealing with pain are "immature" adaptations according to this researcher. For example, I tend to be passive aggressive, I tend to project, I tend to fantasize. Others adaptations of mine are apparently more developed, but still not super, like my habit of intellectualizing painful experiences, or repressing or temporarily disassociating when things get super bad. But I noted I do have TWO adaptations to pain which are supposedly mature--. 1. I use humor. 2. I sublimate my unproductive feelings, like aggression and anger, into sport.
And then the insight came to me. Triathlon, and Ironman in particular, is like this way of bringing on stress and pain in a controlled way. This I have talked about before. But what came to me is that by doing it over and over again we can practice at dealing with the painful vicissitudes of life--and eventually, hopefully, get it right. In other words, we can find just the right set of adaptations and have the perfect race. And In my case I believe getting it right will produce a Kona slot. A Kona slot, you see, would be good proof of a race executed using mature adaptations. If I can get a Kona slot, then perhaps I cab execute my life perfectly, using the perfect adaptations, as well.
Think about the pattern of pain and struggle in an IM race and see how nicely it fits with the pattern of dealing with pain and struggle in life.
The Swim--Childhood In retrospect you hardly remember it, and further you remember it as relatively painless and easy even though as you went through it it was actually pretty hard.
The Bike--the Bulk of your life. You have highs and lows, but hopefully and usually you emerge from the bike still intact and ready for old age, or the run.
The run--Old Age: If you fucked up your bike, you're dead on the run. You have major setbacks and it takes a lot to recover from them, and sometimes you don't. Some people DNF before the race is over. If you have played your IM right and you have had good luck, you will end the race with grace and strength.
You can also compare IM to major life practices like:
The Swim--You Still Have Sex like every day. Compared to other parts of marriage this part is unfortunately wicked short.
The Bike--You have ups and downs; stresses are added after time, like kids; a few who have really made mistakes in their race or who have had really bad luck drop out of the race entirely.
The Run--Many more DNF. You have major ups and downs throughout, but if you are seriously mentally tough, and also somewhat stubborn, you power through them and move forward. If you have played your marriage right you will end your race again with grace and strength. If not, you limp to the finish line or don't finish at all.
The Swim--The kid has tons of potential, you're not tired yet; you feed your child all the right foods and keep him away from TV.
The Bike--You get increasingly tired. You try for good technique but sometimes you just cave and let the kid have Froot Loops for dinner, watch Star Wars for the 100th time, and you fail to check his homework.
The Run--Your kid is an adolescent. If you had a superb bike than your kid may still talk to you. If not, you will suffer as he slams his bedroom door in your face. If you handle adolescence well, you will end the race with a good kid who has not DNF'd in his own race, and with your own grace and strength intact.
Okay. That was fun. So, I do Ironman so I can practice at life's pain and suffering.
Yeah, well, it was fun to develop the theory anyway.
By now you're sick of reading this, I'm sure. You may have even stopped reading a long time ago. That's okay. Because in writing all this and blathering on and on, I have finally come up with THE REASON WHY.
and it was right before me (and you) the whole time.
It is, as I stated in my first paragraph, because I just fucking want it.
It's true that our most profound yearnings are born out of our most basic fears. But taking apart the Why and attempting to trace it to its origin is futile and ultimately unimportant. Not everything can be explained cognitively; not everything can be reduced to a rational process. The want I'm describing is visceral and volitional--it is a product of the spirit. It is a want like falling in love, or deciding you want a child (or three), or knowing you need to strike out on your own. The want is the reason. It is what gets me up in the morning to run in the cold, it's what has me kill myself to do better on the next set, it's what has me pushing and pushing to make it all the way across the Pacific.
This want, these wants carry us through life--happiness or despair be damned. They are the stuff of life. They enable us to create meaning out of nothingness.
Took me a long time to get there, huh.