"In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning." — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Finding meaning right now is quite a daunting task. California is on fire. People have been evacuated from their homes and some have lost everything. COVID-19 remains unmanaged, and over 180,000 people have died. People are being shot and killed by those supposedly meant to protect them. Our elected officials make decisions every day to undermine our rights as free citizens in a democratic nation. Global warming, disease, injustice, fascism.
A part of me wonders if we are perceiving 2020 as just not quitting or if this is not necessarily unique to 2020. I wonder if we are simply a captive audience during the past year and while many have always been awakened to the perils and turmoils of the world, a great many more individuals are now becoming aware. I wonder if a pandemic of this proportion created an atmosphere in which many people were forced to stop, look around, listen, and learn.
For me, I can safely say that while a percentage of me remained engaged to the horrors of the world prior to this year, I also frequently turned that part off, found escapes, became consumed by joy and ignored things that did not pose imminent threat to my sense of well-being. It would be remiss for me not to acknowledge that is without a doubt a direct result of my privilege.
Today, I want to focus on the growth that occurs after difficult and challenging times. To be clear, I am coming from a point of view in which difficult and challenging times are constantly happening to a great many people, specifically the BIPOC who have been brutally murdered, marginalized in the workplace and as voices in society, among other atrocities. To me, the uniqueness of right now is that we are all forced to see and examine suffering without the luxury of ignorance.
In attempt to make sense of a horrific and unfathomable occurrence, there is such a thing as posttraumatic growth. Qualities that develop after hardship. It should also be made clear that the end does not necessarily justify the means, this is simply a facet of how human beings foster resilience. At the end of the day, the vast majority of people who experience hardship would prefer not to have experienced the hardship in exchange for these personal developments.
-greater appreciation of life
-greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
-increased compassion and altruism
-identification of new possibilities or purpose in life
-greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
-enhanced spiritual development
(S.B. Kaufman, PhD., Posttraumatic Growth, Finding Meaning & Creativity in Adversity)
Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” It is my hope that we change ourselves on a societal level. On a large scale. Because it is not that we are unable to change the situation, it might be that up to this point we have been unwilling to or ignoring that changes need to occur. In order to go through difficulty and come out the other side in an improved manner, a "psychologically seismic" restructuring is necessary. I think 2020 has undoubtedly been seismic. I also am not suggesting individual growth, though that is necessary. This must occur on a societal level. Dr. Kaufman says, "It is precisely when the foundational structure of the self is shaken that we are in the best position to pursue new opportunities in our lives." Society is being shaken. In a good way. We needed this shake, because we clearly were not willing to improve our society on our own accord. I would even go so far as to say that we have allowed these horrors to transpire, by sleepwalking through this life. This is, in fact, an episode of Black Mirror.
One of the most integral components in order to prove resilience after difficulty is that we look at what happened. We contemplate our thoughts and feelings. We get curious and open minded about what is going on in order to process the difficult and confusing material in order to come to meaningful conclusions. When we avoid thinking about the difficulty, when we choose not to examine our feelings, we severely impair our abilities to grow, find meaning, and ultimately the light at the other end of the tunnel.
So how does this have anything to do with running? Well...from my perspective running trains us to be psychologically flexible.
It helps us to be consistent, self-evaluative, and look at ourselves, our circumstances, listen to not only ourselves but others, and learn.
We don't train for everything to go perfectly and to do something difficult with feeble bodies. No. We train for everything to go wrong.
We train to make ourselves strong so we can go through difficult times. And in our real lives, difficult times often help us to overcome the struggle and sufferfest in our runs.
We choose to step outside our comfort zone on the daily, whether it is in physical or mental practice.
We train for the day that it rains. For the day that the wind is unbearable. For the day that we need to do 20 miles on a treadmill because of the smoke outside. We train for 100 degree heat and 10,000 feet of altitude. We train for the day that our stomach just can't handle the gels anymore.
We train to find ourselves. We train to overcome our minds when they are defeated. We train to trip and fall and get back up.
We train for the day that our training partners are lacking mental tenacity and need us to help support them so we can all get through this together. Because that is what it is about. Getting through this together. With everyone standing on equal ground, not only breathing, but breathing clean air, able to speak up and voice our cares without fear of repercussion, the ability to be healthy and strong, to live our lives in a way that is meaningful to us and does not impede on anyone else's meaning.
So who are you? Are you the one who sees someone trip and fall and you keep going? Or do you stop and help them up? Do you hang around and wait for everyone to finish, or do you just go? Do you spend your time listening empathetically to others who are going through a hard time and need someone to listen, or do you pop those headphones in and silence them? When you see someone struggling, are you silent? Or do you cheer them on, offering whatever words of encouragement you can to your fellow human?
We get to decide who the person is that we want to be. Running helps many of us make that person a reality. Running helps make us more resilient people. Resilience is made up of a lot of qualities and running helps emphasize those qualities. Dennis Charney identifies 10 specific qualities for resilience, and running helps improve all of them. It helps us to be more optimistic. It helps us be more altruistic. It helps reinforce our moral compass. It gives us something to believe in, and daily rituals to follow and form consistency. It helps us see the humor in uncomfortable situations (I know all of you have a poop story, don't deny it), It gives us people to look up to, and it allows us to be that person for another. It gives us a community that we can rely on. It forces us outside of our comfort zone, makes us challenge ourselves, and make us face our fears. It helps us find purpose and meaning. It gives us a mode of training our bodies and minds to overcome.
We have work to do. And the resilience to do it.
Kaufman, S.B., Posttraumatic Growth: Finding meaning and creativity in adversity. Beautiful Minds.
Charney, DS. Psychobiological mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability: implication for successful adaptation to extreme stress. American Journal of Psychiatry.