There is a wonderfully optimistic approach to solutions these days in the form of singular panaceas. If we could just change this one thing, then our entire lives would fall into place, like ducklings behind the unquestioned navigation of their mother.
I find the one thing on a relatively regular basis. As a scientist, I rarely fall for the one vitamin that will magically cure all my ailments, but I often find myself a sucker to habits such as planking daily to promise perfect abs and a happy marriage, or going off caffeine to repair adrenal damage and never suffer insomnia again, thereby making only sound financial decisions and retiring by the age of 50.
Last year, I went off alcohol for 365 days. Alcohol gets a bad rap for a lot of things, and rightfully so. It is an addictive substance, responsible for the altered brain chemistry, declining health, and sometimes even death of thousands of humans. My reasons were specific: limiting inflammation and immune suppression while pre- and rehabbing for surgery. I just assumed that everything in my life would fall into place at the same time.
Turns out, I have remarkably few coping mechanisms for things like social engagements with humans I don’t enjoy; an incessantly communicative 12-year-old; hard days at work; those blasted ground squirrels; and every time I let my future spouse pick out a movie.
Approaching life with clarity makes some things glaringly obvious. I recognized it this week while I was going for a run. It was 15 degrees. It was my fourth day in a row of training. I had survived some sort of workout at CrossFit where we train to leap over rowing machines and then row them – in case I might be in a real Viking war someday in which we charge across a fjord to a rival village and burpee them to death.
I was watching the timer on my watch count down, because in 30 seconds or so I’d have to muster the emotional stamina to run hard up a hill. This is basically the summary of my life. We all have mountains to climb, but I seem to need to set a stopwatch and suffer my way to the top as fast as possible, praying for death or kneecap tendinitis or anything to give me a valid excuse to stop the relentless breakneck pace of my life.
No wonder we want to disengage. No wonder we want to relax, come down, tune out, buffer, isolate, drink Cabernet Sauvignon, watch Netflix, scroll social media and not miss a day of pharmaceutical intervention. While I may try to set some of the best/worst examples of doing-all-the-things- way-too-hard, it is clearly not just me. We are a culture that is going so hard, the only way we can slow down is to check out. By whatever means.
It is not necessarily that we lack coping mechanisms, it is perhaps rather that we have so much coping to do. I am basically half-traumatized by most of my workouts. The pressure to cook The Best Soup at the harvest party gets most of my emotional real estate for a week before. The birthdays for which I need to find gifts, the books I should most definitely add to my teetering pile of personal growth literature, the macro-nutrient balanced meals I need to prepare for the week, the sweaters I need to knit before Christmas (2025, because at least we’re realistic about some things).
What if we just … didn’t. The word, as our therapists would say, is self-compassion, but without that tinge of: “It’s OK if you can’t measure up.” We can take days off from the gym, pick up a baked chicken, stay home and slow down. We can commit to fewer things, prioritize that which really matters to us, and stop worrying about how likable or admirable we are. Life seems to be hard enough without us making it harder.
Nearly in tears because the hill seemed to have no summit, I realized there really is a thing that lets everything else fall into place, promises internal peace and contentment.
I took shifted gears, took a deep breath, trotted over the hill, and noticed the morning sun for the first time. The leaves crunched and stirred under my feet, kicking up the smell of lushness and earth. The field that opened before me was steaming, sending little wisps of fog rising into the backdrop of a blue sky.
And just like that, life didn’t seem so hard after all.
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