Part One - Shit
In early July I went on a short break to the Eden Valley. As I set off early one morning on a solo walk up to High Cup Nick, despite being in a beautiful place, I realised that I had become fixated on worrying about something 10 days in the future. I was imagining fantastically elaborate things that could and probably would go wrong at this future date.
And the thought occurred to me, that I waste approximately 80% of my mental energy on shit. About 40% on self-recrimination and rumination about things I've done or decisions I've made in the past, and about 40% on things that could go wrong in the future.
That only leaves about 20% of my energy left to run my life. Sometimes I do succeed at focusing on the present. For example, when I'm writing this, or when I get into a flow at work. But often my thoughts are dominated by past regrets and future fears.
In times of crisis, that 80% shit can increase all the way up to 100%
I was in a relationship for nearly 8 years which broke up in May. Immediately after the breakup, I couldn’t stand to be me. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my life, and the decisions I've made which put me where I am. I hated being seen or making eye contact with anyone, in case I was see-through, and the shit inside was visible, For the first few days all I could think about was what I’d lost, and I wished that I didn't exist. I didn’t know what to do next or where to live, and I didn’t know how to fill the big hole in my life where the relationship used to be. I couldn't switch off from thinking about how and why ‘everything had gone wrong’. I can’t remember a time when I felt worse about who I am.
Part Two – Happiness
Probably the time in my life when I felt best about who I am was when I was 17.
It was 1985 and I was on a German exchange to Hannover with school, with a group of friends. One evening on that trip, we went to the park, and we met some German soldiers, not much older than us doing their national service. We played them at football, they agreed to play in bare feet so they didn't kick us too much with their army boots, and after the game we all shared a crate of beer. It could have been the beer, but afterwards I remember lying on the grass with my eyes closed on that lovely July day, and feeling 'happy enough to die'. As if life would never get any better than this. And in some ways it never has.
At that point, I was probably as full of myself as it's possible to be. All through school I was singled out as a bright student, and I believed my own publicity, that I was better than the average, superior to most. With no sense of irony, I would quite happily lecture grown ups on their life choices, never having made any myself. I regularly told my step dad where he was going wrong. But it was all theory. I didn't feel any responsibility for the past, because I hadn't made any real decisions, and I had no anxiety about the future, because I assumed it was going to be great, because I was great.
At that age I’d never had a serious relationship, or a full-time job, or my own house, or any real money. I'd never been turned down from any jobs, been made redundant, got divorced, or had to arrange any funerals. No real failures, no real responsibilities.
Part Three – Suitcase
I was recently reading a book by Haruki Murakami on running.
He says looking inside himself is like ‘staring down into a deep well… all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centred nature that still doubts itself – that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or nearly funny about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect….”
I guess it’s part of growing older that you have to look down into that dark well for yourself. Then you have to then carry the weight of what you find there. Including the disappointment of where your life doesn’t measure up to the imaginings of your youth.
Part Four – Running
How do I carry this weight? Well, running helps. One constant which acts as a stabiliser whatever else is going on around me is the routine of going to parkrun on a Saturday. And regularly going to new ones gives me the added distraction of new experiences. I’ve done 12 new ones in the last 12 weeks, including Wetherby, York, Harrogate, Fountains Abbey and Knaresborough. Oh, and Chevin Forest...
Despite my intention to ‘take it steady’, the first 200 metres of Chevin Forest parkrun was a near death experience. Not so much a run as a desperate scramble into a mass of post-earthquake rubble, as if trying to locate a lost dog in a collapsed building. When I was still alive at metre 201 I thought I'd better keep going for the full 5k. At the finish I scanned my barcode and then lay on the grass with my eyes closed, feeling knackered. I wasn’t so much beside myself, as outside myself.
In those 5 minutes of recovery, there was no suitcase to carry. I existed outside my life. I had no awareness if I was in a relationship or not, where I live, whether I'm a success or not. It was just recovery from physical effort. And all the differences between 17 year old me and 54 year old me became irrelevant.
A couple of weeks later I joined a running club (Roundhay Runners). One of their training nights is interval training. The first time, it was just running up hills for 20 to 30 minutes, punctuated by jogging back down to the bottom of the hills to start again.
After the hills session, I realised I hadn't had a single conceptual thought about my life the whole time I was running. Who I am, where I am, who I'm with or not with. There was only room for run, recover, run, recover.
A week later it was a pyramid session. A similar thing, but basically running in circles instead of up hills. Laps of the cricket pitch, with short gaps in-between. No time for narrative, just run, recover, run, recover. Then lie down.
Part 5 – Numbers
Someone I live with now asked me
recently ‘Do you think you might be autistic?’ ‘I don’t know’ I said ‘It’s
never been measured. I know I sometimes
like numbers more than people. I find
relationships difficult, and conflict in relationships almost impossible. But I like looking at football results, league tables
and cricket averages. When I was a child, a lot of the books I got out of the
library were books of facts, about how tall buildings were, or comparing the
wingspan of different aircraft. I love learning languages, but sometimes I’m
more interested in looking at the rules behind them than I am in using them to
actually talk to anyone, I really like maths because the answer is either right
or wrong, and my favourite subject at Uni was Syntax. For my job I spend most
of my time at work entering data into spreadsheets and databases, and I’m also
one of those fruit loops who records everything he does on Strava and who can’t
bear to leave the house without his Garmin, who believes that if a run isn’t
recorded, it didn’t happen. But other than that, probably not’.
Compared to the sometime brain fog of my internal monologue, running is safe because it can be measured objectively. When I think I'm achieving nothing, or going nowhere in life, having thoughts such as ‘I’m 54, and I’ve got nothing to show for it, I’ve ruined my whole life’, that’s just speculation, but if I can run a bit faster than last week over the same route, that's a fact. Unlike the aftermath of a relationship, trying to figure out what happened, who did what to who and why. I can say that at a certain time and place, this is where I was, this is what I could do, Stats don't lie. I ran, this is how long it took, that's all.
Part Six - Ego
Eckhart Tolle says that. ‘Suffering cracks open the shell of ego’.
When I look back now with at my ‘happy enough to die’ self from 37 years ago and my ‘wish I didn't exist’ self from a few weeks ago, both seem equally ego-centric. In both states I was literally ‘full of myself’. Full of my stories and of my life drama. And not paying much attention to what was actually happening in the moment.
Now, and often in that period of recovery after running I see my thoughts as something not to take too seriously. No longer a source of pride or distress, they seem more like clouds floating by overhead or a TV that's on in another room that I'm not really paying attention to.
Part Seven – Respite
It still depresses me sometimes to consider my faults and failures, my wrong turns in life and the things I've messed up. But when I run, for a short time I can leave those thoughts behind.
At those times of detachment I wonder ‘How could I possibly assess my life objectively from inside my head anyway?’ It’s impossible. It’s more complicated than looking at facts or statistics. Especially when life gets tangled up with other people’s lives in the messiness of relationships.
I didn’t choose to lose the things I’ve lost, and the things I failed at, I wasn’t trying to fail. And if people have been hurt by my actions, it was accidental. And pretty much everything that has gone wrong in my life, I tried to stop it going wrong. But all those things I did imperfectly, and so the results were imperfect too.
Running doesn’t stop me being me, at least not permanently, it’s just a kind of standby mode for my overthinking brain: respite care for the mind. It’s a chance to realise that the suitcase I carry with me, my stubborn and uncooperative nature, I am allowed to take a break from it and put it down once in a while.
Part Eight – Acceptance
Another Eckhart Tolle aphorism:
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy”
I spend a lot of my time and my mental energy fighting against my life story. Fighting against the circumstances that I find myself in and the events that have happened to me, even though there’s now no way of changing them.
But, when I run, for a short while, where I am is exactly where I need to be. And the contents of my life, I carry them with me because ‘there’s nothing else I was supposed to carry’.