Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fragility and Resilience

Last weekend, while we were driving to Boulder, my wife and I listened to an interview of author Kevin Fong, MD by Teri Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air."  Dr. Fong is an anesthesiologist and NASA advisor who wrote a book titled "Extreme Medicine" about how our travels to the North Pole and space during the 20th century have changed our understanding of how the human body works. 

At the end of the interview, she asked him what writing this book and his own experiences had taught him.  I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like "the human body is fragile - and yet in extreme environments it can be very resilient." 

Life is fragile.  I had an awful reminder of that this past week when I found out that two high school classmates died within a matter of days of each other.  It made me think about how although I have had a rough year - but I'm still here.  I have challenges ahead of me - but they aren't insurmountable.  I still have opportunities - all of their opportunities have come to a tragic end.

There are two distinct ways to come to terms with our own mortality.  We can attempt to avoid danger for ourselves and our loved ones - or we can take it as a reminder to live life to the fullest.  To attempt to experience all the world has to offer.  To be kind and compassionate to both ourselves and others - because regardless of who we are as people we all have the same ultimate destiny.  Most of us vacillate between these two perspectives.  We live our lives - but we make sure not to take stupid risks.  We try to help others, but we're also weary of those who take advantage of our kindness.

How does this fit into endurance sports?  It might be a stretch - but training and racing for me has always been partially about the interplay between fragility and resilience.  It's about putting myself in a situation where I can choose to be strong or I can choose to quit.  When people say they are addicted to running - I think what their actually addicted to is how powerful it can feel to choose to continue on when the rational thing to do would be to stop.

It's easy to forget what 99% of our ancestors had to endure in order for us to be here.  For most of human history life was, to quote Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short."  Our genetic code has been passed down to us from countless generations of survivors.  One problem with modern society is that we seem not to know how to react to a lack of a hostile environment.  It appears at times as though we create internal conflict in order to replace external conflict - or we create unnecessary drama because we don't know what to do with the relative peace in which we find ourselves.

Although I enjoy the challenge and competition of running - my best moments as an athlete are when my mind goes into a meditative state.  When I'm not thinking of anything except for the rhythmic motion of my body - the air going in and out of my lungs.  The recently deceased poet and author Maya Angelou had a twitter account.  Her last tweet was "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God."

Much of Maya Angelou's writing was about fragility and resilience as well.  As she said, "I can be changed by what happens to me.  But I refuse to be reduced by it."  I'm not sure that there is a better definition of resiliency than that.

We are of the world - but we can't let the world define us or consume us.  We have to find our own identity and strength within ourselves.  We all have a whisper of the divine within us - we just have to, as Dr. Angelou would say, get quiet enough to hear it.  Many people get to that quiet place through music or art - for me it's through running.  And I guess that's why I keep doing what I'm doing.  It helps me to remember who I really am regardless of what else is going on in my life.  And for that I am truly grateful.

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