Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Nobody's Fault but Mine

It’s obviously been a long ass time since I’ve written anything on this blog.  And despite concerns for the legions of surely distraught fans, I’m going to take a navel-gazey approach here and only focus on myself.  And the fact is that it’s entirely my own fault for not establishing a more regular regimen of writing.  It’s not for lack of ideas, because a lot of them cross my mind as potential topics.  It’s not for lack of time, because I manage to find the time to do a bunch of other shit.  It’s not because of kids, work, other commitments, etc.  It’s simply my own fault that I haven’t made it a priority.

I’ve been listening to and reading a lot of Jocko Willink’s stuff recently.  He emphasizes the concept of Extreme Ownership in his book of the same name.  There’s also a TED talk where he speaks about the same situation as described in the book – a friendly fire incident during the Battle of Ramadi in Iraq.  The book goes into a lot of detail (worth reading) but the essence is this – that despite the fact that a lot of people in the situation made mistakes, it was his duty as commanding officer to take the full blame for the situation.  Willink extrapolates that battlefield situation to all aspects of life:

“On any team, in any organization, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in his or her world.  There is no one else to blame.  The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.”

I love this idea.  Carrying it down from a team/organization to the level of the individual, it says a lot about the idea of personal responsibility.  Since we’re all leaders of our own minds and bodies, even if not everyone is leader of a corporation or SEAL team, it stands to reason that we should be taking extreme ownership of our words and actions rather than deflecting blame onto any other external factors.

As far as I can tell, it’s always pointless to blame the external, for the very pragmatic reason that it does one absolutely no good.  External circumstances are always changing, both for good and for bad (although even those value judgements are largely matters of perspective, and may change with time – There’s an old Chinese parable about an old man and a horse that deals with that idea…).  The only thing we are able to control is our response to those externals.  Ryan Holliday’s book on Stoicism, The Obstacle is the Way, talks about this.  Quoting Epictetus he writes:

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control.  Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”

It’s our choices that we can, and must, take full responsibility for and ownership of.  Instead of looking outward, which is often the temptation, we really should be focusing within. What have I done to help create the current situation?  What can I do right now to make it better?  How can I act in future situations to get a better outcome?  The idea is not far removed from a passage in Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings:

“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”

There’s a massive amount of power that comes with taking absolute ownership and responsibility for everything that happens in your life. As Jordan Peterson so eloquently puts it, there’s real profound meaning in carrying a heavy load and taking on responsibility.  He criticizes, appropriately so I would say, the focus that we seem to place on rights and the relatively little focus that is placed on responsibilities.

People often rise to the occasion when they are given responsibility.  I find this especially true of kids.  When I give my kids responsibility for a task or a level of behaviour, more often than not they diligently rise to that expectation.  That’s not to say that they don’t slip up, as we all do.  But they try harder.  It’s like when you play a sport, you often rise to the level of your competition.  When you play against someone less skilled, oftentimes your performance suffers, likely a result of taking it less seriously.

On a very visceral level, there’s a feeling of meaning and satisfaction that comes alongside massive responsibility.  I’m often struck by the feeling when I’m home late at night with my family.  I’m a bit of a night owl so it’s sometimes the case that my spouse and four kids are all sleeping peacefully upstairs and I’m still finishing up one thing or another.  The house is quiet, still, and suddenly I’m struck by the fact that the safety and well-being of all of these little lives is completely on my shoulders. If anything happens, it’s on me to solve the problem…to protect them…to keep them all safe and warm and fed.  It’s a feeling that’s equal parts terrifying and wonderful.  I’m sure most parents feel it.  It’s ever-present at some level but sometimes it takes those moments of stillness to really feel the profundity of it.

So what on earth does this all have to do with health and fitness, the subject with which this blog is still ostensibly deals?  A lot, I would say.  It’s very common, and I’m guilty of it myself, to always look to the external barriers to fitness…to come up with excuses…to focus on the limitations.

Shitty food is everywhere and tastes good…

My job is too busy right now…

I have no place to train…

Gyms are too expensive…

Once I get better at (insert whatever skill here), then I’ll start really training…I’m not ready yet…

I didn’t perform as well as I could because of x, y, z…..

These are all appeals to external conditions.  They turn a person into a passive victim rather than an active owner of all that is happening.  In a way, they are all ways of feeling sorry for oneself.

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

 – D.H. Lawrence, Self-Pity

In fitness, and in life more generally, there is always someone else who has it far, far worse and is doing it anyway. So why complain?  Why focus on all of those things that, as Epictetus would say, are beyond your control?  Why not instead focus on all of things (and they are many) that a person can control, however large or small they may initially seem.

The temptation is ever-present though to look outside for excuses.  It has to be fought against daily.  I lapsed into it myself last weekend in the middle of a half-marathon.  The first 10-12 kilometers were going great, I felt strong and on a good pace.  Then by about the 14/15 km mark, I started to really slow down and feel the aches and pains of the longer distance.  The temptation was there to blame the externals…the heat, the old injuries, the lack of time to properly train for a longer distance than I’m used to, blah, blah blah.  But the fact is that the fault of my sub-par performance was squarely on me, and not on any external factors.  I should have prioritized my time to schedule in more longer-distance training sessions. I should have done more massage and mobility work on my hips and hamstrings leading up to the event to minimize tightness. I should have gone to bed earlier and gotten up earlier so that I had more time to recover between my bike ride in to the event and the start of the race itself.  These were all things over which I did have control and which I failed to execute properly.

But there’s no reason for self-immolation or beating oneself up over it.  We’re all highly fallible monkeys stumbling around pressing keys on a typewriter hoping to write the next Hamlet.  Nobody has it all figured out.  But we can aim to be a little bit better every day – and the only way to do that is to realize where and how you blew it in the past.  In my mind, that should be a constant process of self-examination (and self-destruction, so to speak) of all of the shitty habits and mistakes that have brought us to the point we’re at.  There’s no sense waiting for some figurative baptism on the death bed whereby you can just say sorry all at once.  Say sorry as you go (it’s very Canadian anyway, eh), and then do better immediately.

Not to get into politics but I think that's the single largest flaw of Trump...his apparent inability to admit blame or responsibility for anything.  I think it's a fairly common trait among politicians but seems to have reached its apex in the current US president.  Everything is a deflection, everything is someone else's fault....there's absolutely no willingness to accept that you've made an error, to apologize for it and then to endeavor to improve.

And responsibility extends beyond actions to words as well. I fully support free speech and the right to say almost anything, but more often these days it seems that internet provocateurs are willing to say a bunch of almost unjustifiable nonsense without taking any responsibility for it. Oftentimes it seems acceptable to spout hyperbolic click-bait bullshit just to garner interest in one's more sober and thought-out views.  Or just look through the comments sections of almost any article, podcast or video....The shit that people are willing to say from a position of relative anonymity is breathtaking.  And that all comes back to not having to take responsibility for one's least not in person.

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”

                                ― Robert E. Howard

A few weeks ago, my eldest child got in trouble at school for mouthing off to a teacher.  She may or may not have been justified for feeling slighted, but we had to really hammer home the idea of taking responsibility for the words she said.  Her initial defence was, "It's not my just came out".  Which is of course bullshit.  She's not some Delphic oracle that spontaneous utters the thoughts of the cosmos.  She, like everyone, needed to own the responsibility for the words coming out of her mouth and be prepared to face the consequences.

I've certainly made the mistake of saying or doing things in anger that I don't really mean.  We all do of course.  But that mistake is multiplied many times over when we're unable, or unwilling, to accept responsibility. In hindsight though, it's our behaviour that is memorable....not the external conditions or context on which we may try to place blame.  As an example, many years later I can remember vividly certain unkind words I said to my ex-wife, whereas the actual context (i.e. the specific reason I was upset or the 'cause' of the argument) is completely forgotten.  It's my own words or behaviour that I remember, not the external circumstances that seemed so relevant in the moment but that evaporate with the passage of time.  Those are the things that weaken us over time.  Those situations where we know that we could have done better and didn't.  The only hope is to learn from them.

Getting back to the title of this post, "Fault" is maybe too pejorative. According to various sources, Blind Willie Johnson, who wrote Nobody's Fault but Mine (my suggested musical accompaniment to these long-winded ramblings) was blinded at age 7 when his stepmother, in an argument with his father splashed Willie with a caustic solution of lye water.  Was that Willie's fault?  Of course not.  But his response to it was not to wallow in the misery of his misfortune but rather to persevere and eventually become one of the best slide guitarists of all time.  Unfortunately, the world is full of situations where horrible things happen to good people, to innocent children, to the undeserving.  And I am of course writing from a position of extreme privilege, relatively speaking.  Most of us are, if we really consider fortunate we are. 

So this is all easy for me to say.  I'm not some parent-less refugee child drifting on a raft in the middle of the Mediterranean.  It would be wise if we all took a bit more time to consider that old proverb, there, but for the grace of God, go I.  Fate and chance affect us all differently.  But some people find a way, even if those worst possible situations, to look within, to take responsibility for themselves and for what they can change and control.  While some, in a position of absolute privilege and good fortune, choose to focus on the faults of others, the unfairness, the obstacles and excuses.  There's no way that we can control all of the externals.  Not even close. But we can do everything in our power to set up conditions for the externals to matter less....building resiliency, so to speak.  And that's a responsibility that everyone has to themselves.