My friend Keith is one of the best examples I know of someone recalibrating their life to fit their circumstances. Keith was a world-class runner. He is a previous winner of the NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships and he ran professionally for New Balance. Now in his 30’s, the cartilage in both his knees is nearly gone. Maybe it’s the result of years of sub-six-minute training and hundred plus-mile weeks. Maybe it’s due to his upbringing in Ireland or his heredity. Maybe he didn’t drink enough milk as a kid. The fact that someone so gifted as a runner can’t do what he was born to do is heartbreaking for anyone who runs. I don’t know if Keith was graceful as a runner, but his running was still a thing of beauty to watch.
Confronted with injury after injury and a ton of surgeries, Keith has realized his best running is in the past. Now he’s a bike racer. And you should see how he smiles. We don’t live near each other and we no longer work for the same company so I don’t get to see him as often. Still, I can hear his smile through the phone when we talk.
My friend, the NCAA cross champion, representative of Ireland at the World Cross Championships, and a former professional runner, crossed that threshold so many of us face, sometimes as athletes or in our personal or professional lives.
Like Keith, circumstances force us to reevaluate our lives in midstream and adjust our goals–or be miserable. I’m reminded of an interview I heard with Ben Cheever, the writer and son of John Cheever, a revered novelist whose alcoholism and homosexuality came to light after he died of cancer in 1982. In the NPR interview Cheever was asked how he coped with the public scrutiny of his father.
I’m going to do a lousy job paraphrasing his answer but Cheever said something like this: “It’s a matter of choice what we do with life. I faced a choice. I could sit there and be miserable and bitter and not live. Or I could accept what happened and move on and try to live the best life I could.”
He went on: “I believe the people who struggle in life are those who can’t bridge the gap between what they think their lives should be like and what they actually are.”
The stark clarity with which Cheever addressed his situation stuck with me over the years in a big way. My buddy Keith also faced a choice: lament the fact that he would never again run at the level he enjoyed in college and for a couple of years after, or find something new to which he could devote his passions. Just as Ben Cheever did, Keith chose to transition in order to be happy. For him it was bikes over running shoes and, in the process, learning to view himself and his life in a completely different way.
All of us face transitions in life and we always have the choice to make them easy or hard depending on our attitudes.
I have faced many situations that did not go according to my plan. I’ve experienced setbacks and unexpected endings that forced me to move from one thing to something else. Some I’ve handled well and some I’ve failed miserably.
For example, I’ve spent most of my professional life as a sales representative for some well-known companies in the running shoe and apparel business and a few connected with the industry. Last June, a corporate “strategy change” led four of my colleagues and me to being laid off, after I was laid off by the same company (long story) two-and-a-half years before that. At the time, I said it was my “last shoe company” because I was tired of being a pawn in someone else’s game. Here is where you see me either being really pissed off and feeling sorry for myself, or seeing an opportunity to reframe my career, indeed my life, in another unexpected transition.
Life is like that isn’t it? We work hard to “get settled” into a place where things are comfortable and known, whether we’re training for a marathon or our first bike race, or we are laid off from our dream job, or we have a health issue or one of our parents commits suicide, or whatever it is. Each time, we have the chance to choose what comes next–misery or acceptance. We re-calibrate our expectations (Leo Babauta says some wise things about expectations here: http://zenhabits.net/ah/) and try to make sense of it all. Another friend of mine considers himself a transition junkie because, he says, we grow the most from unfamiliar and difficult situations.
More unexpected turns and transitions lie ahead of me, I am certain. I will either fuck them up or learn from them. My choice. I can either wallow in what isn’t or accept what is and make lemonade. Right?