In Defense of the Ordinary to Create the Extraordinary

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” -Gustave Flaubert

After a stellar season opening race, my second favorite professional runner, Kate Grace, posted this quote alongside two pictures: the first showed her in her warm-up, composed and polished, while the second displayed her in the race, fierce and wild.

The trouble with quotes is that they often matter to someone not because the words themselves are exceptional, but because the person reading them, living in her instant where past meets present, needs them. The quote, then, is not about its meaning, but about the moment.

I had been thinking about routines and their power for months, even years, before I read this, but because this came from a runner I admire, and because I was at the time injured and clinging to my routines­–physical therapy, sleep, journaling, etc.–Flaubert’s words hit me with almost religious sincerity. I crave simplicity and intentionality in my daily routines for the freedom it affords me everywhere else. If I spend 40 minutes of every day on PT, strengthening my micro-weaknesses with mundane, monotonous micro-exercises, then I will once again feel the bliss that is running fast, the synergistic flow of mind, legs, and lungs that can take me places beyond the ordinary.

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Thinking about routines and how it all relates to tides & waves & rocks. Mother Earth, man.

Work, to me, right now, is not where I make money (I hope I was not violent with the kids I worked with all summer), but where I seek and find purpose. Kate Grace went on to win the Olympic Trials and race the Olympic final. All I want is to run faster and stronger than I ever have before. To think and learn and write better than my previous self.

But all this is not to say that I reject spontaneity or refuse unpredictability. In fact, I welcome such unknowables like never before. When I budget my time and energy, I am liberated to discover experiences, people, books, that I otherwise would have been too distracted and disorganized to notice.

As I enter my last year of undergrad, I feel excruciatingly aware of finitudes. I know that each first is a last, and that because I will almost certainly never again live in Corvallis beyond June, I must become an expert in its intricacies and opportunities. There is almost all of McDonald Forest left to explore, non-obvious food places to try, and, of course, so many classes to take. Last weekend, I missed my last cross country season opener, but I also watched my teammate/roommate/friend race for the first time in 1.5 years, an experience perhaps even more satisfying. The most I can ask of myself is that I welcome these feelings, all sizes of good and bad, without limits.

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We should all be zen like this donkey. Just look at that focus; purely content.

A certain wildness emerges when all the particulars fall into place. At the end of each day, comforted in my prescribed and sustained efforts, I sleep prepared for something spectacular to happen tomorrow. I burden myself with responsibilities at the appropriate times in order to let my mind and spirit wander later. The philosophy of routine is one of discipline and self-regulation, but once it is established, life clarifies itself, if only a little bit.

The burden of finding a life purpose/career/calling is confusing enough without the mess of existence to complicate it. Perhaps my desire for routine is a predictable need for control of the minute in order to feign a larger influence. It is probable and logical that all of my life experiences and circumstances are randomized and meaningless, but why would I read books so feverishly if I were not always grasping for believable narratives?

I want to believe that my choices matter, that I matter, but if I spent all my time worrying about how best to achieve this, I would do nothing. So, I choose instead to buy in to my own systems, to pretend that I know what I’m doing until I have convinced myself, and I can say that I’m more at peace, if not happier, because of it. I have always established my own moral codes, rather than accepting these from ambivalent authority figures, so if I can justify my theoretical routines once, then I can perform them, indefinitely, without question.

My philosophy, like all philosophies, is flawed and limited, but without some boundaries I could never rationalize personal dogma. I want to do great things, but I need a method to my madness. Even if I do not go on to win the Olympic Trials, I know that I can and will go on to do and create the thing that I should and must, whatever the work is that will sustain me. However flimsy my premise and however distant the results, that promise is enough to ground me in routines that make me free.

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The Battle Against the Comfort Zone

The comfort zone is the magical place we all know and love where we can fall into a drone of indifference knowing nothing unpleasant can touch us. The comfort zone thrives on apathy and routine because routine enables thoughts to cease and ambitions to dissolve. In this life, we know what we like and what we do not like, so things make sense. Change is unnecessary because complacency takes control.

I am terrified of the comfort zone because it is the antithesis of the meaningful life I intend to live.

It is so easy to sit back and let life pass by while making as little noise as possible. And sometimes, I fear that I will fall into this habit. Sure, I have vested interest in school and other activities that propels me forward, but this might not be enough. Stagnation can strike at any time, and when I find myself at the end of a day with no tangible evidence that I accomplished anything, I feel powerless. Anyone can tell you that the key to success is consistency and diligence, but no one will tell you how hard it is to embrace this.

These tree is cool because it's complex and unique just like you.

These tree is cool because it’s complex and unique just like you.

In theory, anyone with a healthy zest for life should be able to achieve a meaningful life effortlessly, but it’s not that simple. Because the things that matter most require you to both challenge yourself and do so with insane courage. Laying in bed all day watching Netflix might feel awesome at the time, but it’s probably not going to make you a better person. For some people, this is not an issue. These people will accept their average life and continue living this way, following the convenient path taken many times before them. They may or may not be happy or satisfied, but they will definitely be comfortable.

I could never live this way because I want more than anything to lead an extraordinary life. And this might be the hardest thing in the world. Most prominent voices in society insist that I should accept the pre-determined path laid before me and walk along it without pausing to consider the implications. These voices fear that any rogue movement will disrupt the delicate balance and structure in which modern society exists. Because when we resist the majority, we incite change, and change makes things harder. It makes us think about things usually decided for us and make choices that allow us to be heard rather than told.

Awesome hiking paths like this only exist outside the comfort zone.

Awesome hiking paths like this only exist outside the comfort zone.

Like always, running is a perfect representation of why the comfort zone sabotages excellence. Any runner knows that the only way to get better is to shatter previously concrete limits and embrace the discomfort that follows. The pain is always temporary, and it is always worth it. Runners battle this weekly, if not daily, but like a friend once told me, “as we run, we conquer.” At its core, running is a battle to defeat our lesser, former selves. But no battle was ever fought from a comfortable position.

In running and in life, I sometimes find myself inching toward mediocrity, and I must fight fearlessly to resist it. I think that the one thing that always saves me is that I care. A lot. I care that my impact on the world and on others is positive and I care that what I do matters. It is because I care that whenever I toe the edge of ambivalence I can never take the full leap. There’s something that always pulls me back and reminds me that I have dreams waiting for me where I left them. So instead of spiraling to a place where each day is not automatically miraculous in its own right, I remind myself that average is simply not an option.

This choice, to become exceptional, means that every day and every moment will present a challenge to ignore the majority and instead cultivate something valuable. This will never be easy, but it will always be important. And from my stance, the most worthwhile thing anyone can do is live an intentionally remarkable life.

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”

-Mary Oliver

The Problem With Time

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”

-John Burroughs

There is one problem that I cannot seem to solve: time will not slow down. Two weeks ago, I found this so alarming that I simply laid on my floor for hours in a desperate attempt to stop time. Not only did this fail to change the Earth’s course, but I became even more tuned in to the day’s revolution as I watched the room steadily darken. So I got up, finished my day and arrived at class the next day wholly unsatisfied with the weekend’s length.

This problem embeds itself most ruthlessly in my life during the school year; in the summer, I can easily escape via a spontaneous camping trip or hike. There, I can revel in simplicity and nature like the hippie that inhabits my soul. There, I can engage in hour-long conversations about the brevity of our existence. There, I can stop time.IMG_3857And the next day, I can escape reality again. I can explore hidden trails for miles atop an animal that understands my deeply rooted need for freedom. On horseback, I can fly.IMG_4009 - Version 2But at the end of these three glorious months, the same thing always happens. School always returns. And the weeks become monotonous steps in the gateway to conformity. I doze through science classes, eat tolerable dining hall food and evade the general population. By the time night arrives, I find schoolwork too mundane to capture my attention and avoid it in hopes that I can feed my intellect with information more vital to my entity. Every weekday brings routine and–for many months–an omnipresent drizzle.

My only release comes when I step outside and face the limits of my mental and physical capability. Because when I do this, when I run, I feel alive. I feel connected to the world and to the basic human condition. And even amid the muddiest and hardest runs, it feels like summer.Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 10.23.57 PM                        Plus I get to explore trails like this. And 85 minutes running these hills feels eons longer than 85 minutes in biology lab.

I find my freedom here so I can live without fear that I am missing something big, something meaningful that should reveal itself in society’s ingrained conventions. Because I know that right now, my classes do not exist to inundate my day with significance; they exist to teach me to think. And if I can think, then I can observe and experience the world with intent.

Time may not slow down, but summer will return, and when it does, I can marvel once again at sights like this:IMG_4216And that beauty is anything but ephemeral.