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

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No Trespassing: Subtle Rebellion for the Sake of Autonomy

On a recent run, I pranced through no less than three “No Trespassing” signs at the end of a dead-end country road. Desperate for dirt to escape the monotonous asphalt and charged by the early morning sunlight, I found the risk worthy, if not essential.

I knew that the dirt roads were there because I had ignored these signs many times before. In fact, in my previous escapade through the prohibited area, I returned to the normal road to find a man dressed in camouflage standing in a field holding a shotgun. I tried to stride by unnoticed, but he stopped me.

“There were three coyotes sitting up on that hill watching you,” he said.

I could not decide which unsettled me more: the man talking to me with a gun in his hand, or the image of three predators stalking me while I ran oblivious.

“The coyotes have been killing off the deer lately,” he continued. “I’m trying to get them.”

Though I despise hunting and thought the man’s attempts were likely quite illegal, I made the wise decision not to argue. Instead, I smiled politely and began to run again, wary that I had just turned my back to a gun and that, compared to a coyote, I was probably an easy target. Alas, I survived the rest of the run with no gun wounds and no trespassing violations, but I did not return to that route for a week.

This view is great, until it never changes.

This view is great, until it never changes.

When I did, I again had no qualms about the signs. Until I reached the point on the road where I could connect to another dirt road that is much less prohibited. To make that connection, I had to go past a bridge that often has construction remnants strewn about but rarely has human life present. I usually pass through that area without a problem, but this day, right before I turned the corner, I heard construction noises and voices getting closer with each step.

I darted off on a side trail, hoping it would spit me out onto the less prohibited trail that I sought. When it instead gave me a dead end, I navigated over loose rocks and scrambled up a dirt hill that did not, in fact, lead me to the trail. It took me to the area I had been avoiding all along; the area with real live people who definitely knew that there should not be a running girl emerging from the heart of their construction. So I ducked down and, in lieu of braving the rocks again, chose to bound through the knee-high grass as fast as possible because I am terrified of snakes (and I saw one on a hike the day before so clearly they were after me).

When I finally returned to that damn country road in safety, it became apparent that the lengths I took to avoid human interaction–and, likely, repercussions–were slightly ludicrous. I chose the possibility of encountering a snake or rolling an ankle over the possibility of getting in trouble with a random person I would never see again. But it also became apparent that I did all this because the ability to run on that dirt road–albeit illegally–means my own liberation.

The only thing missing here is some dirt.

The only thing missing here is a dirt trail.

Not only is it an escape from the road and a cushion for my legs, but it is a step into a path that I would guess not many brave. The “No Trespassing” rule is in place for a reason, but like many rules I find it unnecessary and intend to break it. I do not think that my running presence on a dirt road three miles outside of a small town will cause any trouble for anyone or anything, so the fact that a rusting sign can imply this irks me a bit.

I’ve never been one to thrive on excessive rules and regulations, or even societal norms for that matter. Things like school dress codes and texting games do not appear to advance civilization, so I do not prescribe to their influence. Even the obligatory greeting conversation (Person 1: “Hi, how are you?” Person 2: “Good, you?” Person 1: “Good.”) seems like a meaningless formality. These rules simply encourage people to embrace conformity and avoid intentionality in their thoughts and actions.

Even really big, really important rules are often wrong. After women could finally vote, they still could not compete in collegiate athletics or even run road races. We put way too much trust in our executives to make the right decisions and spend too little time considering their impact. I’m not advocating for anarchy here; I am simply calling for more thought about the guidelines and expectations that govern most details of our lives.

The feelings I got when I avoided that construction worker were the same I’ve had when I’ve pulled borderline all-nighters mid-season or loitered in dark parking lots until cops kindly request that we leave. Uneasy about the technical wrongness of the situation, yet thrilled that the incident will succeed without any formal consequences.

IMG_4717 - Version 2

Hay fields tend to go on forever.

There is a certain elation that accompanies getting away with something, and if it is a silly rule then this elation comes guilt-free. If you’re sneaky enough, you might even inspire others to go out and be the rule-breakers they wish to see in the world. Because civil disobedience is in.

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.