In February, I went to a Superbowl party that my friend B was hosting. As always, the straight people were sitting in the living room watching the game, while the girls and the gays (me included) were at the dining table chatting it up. Two of my friends had just finished running a half-marathon, and eventually, they came around to ask me whether or not I was going to run a full marathon or a half-marathon. As you may know, I had just finished running my first 5k in December and we we’re talking about what my next running goal should be. My friends kept egging me on to join a half-marathon, but I was hesitant to make such a huge leap. I wanted to make my next goal running a 10k.
Anyways, as the conversation about running marathons went on, somehow our talk led us to a discussion about a famous runner whose name I later learned was Paula Radcliffe.
Now, if you don’t know who Paula Radcliffe is, let me illuminate you:
In 2005, Radcliffe participated in The London Marathon, determined to beat the world’s fastest time for any woman in history. Radcliffe started off the race in great shape, but near the end of the race, when she was closest to claiming the title she so desperately wished to covet, Radcliffe started to feel… the pressure. Literally.
Now, apparently, it is not uncommon for a professional marathon runner to stop in the middle of the race, visit a nearby bathroom, take care of business, and then continue their race. (Think about it: if you’re running that fast, over that great amount of a distance, eventually friction and gravity is gonna force you to go… you know.)
So, as she neared the end of that pivotal race–a race that, if she won, would give her the title of the world’s fastest female marathon runner–Paula Radcliffe realized, to her great dismay, that she needed to go poop.
Unfortunately, if Paula were to go to a nearby bathroom and take care of her business, she wasn’t going to finish the race at the record-breaking time she was aiming for. This was certain. However, she really needed to go poop. This was also certain.
So as she neared the end of her race, facing the possibility of failure due to her human limitations, Paula Radcliffe resigned herself, and instead of going to a nearby bathroom, she paused briefly at the side of the road and released that which was holding her back; and she did this in front of hundreds of people, all while cameras were recording her and live broadcasting the race to thousands of spectators worldwide.
After she was done, Paula stood back up again, crossed the finished line, and achieved what she initially set out to do: she became the word’s fastest female marathon runner.
And the rest is history.
I had not thought about “Paula’s Poop” since February, other than to thank her for discouraging me from ever running a marathon race in my life. But as I was working on my second draft this week, her story came back to mind. (Then I forced it out of my mind. Then it came back into my mind without all the unpleasant imagery.)
You see, when we write, we are often forced to confront our human limitations. These limitations may be physical, like Paula’s, but they can also be emotional, spiritual, or even intellectual limitations. When we hit a brick wall, we’ll often try to figure out the “reason” why our writing isn’t working the way we would like, or why we have been presented with a challenge that is more than we can handle.
Maybe you figure that the “reason” why your work isn’t any good today is because you haven’t tried hard enough. Or maybe it’s because you think you are being punished for something you did in the past; or maybe, you think, it’s because there’s something intrinsically wrong with you.
But even after all this reasoning, you might find that, still, none of it makes any sense. You say:
“I know this should be working. I have tried everything I can do to make this work. I even feel that this is meant to work, but it doesn’t work and–for the life of me–I don’t know why.”
Then you might realize the harsh truth: you haven’t done anything wrong, and you’re not a bad person. It’s just that your best isn’t good enough.
So, what do we do when we are confronted with such a disheartening situation?
I think the first step is to stop blaming ourselves, and instead ask:
“What if being my best is not the point? What if the lesson here is not proving that I am great? What if the lesson here is not about proving anything at all, but simply withstanding all the challenges that are being thrown my way?”
It can be difficult to accept that sometimes our lessons do not occur within the realm of awards or punishments. We have trouble with the idea that something can be gained without a pat on the head, a degree, a catharsis, a reassurance, or a gold medal. And we find it nearly impossible to recognize that something worthy can be gained from having nothing work out for us.
But if you stop looking for what you did right or wrong, and instead saw the challenges that are rising up to meet you as the lesson itself, maybe you can find some peace.
What if you say:
“I have been righteous. I have been good. I have tried my best, but what I am being given now is the chance to go forward without the reassurance I have depended on for all these years, the reassurance I always relied on to show me my worth and to tell me that I am on the right track. Maybe I am not being punished. Maybe I am just being given the opportunity to develop a new strength that I lacked before.”
Maybe the thing to do when you feel like your best isn’t good enough is to realize that your test is no longer about greatness–but about fortitude.
Because it is fortitude, not greatness, that asks us:
“Can you withstand that which is beyond your own human limitations to overcome? Can you withstand the world bearing witness to your ugliness, your imperfections, and your embarrassing human faults? Can you withstand the world’s looks of disgust and shock as you humiliate yourself, or fall to your knees in the name of all you hope to bring into being? Can you withstand it all, knowing that what you will gain in the end is worth far more than that temporary moment of embarrassment, or the deep sense of your personal shortcomings? Can you withstand it all, and be okay with the fact that history might remember you as the woman who pooped while the whole world was watching? Can you withstand it all, just for that one moment of absolute bliss when you crossed that finish line and breathed in the truth that you finally brought into being: that you are now the world’s fastest female marathon runner?”
When life gives us more than we can handle, and we know it is more than we can handle, maybe we should stop ourselves short before we blame ourselves or go looking for the reason behind it all. Maybe we should nod, and instead accept the wisdom that Caroline Myss would suggest: that maybe the only reason why we are given a challenge that we cannot overcome is so that at least we can say, in the end, that we endured it.
What do you do when you feel like your best isn’t good enough?
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