How Necessity Trumps Positivity

My wife, an accomplished swimmer, and I have a bet about whether she can complete a half marathon at or below a set time before I, a runner, can complete a two-mile open water swimming race at or below a set time. I challenged her when she said, after completing the swimming race several years ago, that she—a marginal runner—could more easily train for the run than I—a marginal swimmer—could train for the swim.

For decades I’ve wanted to swim regularly but found reasons not to: my stroke was too weak; I lacked access to a pool; I lacked the time. But somehow recently I became a regular swimmer: I get up as early as 4:30 a.m.; I swim in an indoor YMCA pool; I read a book on swimming that my wife bought and watch videos to improve my stroke.

Within a few weeks, I’ve gone from struggling through 300 or 400 yards per session to completing 1200 yards, able to comfortably finish 800 yards at a time. I swim three days each week, and on the non-swimming days, I think about the next session; I imagine being in the water again and long for that sensation.

The shift occurred because I made swimming necessary to me. This also happened nine years ago when, after 20 years of inactivity, I resumed regular running. And going further back, writing has functioned in my life the same way. In the case of each activity, I have my lapses, but when I don’t do them I feel a sense of loss.

A contrasting school of thought contends that creating and maintaining a positive attitude is as key to becoming the person I want to be. According to this view, we should banish negative thoughts, and envision our future, successful selves. But lifelong depression and anxiety have taught me that this can be easier said than done. Whatever their intentions, “positive thinking” advocates can downplay the power of trauma, pain, and mental illness. Admonitions to “be more positive” sometimes generate only self loathing. “I should be more positive,” I’d say to myself. “Why can’t I be? What’s wrong with me?”

The challenge to be “heroic” affects me the same way. I recently saw the quote, “I want someone to look at me and say, “Because of you, I didn’t give up,” and I thought, “So when I struggle, I’m not only failing myself, I’m failing other discouraged people too.” Those are the last thoughts that someone with depression needs running through her head.

My transformations have come by redefining myself. I became a runner by telling myself that I was one. I had only to run as many days a week as I comfortably could. I’ve become a productive writer when, rather than dreaming of success, I remind myself, “I’m a writer, so writing is what I need to do each day.” Since I already am a runner/writer/swimmer, I do what runners/writers/swimmers do: I make a place in my life for that activity.

Belief doesn’t happen overnight, but pretending to believe suffices. I ask myself, “If I were a runner/swimmer/writer, what would I do?” And once I engage in those actions, I have begun making that self-definition real. It also reduces the back-sliding effect. Recently I went nearly two months without running, but instead of telling myself that I wasn’t a runner anymore, I called myself a runner on a long break who needed to get back to it. And I did. My point echoes the words of Morgan Freeman’s character says in this very arresting moment from an otherwise so-so film. What we take on as part of our identity, we make necessary, and what we make necessary we do because we can’t not do.

I don’t know whether I’ll win the bet with my wife. I don’t even know whether I’ll finish the two-mile swim. But more importantly, I know now I’m a swimmer, and because of that, I know that day after tomorrow I’ll be back in the water.

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