This is a marathon.
As things start to reopen and restrictions are eased, I'm noticing that there are more rumblings that it's not enough--not fast enough nor normal enough. In some cases, it seems, having some things open is actually worse for our psyches than having nothing open. It seems to only heighten the chasm between what was and what is, and it's making us impatient. If we were only moving faster and doing more, this would all be over sooner.
But this is a marathon, and anyone who has run a marathon (at least, as a non-elite runner) knows that marathons are not about comfort nor getting to the finish line fast. Marathons are about perseverance, patience, trust and, perhaps most importantly, letting go. These are the things that get you to the finish line. We aren't yet at the finish line. In fact, by my count, we're somewhere around the 21-mile mark, which also happens to be the exact point at which the marathon experience feels the most awful. Because even though, rationally speaking, you are infinitely closer to the end than the beginning, emotionally you feel as though you still have an entire marathon to run.
If you haven't had the 'pleasure' of running a marathon, let me assure you this is an apt metaphor. In fact, I'll share with you (roughly) what the marathon experience is like start to finish and let you reflect on how close an approximation it is of what many of us are experiencing right now.
At the start line, you're full of vim and vigor, and a fierce commitment you didn't know you possessed. You're surrounded by like-minded runners, equally amped up. You are part of a community, all of whom are there for the same thing. You feel connected and a part of something, the visceral power of which is all the fuel you need right now. The first 13 miles, in fact, are pretty smooth sailing. The crowds cheering you on, the chipper aid-station volunteers handing you tiny cups of Gatorade, all of these things fill your heart and your energy tank.
But as you enter into mile 15, your plucky spirit start to wane, just a little bit, but noticeably so. You start to wonder why you signed up for this marathon in the first place, even though the answer doesn't matter at this point because the reality is that you are in it. With each step, you want to know exactly how much further you have to go, and you desperately seek out mile markers but they are few and far between. This fills you with both frustration and also the deep dread that you're not going to make it to the end. These are the miles where things start to get a bit darker, but the darkest miles are yet to come.
When you hit mile 21, you have officially reached the longest distance you've run in your training plan. Your level of uncertainty about whether your mind or body will carry you through to the end of the race reaches an all-time high. You have your first real thoughts of rebelling, of walking right off the course to curl up in a fetal ball on a welcoming patch of grass. Would anyone even notice?
Whereas at the start of the race, you felt like you were a part of a community, you now feel alone. It is just you and your thoughts and the sound of each of your labored steps hitting the asphalt. You had no idea it would be like this, that you would feel such sickening isolation despite the occasional other runner and despite volunteers and onlookers shouting cheerful platitudes at you as though they are helpful. Truthfully, there is nothing anyone can say or do to make your experience of this moment better. In the end, you are in this marathon alone.
These last five miles are where you will run out of things to occupy your mind. You will obsessively fixate on exactly how much farther you have to go, and you will feel like it is breaking you. You will experience overwhelming emotions and wonder where these emotions have been hiding your whole life. But it is exactly this release, this willingness to accept that you cannot predict how these last few miles will go, that will set you free.
Without realizing it, you will become one with each painful step, onlookers will blur into faceless shadows, and even your own mental chatter will recede into background static. This is what I like to call 'the zone' and it is a state of full presence that will carry you through to the end of this race. You cannot rush getting to the zone. You cannot make it happen. It will arrive at the exact moment that you let go of any expectations you had for how you should feel or be in this moment.
Once you are in the zone, you will not stop. Somewhere below your current seat of awareness, you realize that you are capable of far more than you thought. You keep going because at the finish line there will be hugs from people you love; you'll be surrounded by a supportive running community; there will be pancake breakfast and maybe even one of those weird space blankets lovingly wrapped around your shoulders. You will feel relief, first and foremost, but you will also feel an overwhelming surge of pride the likes of which you have never felt. Because you did it and now, blissfully and pridefully, you can stop.
A funny thing will happen when you're done. You will forget all of the pain and suffering that you just endured. You will forget cursing the crowds cheering you on, and wanting to walk off the course, and intensely feeling every muscle in your body wanting to shut down. Instead, you will think "If I had to do another one of these, I could". And you could. But you can only see your own resilience and grit on the other side of the finish line. At mile 21, it is still incomprehensible to you.
This is our mile 21. We are impatient, we are ready for this race to end, but the race isn't over yet and no amount of frustration, impatience or force will change that. The only thing that will help us reach the end is to put one foot in front of the other, to accept what is, to find our way into 'the zone'.