Humans in my life are fond of analogies. I think it’s true of many humans in general. We try to take big, complex events and systems and shoehorn them into a model that seems less abstract to our minds.
Sometimes it works. More often, it breaks down very quickly.
My boss periodically comments, “This business isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.” He’s never run a marathon. I’ve run one in my life (so far). A marathon is in turn exciting, tedious, awesome, and grueling. You have to pace yourself early, so that there are reserves at the end. You have to take care of yourself and fuel along the way.
A marathon has a much more tangible outcome. You’re there to finish the race. Maybe you have a goal time. Maybe you’re trying to top your age category. But at the end of the day, you will know whether you achieved that goal or not. And all along the way, you will have people cheering you on. And on that day, you have one thing to focus on: running your race. It will be an intense day, but by the time you get there, you’ve been working at it for months, training for hours a week and (maybe) carefully attending to your health and nutrition. And for most people, all of the training goes on in the context of real life – jobs, families, friends.
When I first started to write this post, I immediately started thinking of analogies – running, equilibrium, thermodynamics… Then I realized none of the analogies really work. In this instance, they only allow me to distance myself from that about which I write, to talk about things without being specific. But I think it’s time to come clean.
This time last year, there were trepidations but also high hopes for the year to come; anxious optimism might be a good term. But time, as it is wont to do, scattered intentions and plans into the wind. A new year brought massive change that left me operating in survival mode for the first 6 months of the year – the end of my marriage.
As you might imagine (or have experienced), even without the whys and wherefores, it is a grueling process on many levels. I started out the year living with my spouse in a suburb, commuting an hour to and from work each day. Then I was living there alone. Now I live in a flat that’s walking distance to work – with housemates. Not where I expected to be as I wrapped up my 30th year on Earth.
There’s so much that has been hard, things I may or may not write about one day. For today, I’ll go back to the context of the earlier analogy. I’ve been far, far from peak production in the lab. The mental energy and physical time committed to dealing with logistics and the emotions of the process tore my focus elsewhere. On one occasion, my boss was checking in, asking if things had settled down. I was on edge already. No, I explained. They hadn’t settled down, and they wouldn’t for a while. I knew I had not been very productive or focused in the lab. And that really bothered me. But at the moment, I was just trying to get through. My boss pulled back. This wasn’t a push. Things had to be taken care of, he understood that. I voiced my own frustrations at my time and focus, and it was then he made the marathon analogy. He then told me he was invested in me as a scientist, and he would do what he could to support and advance me. He told me, as he had many times before, that he supported whatever I needed to do outside the lab. Because if things weren’t working outside the lab, it would be really difficult for things to work in the lab.
I have many flaws. But one is particularly relevant to these ramblings, and one that I suspect is shared by more than a few of you. I am a driven individual, and typically I will expect more of myself than anyone else does. I think it’s a useful trait in science, but the other edge of the sword is that I have trouble cutting myself slack. I find it difficult to accept less than my best without descending into a spiral of doubt. I find it difficult to ask for help with things that I think I should be able to do on my own, that I probably would be able to do on my own in the absence of the added mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting processes I’m going through. To me, this felt like admitting weakness.
But as much as this phase of my life has sucked, it’s deepened relationships and forged new ones. And, with no small amount of help from those people, it’s teaching me important lessons.
There is strength in admitting when you need help and asking for it.
There is courage is doing what needs to be done, even when it hurts like hell or is inexorably daunting.
And there is joy and happiness to be found even in dark times of life, and you have every right to embrace it – unapologetically.