On Writing, Running, Shame and Authenticity

Face In the wall

I didn’t run the 50 miler I’d signed up for in May. Life got complicated, and I re-prioritized all kinds of stuff. Running too. But in deciding not to run the race, not to keep training for the race, I got a chance to think a good deal more about the questions I asked in that March 3 post. Most specifically, why the compulsion to sign up for another ridiculously long race, and how did that compulsion relate to questions I had about myself more generally. How do you balance the inherent selfishness of running and writing with the desire to be a decent guy, to be more present. To be generous in spirit.

Right after I wrote that, I sent it to a few friends, including a writer friend who sent back a fairly strong bit of tough love. Let me quote some of it:

You once said, years ago, when it was just you and I talking about writing, maybe at your house, something like you knew there was some leap you hadn’t yet taken, some opening up of some kind, or some leap to a new level of honesty, or something like that. Does that ring any bells? I’ve always remembered that. I think it was the most non-guarded, honest thing you’ve ever said to me.

It seems like you might be headed toward something interesting and honest in this post. To get at it, I think you need to get rid of…well, the shell that surrounds you and your writing. I feel like you never really get at anything because you put so much energy into demonstrating that you are an intelligent, well-schooled, articulate, thoughtful, spiritual, tasteful, philosophical, distance-running superhuman. It just feels like you and your writing put so much energy into all of that, that you don’t get anything else accomplished…or that whatever else is there is drowned out or lost.

Fucking ouch, right?

My first instinct was to respectfully, or perhaps angrily, disagree. The things I write about, the allusions I use, these are things that interest me, that I think about in real life. I’m not pretending to be philosophical, dammit, I am a pretty philosophical dude. But I didn’t follow my first instinct. I let my heart rate drop back to normal and wrote a polite note back thanking him for his feedback. That was not a very authentic response, was it?

There was something in this stinging commentary that was true, and I knew it, heck, I’d just proved it in my carefully genial, and utterly BS, reply.

I think it was the most non-guarded, honest thing you’ve ever said to me.

I am guarded. Almost always. The same cautious, highly-self-aware, tendency to run the things I say through a pretty deep series of filters before I say them, the tendency that makes me pretty darn good at office diplomacy, at staying (outwardly) calm in tempestuous situations, at leading, at working well in groups, at business writing, also keeps me from having the deepest, most authentic relationships with the people I meet and the pages I write.

Where does that guardedness come from? Shame, I think.

I finished listening to Donald Miller’s book Scary Close a few weeks ago. It’s an intensely personal look at Miller’s own exploration of his inability to be truly authentic with people, the attributes he puts on like armor to avoid intimacy; intellectualism, humor, his success as a writer. And he looks hard at the underlying sense he has that people wouldn’t like or love him if he didn’t continue to prove he’s worth loving by being smart, by being funny, by being successful. In one scene in the book he describes being at a retreat and having a counselor draw a little circle in the middle of a piece of paper. In that circle he writes “self.” Then he draws another ring around that, and in that ring, he writes, “shame.” Then he draws an outer ring, and in that he has Miller write all of the things that he relies on to prove his worth: intelligent, funny, writer, etc. When we’re very young, Miller says, he and most of the rest of us, have some deep shaming experience, which becomes that layer between the world and our authentic selves. Around that layer we build our armor, our public character.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but that resonated with me. I can point to a hundred moments in my pre-adolescence where shame ruled the day. Before I started school, I recall being deeply beloved, deeply accepted. But when I started school, I learned – through my peers’ reactions to me – I was fat, awkward, talked funny, used too many big words, had the wrong color skin, wore the wrong brand clothes. I was the kid who, on day one of kindergarten, raised my hand with all the naive enthusiasm and exuberance of a beloved son, only to discover that each time I raised my hand, stepped up to the front of the class, tried to join a group at play, I would become the brunt of the entire class’ cruelest humor. It took a few years of school, and lots of playground beatings, to really learn the lesson, but eventually I got it. Shut up. I watched and listened. By the time I got to high school I’d leaned up a bit and discovered there were certain things I could do pretty well – and they were a little like Donald Miller’s. I could be smart (or at least seem smart, some days I question whether I’m smart at all), I could write, I communicate effectively, I could pick up musical instruments, I could learn almost anything by reading. So I started to build that outer layer, you know, the ring outside the shame layer. The public persona. The character Ernesto Burden who would be cool and successful enough to be able to protect that kindergarten version of himself who was still in there, still cringing in angry shame after getting all the buttons ripped off the front of his shirt by a bully.

And would you believe it, if I had to write the words in that outer ring, the way Miller did in his workshop, they’d be note for note what my writer friend called out in his critique:

intelligent, well-schooled, articulate, thoughtful, spiritual, tasteful, philosophical, distance-running superhuman

Would I like to be all these things? Sure. Are they all a part of me, and am I naturally inclined to them? Yes. Am I faking them? I don’t think so. But would I like to know that even if I don’t consistently demonstrate all of these qualities, people might be okay with me anyway? Or more importantly, I might be okay with me anyway?

Because however much of this is about seeking external validation, or avoiding condemnation, the heart of it is about silencing that internal voice that constantly says, “You suck. You don’t have what it takes. You’re not smart, you’re not strong, you’re not a good person, nobody likes you.”

Finally, we get back to distance running. There’re a lot of things you can fake, or at least tell yourself you’re faking. In a dark moment, you can convince yourself you’re not half as smart as people think you are. You can convince yourself your cultural literacy is a sham, your spirituality is half-assed and your philosophy is shallow as a puddle. But you can’t fake a sub-three-hour marathon, or just finishing a 50 mile race. When you finish, for a little while, no matter how much you doubt yourself in the other arenas of life, you know, empirically, you had what it takes. And the worse the experience it was, the harder it was, the more you can trust it. I got there. I had what it took.

Why’d I sign up for that last race? Because that sense of having what it takes felt like a fix I needed.

Did I feel less than adequate for not running it? Strangely, no. It felt good to simply say, I didn’t have it in me this season. I’m overwhelmed and I have to let something go.

So what’s all this mean? It means the answer to that balance question I asked in the last blog post isn’t about running more or running less. It’s not about being selfish or generous.

It’s about being more deeply authentic, more often. It’s about trusting God to love me despite the cracks, and because He does, there might be more people than I’ve given credit to who would as well.

Does that imply this whole post is one long confession to having been a phony my whole life? Not at all. All the parts of myself I’ve show my family, friends, colleagues, and passing strangers in airports, they’re all me. But not all of me. They’re the curated me. The same way a Facebook page is your life curated to leave out most of the bad, the scared, the weak, the tired, the ugly, the broken.

Take heart. This also doesn’t imply I’ve decided over these past months, to go around over-sharing all the crap you never wanted to know about me. It just means that it’s time, as my forty-fifth birthday recedes in the rear-view mirror, and I begin to think about writing, running and relationships, from the perspective of rapidly diminishing time to accomplish any of these, to let down some of those guards, to try and find a way to get rid of those three circles and just be one person, totally integrated, authentic and present, and maybe get at what my friend and critic urged in his letter:

I just think you need to take that leap you referred to so many years ago. I’d like to know the presumably more flawed Ernesto whom I believe lives beneath the perfect shell. I don’t really care about, or even believe, the titan who wrestles the metaphysical/philosophical quandaries of existence as presented to humanity through the medium of distance running — this fellow bores me.

I don’t know if that guy bores me, but I’ll at least admit, he exhausts me. And you’re right, my friend, it is time to make that leap. So here goes…