Other people’s words about … sweat
‘Swagger’ might be common jargon now, but let’s not confuse the situation. Swagger is earned. It can be grimy or graceful. It can be innate, but it’s also finessed. It’s the feeling that makes you sit a little taller and reinforces your backbone. We sweat with swagger when we infuse a shameless confidence into movement. To sweat with swagger is to redefine what it means to be an athlete and create unapologetic greatness along the way. When we sweat with swagger, we test the limits of human potential. When our footsteps are powered by motivation and a strong community, the cadence is a drumbeat to doing something epic. Sweat is magic. Swagger is the glisten.
from ‘Shut up and Run‘
by Robyn Arzón
First, a story of my own, before I address the words I’ve quoted above.
The day before Easter, I woke with my stomach roiling. It was my first official day off work for a while, and when I pulled the curtains back from the window above my bed, I saw clear skies and sunshine through the glass. Lying there in bed, a little before seven o’clock, I felt every part of me rebel at the thought of languishing the day away inside, sprawled out on the sofa, feeling ill.
And so I got up, and I pulled on my oldest pair of trousers — the pair with the faint bike-chain stain on the left leg. I threw my camera and some spare coins into my backpack, and I got on my bike and rode away from the house.
The moment I started cycling, I could feel something inside of me begin to unfurl. I am a tense person, and mostly this tension is a mental thing, but it manifests itself in me physically, too: in my muscles. This is something I have only just begun to realise. I had been sore for days before this bike ride, my right hip aching from stooping over the computer in the office, the muscles in the hollow of my back raw from constantly bracing myself (against what? staying still?), my stomach queasy and unsettled.
So I pedalled slowly. Gently.
The route took me south-west — first along the coast, past two jetties; then south-east a little way, where the coastal road came to a dead end. Then, when the coastal road started back up again, I turned back west and cycled alongside the sea once more, past the third jetty. I rode with my head up, glancing about me: at the wide, cloudless sky, and the opal-coloured sea, and the faint line dividing the two of them. Lycra-clad cyclists sped by me in a whoosh of tyres and sweat — mostly men, some women; most of them younger than me, but some older — and I said, ‘G’day’ to each one of them and gave them a little smile of greeting and acknowledgment, though I’m not sure that any of them heard me or noticed.
When I got to the fourth jetty (the one pictured in most of the photos in today’s post) I stopped and parked my bike. I wandered across the main road to the supermarket and bought some dried-fruit-and-nut mix, and then I dropped into my favourite café at that particular beach and ordered a take-away cup of tea. They’ve recently started selling tea made from leaf tea instead of teabags there, even for take-away drinks, which is a little thing, I know, but it makes me very happy. I carried my lidded red cardboard cup of too-milky leaf tea back across the road and plopped myself down in the middle of the foreshore square. And there I sat, cross-legged on the sun-warmed grass, nibbling my fruit and nuts, sipping my tea, looking (and looking) at the sea.
In a few weeks’ time, the grass in that foreshore square will be wet with rain, and a cold wind will whip between the lamp-posts up over the grey roof of the pavilion. I contemplated this a while, stretching my arms out behind me, resting my weight back, feeling the blades of grass tickle my palms. The beach was only a few steps away from where I sat on the grass, and I could see the jetty pylons reflected in the water, and I’ve said it once already in this post, but little things like that — they make me very happy indeed.
So what has this to do with the words I quoted at the beginning of this post? There was a bit of sweat involved in my bike ride, sure, but there was no swagger. I cannot say I moved with shameless confidence or unapologetic greatness. I was motivated, certainly, but I did nothing epic or magic. I am certain I did not glisten.
I do not wish this post to be unkind. I do not wish to say, as Arzón herself says many times throughout her book, I call bullshit on her words. But then there’s this:
Our inner monologue can turn can’t into can and dreams into realities. Extinguish doubt with action. Let’s write the story that says we are a little better than yesterday. We can push ourselves to where we want to be. It’s going to take a little sweat, though. Happy is something you do, baby, and only you are responsible for your happiness. Life is happening right now, so stop making up excuses and tell me, what do you want your story to be? Do you want to be a runner? Have you always dreamed of completing a marathon? Whatever it is, write it down, look back on it, and own it.
These sentences — sentences like this — worry me. Arzón’s thoughts are not unique; her words are a part of a general conversation, one that I hear around me almost every day. And it is a conversation I can’t help fretting about. I am alarmed when I hear someone confuse athletic prowess with personal greatness. Or when I hear someone link the idea of their becoming a better person, of their living a better life, with the act of slipping on a pair of running shoes. Or when I hear someone use words and phrases like ‘strive’ and ‘focus’ and ‘dedication’ and human potential (that last is Arzón again) to describe, not acts of goodness, let alone greatness, but essentially self-centred feats of fitness and strength, speed and endurance.
I decided to do one thing with my life — epic shit — and I want you to come along for the ride, Arzón writes, of her long-distance running. Maybe I’m wrong, but those words make me feel empty and sad.
Having said that, I also do not wish this post to turn into a lecture, or a rant. I do not wish to moralise. So I will just say this: I took my bike ride that morning slowly, because that was what the day asked of me, and what my life seems to be asking of me generally right now — regardless of my dreams, regardless of whatever kind of story I might prefer to write about myself. It was a gentle ride, and I felt gentler for it afterwards (though still somewhat unwell).
And that, I think, is how I want to live out my days: gently. Slowly. With kindness, both to myself and to others. With humility.
Tell me, am I alone in this? How do you want to live?