Turning Obstacles Upside Down: A lesson from my dad, a modern Stoic

Text conversation between me and my dad on Thursday, May 17, 2017 at 8:30pm:

Me: “Okay, now I’m really depressed. I can’t even do my my bike workouts. Too hard of resistance on the bike irritates my Achilles.”

Dad: “Ugh! Sorry to hear that. I think you’ll need to skip running and hard biking for now. Just swim and weight train. Add walking when you can.”

Me: “This just really sucks. I feel like I have derailed myself. All of the hard work I put in this winter is going to go to waste. I want to cry.”

Dad: “Achievers face more obstacles than the average person because we move down the road from one obstacle to another at a much quicker pace. If a person didn’t want any obstacles in life, that would be easy. They could just stand still and not do anything. In Stoic philosophy, they would tell us to turn every obstacle upside down. What they mean is to work the problem until you’ve got it figured out in a manner that makes you stronger than before. The timing sucks. There’s no way around that, but each obstacle that we overcome increases our capacity as an individual. That’s why the Stoics tell us to be thankful for our obstacles and come what may.”

********************************************************

Hold it right there. 1. How in the world did I get so lucky to get a dad as smart as mine? 2. For me to be at the point of  “wanting” to cry is pretty significant. No, I am not heartless. But sometimes I actually feel like my tear ducts don’t work properly. For me to “want” to cry means I have hit a pretty low point.

If you read my Ironman 70.3 St. George race recap post, you’ll know that I have been dealing with some Achilles tendonitis. I took two and a half weeks off from running before the race (May 6th) and took a week and a day off after. Which may not sound like a lot of time to some, but to me it had felt like an eternity.

After multiple massages, a dry needling session, heat therapy, pain relieving balm applications, and continuous stretching and rolling out, I thought I was ready to run. My Achilles really did feel better. It was still incredibly tight to the touch, but I thought the pain and inflammation had subsided enough to try.

The first run back from an injury is always the scariest. And the first ten minutes of that run were sketchy as f—-. I was able to complete 40 minutes, stopping and stretching every 10 minutes. Although slow, I might have overdone it a little. I probably should have stuck to 10-15 minutes. I was just so thrilled to be doing my absolute favorite thing in the world that I got a little ahead of myself. I did all the things I should after running and felt okay, not great, but okay. I did feel a little hint of something in my post-run swim, but not enough to worry me terribly. I knew the next morning would be the true test.

I didn’t wake up feeling overly stiff in the tendon area, so I decided to again try running that evening. In the same run then stretch fashion, I completed 38 minutes and 27 seconds. Things felt a little less than “okay” near the end. I could tell instantly my eagerness had pushed things a little too far and stopped my run. And then in true Chelsea Ollar-fashion, I completed my scheduled 2-hour bike ride.

My Achilles was a little stiffer the next morning and I had some periodic throbbing pain throughout the day. I forced myself to give in to the fact that it was not fully healed.  I resigned to not run again until there absolutely no pain. I made the silent promise and felt a little comfort in the fact that I could at least still bike and swim. Fast forward a few hours to 8:00pm that night, right before I texted my dad in complete frustration, rage, sadness, and pain about my Achilles hurting during my bike workout. 45 minutes into my 1 hr and 50 minute ride I knew I needed to get off. The high resistance was irritating the tendon and I was going to be injuring myself more by continuing.

My dad, though not religious, but incredibly well-versed in many religious and philosophical beliefs, has always been so good at seeing the whole picture. He just gets it. (You too mom, but I’ll focus on you in another post.) Sometimes his introspective and reflective responses are not what my fuming, angsty self wants to hear, but he is always right. Let me again repeat his response to my frustrated texts:

“Achievers face more obstacles than the average person because we move down the road from one obstacle to another at a much quicker pace. If a person didn’t want any obstacles in life, that would be easy. They could just stand still and not do anything. In Stoic philosophy, they would tell us to turn every obstacle upside down. What they mean is to work the problem until you’ve got it figured out in a manner that makes you stronger than before. The timing sucks. There’s no way around that, but each obstacle that we overcome increases our capacity as an individual. That’s why the Stoics tell us to be thankful for our obstacles and come what may.”

I swear he just pulls this stuff from the top of his head. It’s incredible, really.

This was the year I was going to qualify for the world championship race. This was the year that despite working full-time and attending grad school, I was going to train my a– off. This was the year I was going to decline social opportunities because I had to swim, bike, run and then write my thesis. But you know what, this may not be my year to qualify to compete at the very top level, and that is okay. It wasn’t okay at first, but it’s going to have to be now. The reality of the situation is, I have to let my body heal. And healing takes time and patience. Worrying about when I’ll be able to run is only be a waste of energy, the energy I need to be a good daughter, sister, friend, teacher, person.

There is always another year. And though in the moment, it feels like everything has been derailed, it really hasn’t. I still have a job which I love. I still have my education which I also love (sometimes begrudgingly). And I still have my friends and family who love me even when I text them a thousand and one text messages about my Achilles issues.

Am I still trying to find out why this obstacle has come my way? Yes. But I promise you that I will turn this obstacle upside down again and again until I do figure this all out (and also learn what’s necessary to prevent it from happening again). Because in the end, that is what “achievers” do.

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