Monday, June 5, 2017

Object Permanence And The Beauty Of Failure

As I'm ruminating on the events of the weekend (and last week, to be fair), I keep circling back to one remarkable thought: I didn't fail. I don't suck. I'm still a good person and a fast rider, and that those two things are completely separate.

Now, this series of thoughts may not seem remarkable to most, but they're a newly consistent narrative to an athlete who has often been insecure about her performance and how it ties in with who I am as a human being. I've 'lost' at a lot of races. I haven't won, but have made excuses about why (even with some very valid reasons peppered in there), and then been disappointed because the same thing keeps happening. Now, there are definitely some caveats to racing, like catching other racers, which is and likely always be a huge obstacle for me personally. I still haven't figured out how to solve that particular issue, but solving the problem isn't my biggest concern -- it's dealing with the "it's not fair!" attitude that comes with it. That I create, post-race. No. Racing isn't fair. But there are rules and regulations that are part of the reason I love racing: clear boundaries. But despite those rules, I often internalize the struggles I face on the course because for whatever reason, I have a sort of 'idea permanence' of how life should go and about how racing should be.

'Object permanence' is a developmental theory about the early growth stages of the human brain classified as "the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed (seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed in any way)".Young children develop object permanence about 8-9 months into life and later extend it to people through association, such as parental attachment, pets, understanding of nuclear and extended family, etcetera. In thinking about this after the term popped into my head while making my coffee this morning, I realized that object permanence is what often leads us to grieve after loss. The concept of 'loss' itself is inherently fascinating and complex but when we combine the life fact of loss with object permanence, we run into immediate issues. Life cannot be lived without experiencing loss at some level. We'll all grieve over something at one point in our lives. But this 'unfairness' of loss stems from the first year of our existence when we learn that all things are permanent and that they're simply hiding under a blanket.

They aren't.

Now, take object permanence and extend it to ideas -- ideas and thoughts we have of ourselves, our perceptions of the world, our biases, learned knowledge, experience, patterns, observations. These cement concepts that we've built in our minds over the years and through relationships, careers, vacations, struggles. For example, the idea I have that I'm an exceptional athlete and because of that, I should excel at everything and anything. Immediately. Without practice. Without effort.

It's not realistic, but as humans go, few things are. So it doesn't have to be realistic, per se -- it's simply a 'truth' that's been embedded in my mind since I was a child. Through experiences, confirmation, assumption and even feedback from sources such as coaches and parents and my own perception of events, I've classified myself as a capable competitor (and eventual winner) in any arena from a very young age. If that isn't insane, I don't know what is. Now, mind you, there are some very clear indications of 'success' in children based on traits such as stubbornness, curiosity, rule-bending, work ethic, desire, imagination and more. Pediatric psychology has probed the depths of many traits and topics in search of the magical equation that will lead the human race to exceptionalism. The problem, however, is that we've created little monsters who feel entitled to success based on a few isolated personality traits that bring just as much trouble as they do 'success'. And while we could delve into the concepts of traditionally-defined 'success', I'll skip that in favor of staying on topic: idea permanence.

We have these ideas about ourselves, the world, our place in the world; they aren't accurate (understatement of the year). But we become attached to these ideas about ourselves, these concepts of who we are and what we do. We internalize them and repeat them, believing them so much that we base our very behavior around them. But I'm wrong -- I'm not an anomalous athlete. I'm not so talented that my work matters more. I may have a slight advantage because of body composition, but someone who appreciates their art and works to refine themselves will have the upper hand every time.

And this is what I figured out this weekend. Again. Because it's a lesson I have to learn at least once a year. Of course. And because racing bikes is so punishing and so severe, small mistakes and oversights can be catastrophic. Lessons in racing aren't easy ones to learn. They're often painful (on multiple levels) and fraught with "could have, should have, would have" moments when hindsight is indeed 20/20. But because of these, our idea permanence can change. The ideas I hold about capability and skill can be altered if there is enough motivation to alter them -- and finding my face in the dirt twice in a row is hefty motivation. But what motivated me? What were my actions after the two practices crashes that now find me frantically searching for a chiropractor and icing every part of my body? I slowed down. I took more caution. And then I got sad. Because losing isn't fun and I'm not supposed to lose, remember? I'm an athlete of spectacular skill and innate talent, y'all. I'm a child prodigy of unmatched cunning and ability and when I lose, it's not because of me...

Yeah, right. That's the craziest idea in the whole world. That's nuts. How bananas does a person have to be to actually believe that?

Crazy enough to think I can make a living by throwing myself between trees and over rocks without consequence, apparently. But I don't think I'm alone in this idea -- I think I share it with a lot of other athletes (if we're all very honest with ourselves). I think to be an athlete, to live life as an addict to whatever we love, requires some sort of delusion. All of us have these delusions that drive us to what we do and for every athlete on the planet, it's the permanent idea that we're special. That we can make it. That we're the anomaly, the great, the one. Call it a delusion or an overblown sense of self, but we believe that we're the messiah of sport. We have to. If we didn't, we certainly wouldn't spend our lives obsessing over the smallest parts, winters on a glorified hamster wheel, summers in the sweltering heat or a hospital room. This idea permanence keeps us both sane and batshit crazy, and it keeps us coming back for more. I think that it doesn't just apply to sport, either, but that's an entire pandora's box of talking about all my ex-boyfriends and I'd really like to not go there on a Monday at 11 am.

So this permanence that brings me back to my bike, back to racing, back to crashing and expensive parts and battles over sport -- I don't think it's a bad thing. What's a life without loving something more than ourselves, after all? I'd argue that it's not much. But the things that keep me coming back have created an eternal optimist, a critic, a self-effacing egomaniac. They've built a woman who isn't afraid of bruises, who is slowly coming to terms with speaking openly about traumatic brain injuries and depression and illness and body issues. I hate failure as much as I ever have, but maybe I'm getting better at accepting that idea: that life isn't life without losing. That when we lose someone or something, it challenges us to grow beyond the idea of permanence and into something more malleable, more compassionate, more open. When we let go of everything we know about what 'should' be and our knowledge of self, perhaps that's when the truth slides in and settles slowly onto the branches of our minds like a soft, winter snow.

Maybe that's when we start to grow from all these 'learning experiences'.

I wasn't prepared. I didn't practice as much as I clearly needed to, I didn't religiously check or inspect my equipment and despite my current level of riding, I simply wasn't vigilant in making sure I was physically or mentally up to the task. It happens. When it happens, it creates a learning opportunity rather than a 'shrug it off and move on' moment. Because it does hurt to lose, despite the level of racing. Even if I'd won with that race run, I wasn't happy with it and I didn't reach any of the goals I set for myself for this race (elusive as they might have been). It wouldn't have been a win, it would have simply meant there wasn't enough competition. Because I wasn't ready. I hadn't prepared.

I doubt I'd currently be where I'm at mentally if I had won.

And that's the best part.