Obstacles, Acquiescence.

No one wants to make a habit out of giving up, but it is something which I think is unfairly maligned. 

I recently read Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, a kind of practical guide for applying Stoic philosophy to your life. Suffice to say it is a book full of interesting thoughts, written and applied with a slightly tedious, unfun,  practicality. Considering Holliday’s success since the publication of the book it has clearly worked more for others than myself but there is something about that key concept – which is summarised nicely in the title – that resonates strongly within me: 

The Obstacle is the Way. 

We cannot live an obstacle free life, we are not the centre of the universe and as such we cannot control every aspect of it. We cannot bend the fabric of reality to our whim to make our lives so comfortable as to have no challenges whatsoever. 

So, what do we do about those inevitable challenges? 

Answer: We only control what we can control. 

Action, emotion, will. 

We embrace obstacles not only as necessary but as something to be cherished, to be attacked with glee. And what we can’t control, we relinquish, we accept. We find equanimity.

As a runner this is both reassuring and confusing, as what is in our control isn’t always blatantly clear. 

For instance, Parkrun is back. This is a fantastic thing. I had a brilliant time and ran an okay time. I thought I’d do it again the following week, and so I did. From the very first step of this second Parkrun I was mentally and physically exhausted. There was not a single molecule in my body which was having fun. 

My response to this was to pack it in.

It was a two lap course, so on lap two I came to a halt, went back to my car, switched shoes, and went for a jog instead. It felt exactly like what my body needed, and if it was what I needed, was giving up the right action to take? Or should I have dragged myself to the finish no matter what? It is “only” a 5k, so I could have got to the end, but what would that have done for me? 

If that feeling of exhaustion was the obstacle, what was the right way around it? 

The Stoics have a beautiful name for this attitude. They call it the Art of the Acquiescence. Let’s be clear, that is not the same thing as giving up. This has nothing to do with action — this is for things that are immune to action. It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.

Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way.

I have a lot of questions, and not necessarily a lot of answers. Holiday’s book is bare bones, as simple as it can be, and it makes some fascinating philosophy from the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca feel beautifully graspable, but that simplicity slightly ignores how life can be stubbornly complicated. What is in our control and what is immune to action is not always clear. The line between pain which can be driven through, and pain which leads to unproductive training, to injury, or to excess fatigue, is thin. 

Here’s where I land with it. If every race I always entered always sucked, and I always gave up, then you would have to question whether I’m making a decision to DNF, or if it’s just a bad habit. As it is, if the Obstacle is the Way, then the Way probably involves dodging the obstacle as much as striking out at it. Sometimes we must acquiesce, but sometimes I’d argue that we have to actively give up. To me, this is as much an action as anything else. Giving up is a decision with consequences, just as much as gritting your teeth and getting to the finish line is. 

Which leads me to say that I don’t feel bad about giving up at all. As I said, the line between productive pain and unproductive pain is thin. As such it should be approached with a healthy amount of caution. I made a decision, stuck with it, and my body and mind feels better for doing it. Arguably I could have got to the end of the 5k and maybe I would have felt better about it all then, but my instinct told me that wasn’t the case, and I followed it.

A couple of weeks after packing it in at Parkrun I had a fantastic race in terms of results, performance, and feeling. The pain there felt right, felt like a challenge, even felt good – in a way. There was even a team trophy for us at the end. Am I saying this was all down to me not finishing a Parkrun? No. But I am saying it was part of it.

Competition is controllable. Starting and finishing any competition is a decision. Not starting, or not finishing, is a decision also. There is no definitive way to know whether your decision is right or wrong, except for in all the signals that your body gives you. There is pain on the path to faster, stronger running, no doubt, but to adapt there needs to be rest and recovery, and in time there should also be the feeling of strength and speed.

Then you can test your limits, find your resolve and say fun, meaningless stuff like no pain, no gain!

So don’t give up, all the time, but stay open to the idea because, occassionally, that might just be exactly the right decision for you to make.

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