Whether We Improve or Not

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Jun 30, 2020

Jun 30, 2020 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

The past few months of social distancing and stay‐at‐home orders due to the COVID‐19 pandemic made me think about how we are already isolated. I'm not a gregarious person by nature, so spending more time alone wasn't that hard for me. I thought about the activities I choose to do for fun—the sports. For instance, tennis requires just me and one other person on the far side of the court with very little talking. Horseback riding is even better. Horses don't talk at all.

I picked up Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008, translated by Philip Gabriel) because it is apropos to our present moment. Murakami explicitly draws connections between writing and running, his hobby and his lifeline. “Writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing,” he writes near the beginning of the book. What we choose to do when we are alone with ourselves is deeply revealing, as we might have discovered in the months of isolation.

Suffering Is Optional

The mantra of the book, if it has one, is this: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This is a piece of runner's wisdom that the author received when he started marathon running. Murakami writes, “Say you're running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can't take it anymore . The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself.”

I always shy away from maxims about suffering. After all, I have bipolar disorder, which includes bouts of terrible depression, and an anxiety disorder, which includes suffering of a different sort. Pain and suffering are part of my life. One thing in Murakami's book stuck out. I've been struggling during the past few months and trying to take my pain seriously. If I can accept that pain is real, then I can do things to lessen the suffering. Thinking about pain and suffering separately can make a difference. I am in pain; therefore, I must care for myself and lessen my suffering—not only for me, but for my children, my job and everything else.

We're All the Same

The point of running, explains Murakami, is not to beat an opponent. It's to beat a time, a goal you've set for yourself. He writes of his running: “I'm at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that's not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday.”

During this pandemic, it has been difficult for me to do anything well. Time plays a major factor. It has been hard to parent and to meet work deadlines that are constantly changing. I just found out that the fall semester has changed dramatically, from 14 weeks to 10. I have to revamp my entire course, not only to teach online, but to teach in fewer weeks. Meanwhile, I'm also teaching a new course with a new prep.

I know I'm not the only one facing unexpected challenges—friends have shared similar stories. Everything is harder because of our new, strange work conditions. Add to that the worry about the world around us and it seems like the best we can do is not very good at all.

But when I read Murakami's book about being a mediocre runner, yet one who has run marathon after marathon, I felt hope. I can be mediocre and still do amazing things. For, as Murakami describes, you don't have to win the marathon, or even complete it with an excellent time, to have accomplished something incredible. You only have to do it a little better than you did last time. Today, you only have to get up and lace up your sneakers, even if you don't want to.

He once interviewed one of the best runners in the world, Olympian Toshihiko Seko. During the interview, he asked Seko, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you'd rather not run today?” Seko responded, “Of course. All the time!” This answer reassured Murakami about his own running—indeed, his own life: “In the final analysis we're all the same.”

Right now, we're all facing a similar challenge, despite our very different circumstances. We're facing a deeply uncertain world that very few of us have experienced before.

We're also experiencing it differently from one another—some are more financially insecure than others. Race matters, as black people are receiving much poorer medical care that white people and dying at much higher rates from COVID‐19.

What's the Point?

Toward the end of the book, Murakami stands at the starting line of a triathlon and wonders, “What's all that supposed to prove?” That , in this instance, is the swimming, the cycling, the running—the pain of the triathlon itself.

I get up in the mornings and churn through work. I have Zoom meetings, sometimes back‐to‐back. I try to take walks outside, but I can't always do that. I know I'm not doing my best with my children, as I try to keep myself healthy and take care of them.

And then I'm back at work, trying to do course prep and handle finances and administrative work, and other tasks. More frequently than before, I face a crisis of purpose. Why am I doing all of this?

As Murakami stood on that starting line, he thought, “What's the point of anything we do?… I'm 44. Why do I even try to get better at things when I'm already on the downhill slide?”

That sentence hit me particularly hard. In June, I turned 44. I already feel like I'm on a downhill slide, especially when I think about how I want to progress with the new physical activities that I've only had time to start now since my children are older. These physical activities are my self‐care. Like Murakami and running, my outdoor sports help me stay healthy and focused.

But I would be lying if I said that there weren't times when I wondered what it was all for. Those are the days when I don't want to zip my boots or tie my tennis shoes. I want to stay on the couch or get ahead in my work.

But instead, I drag myself out the door. And I'm always grateful that I do.

When times are hardest, we must care for ourselves. And in caring for ourselves, we push to keep ourselves healthy, both physically and mentally, even when we'd rather not. As Murakami writes, “Even if there were two of me, I still couldn't do all that has to be done. No matter what, though, I keep up my running.”

No matter what, let's agree to care for ourselves, so we are able to care for those around us and our world.