Saturday, September 18, 2010

Me, Undefined

We are a people starved for self-definition.
Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker

People talk a lot about defining themselves, how they are defined, what defines them. They tell us when they are in the process of redefining their lives (or reinventing themselves, a curious notion if ever there was one, as if we were light bulbs or mousetraps). A friend once lamented to me that a lot of her friends seemed to be redefining their lives and she wanted to as well but was having trouble thinking of a new definition. She wondered if I could help with some suggestions.

Without going to my dictionary, I am guessing that the word ‘define’ derives from the Latin meaning the ‘end’ or ‘limit’, as in ‘finite’. So by defining themselves, people are actually listing what their limits are.

It seems an odd thing to do, to draw an invisible boundary around yourself, like a Marcel Marceau cell, so that you or others will know what your limits are. A woman I know told me once: “I can’t ever imagine doing what you do”. I wanted to reply archly: “That is why you never will do what I do. It begins with imagination”. An answer like that would of course have been trite, self-serving, smug and unfriendly so I said nothing. But I thought it. (I reserve the right to be internally trite and self-serving).

I have another friend who, whenever she hears of an activity or undertaking that is new to her has a habit of saying “Oh yes, I could do that.” In fact she could never do a fraction of those things, but I have always admired the way she doesn’t set a limit on herself automatically.

Why can’t we discover our boundaries by testing them rather than defining them?

In the past year I have had some colossal athletic failures. I travelled all the way to South Africa to run in the Comrades Marathon and had to drop out after 55 kilometres. This year I failed to bicycle the entire distance of the Race Across the West, running out of energy and spirit after at the 540 kilometre mark. Then last month I launched myself over my handlebars during a routine training ride and managed to snap my clavicle in two, unequivocally ending my 2010 Ironman hopes and my whole season.

If my athletic self-definition were constructed of what I have been able to accomplish recently, my boundaries would be moving inward on me at an alarming rate, like Marceau’s walls. And if I placed limits on my own potential, I would never have attempted those races in the first place; would never have gotten on my bike; might, in fact never have left the house. Yet even sitting here with my clavicle fractured and useless in a sling and with two egregious DNFs behind me, I am still imagining Everests yet to be climbed, oceans yet to be swum, roads yet to be cycled and trails yet to be run. Challenges as yet undefined.

I think that if I were forced to, I would choose to define myself by the things I can’t yet accomplish. Western States 100? Badwater Ultramarathon? Race Across America? Oh yes, I could do that.