Humans are storytelling animals. Throughout our existence, we have used stories as a tool to spread ideas, as a way to own our experiences, as well as reveal parts of ourselves to others. Stories help us connect more deeply with ourselves and those around us.
And if I have learned one thing in the last few years it’s this — we live and die by the stories we invent. We may be the creators of these stories, but in turn, these stories inevitably shape our lives. Each of us has stories central to our core identity, but not all stories are born equal; some of them push us beyond our limits while others hold us back from our full potential.
Growing up, I had always identified myself as an extrovert. Whatever space I had in my life I instinctively filled with activities and people. I never had a reason to question it. That until 6 years ago, when I left my home country of Singapore to move to Sweden. I lost the social support of family and friends, I exited a long-term relationship and I changed professions.
The confluence of events led me through an agonizing and unexpected transformation into an introvert. Since then, I’ve been grappling with this powerful shift in my disposition, because as it grew, so did its power over me. I felt confused and uncomfortable as I involuntarily slowly and steadily retreated into myself over time. Like moss on a rock, this foreign quality expanded its presence and influence across all domains of my life, from dictating my decisions to fundamentally modifying the way I experience things — one of which happens to be my birthday.
I’ve always thought of birthdays as a better version of New Year’s Eve. They’re more intimate and predictably more pleasant. More importantly, they both represent possibilities and offer opportunities for change.
In recent years however, I haven’t cared much for celebrating them anymore — it’s hard to drum up enthusiasm for celebrating your life when you feel that the subject of celebration is a laughable mess. All the reasons I wanted to celebrate had before to do so had abandoned me, and my attempts to find new and positive ones were futile.
What would I celebrate — chaos and failures?
At least that’s how I saw it.
So as my birthday neared last year, I happened to be deep in the doldrums of one of my down cycles, palpably depressed and reclusive. “Another year has passed and another year of failing,” I remember thinking. With my enthusiasm for life at an all-time low, I decided that it was best that I spend my birthday completely alone, intentionally devoid of any meaningful human interaction, in order to avoid infecting anyone else with my despondency.
When the day finally swung around, I had made sure to turn off my Facebook birthday notifications so that I could wallow in self-pity fully undisturbed. As twisted as it may sound, sometimes nothing feels better than feeling worse. I was trying to spite the universe for spiting me by staging a one-man protest. It was my way of-of proving to it that whatever hardships life threw at me, I can do I could do better. Including making myself feel worse.
It was around noon when I was sitting on the couch, stewing in petulance, when an idea began to form.
What could I do to commemorate this special (read: wretched) occasion?
What if I did something that was extreme to prove that I was stronger than whatever the universe could throw at me?
What if I run a half-marathon??
Could I run a half-marathon if I tried???
The next thing I knew I was lacing up my shoes. You should know that this wasn’t a very bright idea because at this point I had not run more than 8 km in the past 10 months, and my last half-marathon (coincidentally also done on a whim) three years ago left me with a knee injury that took me out for eight months. By the way, a half-marathon by the way is 21.0975 km. Not a lot for a runner, but a daunting distance for me.
I immediately regretted committing to the idea the instant I started running. I wanted to quit no less than 10 times until I passed the 12 km mark. By 16 km, the initial adrenalin had worn off and my calves were cramping up. The rain toward the end didn’t help either.
I ended up running the half-marathon in 1 hour 50 mins, 15 mins off my previous personal best four years ago. I was both happy and relieved that it was over. In a year littered with defeats, this side quest victory was a source of energy and inspiration. Or so I thought. Because here’s where things took a turn. I went on to consume 7000 calories worth of junk food in an 8-hour window, after which I felt downright disgusted with myself.
Frustratingly, this is a recurring story in my life — extreme willpower meets extreme self-destructive behavior.
And so for an entire year this would plague my conscience — whenever I would reminisce about the run and feel a sense of pride for achieving that challenge, that pride was inextricably linked to the wave of disappointment and shame I’d feel for losing control in that 8-hour window.
Man, there was no running away from that.
Ever since that experience, I looked forward to my next birthday as a chance to set things right. I’d love to tell you that I was excited in rewriting this narrative but in truth, my entire being was resisting the thought of actualizing the idea, and the resistance only grew stronger as the day loomed closer.
I would tell myself “Well, since no one knows, I won’t be held accountable if I don’t do it, right? Just because I did it once doesn’t mean I have to do it again. Maybe it should just live as a once off. Besides, I’m much happier now so maybe this isn’t as relevant anymore?”
Ah, the stories we tell ourselves.
When the day arrived, I spent most of the day reading and reflecting. With every passing minute my idea of birthing a birthday ritual was increasingly looking like it would be a stillborn. However, throughout day this annoying voice kept popping into my head nagging, “So, are you running or not? I thought you wanted to turn this into a birthday ritual?? Hellooo???”
At around 4pm I knew I had to make a decision. I had an aching feeling that I would regret choosing the easy way out, but damn was I reluctant. Even as I closed the door behind me and walked down the stairs, I just didn’t feel like doing it. I was conflicted — my mind was resisting the idea but in my heart I knew that I needed to do this.
Luckily, it all changed when I hit the pavement and started running. It felt good. At least for the first 10 km. After I passed the 10 km mark, a crazy idea crept into my head. “I can’t just run a half-marathon this time around. No, I need to do better.” And since I just turned 30, what better number to celebrate and honour this occasion than running 30 km?
Filled with exuberance, I then ran the rest of the way with an extra skip in my step, and dished out high-fives to strangers.
I wish that was the case.
In reality, a new internal conflict arose the moment I committed to the distance.
The conflict? I found myself grappling with the clash of two internal narratives.
The first narrative was one of resilience and adventure — sure I’ll suffer now but I’ll conquer myself while reaching a new milestone, and become a better person in the long run. A compelling pitch that reaffirms how I would like to see myself. It’s what drove me to commit to the 30 km.
The second narrative, on the other hand, was far less inspiring and closer to what transpired in reality. It was one of self-doubt and laziness — can I do this? Do I want to do this? Why don’t I just stop? An alluring pitch that would make my life easier in the short run, but a lousier person in the long run. As much as I hate to admit it, this narrative went on like a broken record in my head for the majority of the run.
Eventually, I finished the run in 3 hour 30 mins at an avg pace of 5.34min / km. It is the farthest I have ever ran. Also, I didn’t consume 7000 calories this time and that is the bigger win than the run itself.
Two consecutive years of reading, running, and reflecting. It’s official, I now have a birthday ritual.
Okay, maybe you’re wondering: but why? Couldn’t I just have enjoyed all the other activities without putting myself through this painful process?
Good question. I’ve asked myself that over and over again, and I think I’ve figured out why.
I’ll be truthful, it was partly an egotistical act; I simply wanted to see if I could do it. Upon deeper reflection, however, I believe I did it because I’ve developed a kinship for pain thanks to its unwavering companionship during the last few years. Despite its bad reputation and abrasive style, pain has been consistently one of the greatest mentors in my life.
Pain is honest; it always tells me exactly what to feel and think.
Pain is present; it brings me fully into the moment.
Pain is growth; it signals that I’ve met my limits.
Despite my affinity with pain, it doesn’t mean I love it. I just try to embrace it instead of fighting it. But it doesn’t mean that I always succeed. I’ll let you in on a secret: I really didn’t want to publish this.
Right up to the last minute before I hit publish.
First of all, I think my timing is lousy at 5.35 min/km. Ask any decent recreational runner and you’ll realise that this is a pretty average timing. Besides, I didn’t think 30 km was anything to shout about, sure it’s something but it’s nothing compared a marathon and puny compared to an ultramarathon. Surely people would scoff. The audacity of him to write a post!
I could go on.
Ultimately, I chose to share this because between my last birthday and now, I’ve learned something deeply disturbing about myself, and from what I have observed in those around me.
We often are our own harshest critic, but we rarely assume the role as our most ardent cheerleader.
If I saw someone else treating another person the way I did to myself (and we’re talking just one incident over an entire year), the ceaseless internal castigation I pummeled myself with, I would intervene to stop the abuse.
Even after rewriting the story this year and achieving a personal record, somehow I still managed to concoct reasons to criticise myself…
So this story is not about me running 21 km or 30 km or how fast I ran them. It’s not about my birthday ritual or my self-destructive tendencies.
No. This is a story about the capacity we have within ourselves to become our own cheerleader and to write the type of stories we want to live and die by.
Stories that stretch us beyond our limits.
Pushing beyond our limits and becoming stronger than before.
Making the right decisions at high-stake moments.
Choosing ourselves and not waiting for others to do so.
It’s a story about being the first cheerleader to show up for ourselves and not relying on others validate our efforts, or to pick us up when we fall.
We are all running our own race. It’s an illusion that we’re directly competing with each other. In the grand scale of things, it’s just you and the road in front of you and the obstacles you have to overcome. All else are extraneous details that fade into the background.
Our job is to simply show up and be open to opportunities.
To try and run a little harder, a little farther than yesterday.
To acknowledge that there will be good days and bad days.
To accept that we are personally responsible for choosing the responses that will lead us in the direction we want to go.
Every moment presents an opportunity for a response. Not just a response, but a watershed response that could fundamentally change your life.
So whether it’s your birthday or tomorrow, or right after reading this, I ask you to respond by doing one thing to choose yourself. To take pause and consider how you can take a leap of faith and do something that will help you become more of the person you want to become.
I’ll leave you with this: when we choose to operate on a self-empowering story that comes from deep within, it’s something that nobody can give to us or take it away.
That I believe, is the best birthday present you can give yourself.
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Special thanks to Deniss Ariana Perez & Caroline Kyungae Smith for providing their invaluable feedback for this post.