Turning Inward

a grass-covered path through trees with no leaves

I’ve put off writing about my progress training for the One Day challenge for a couple of weeks now because I just couldn’t find the right way in. There are so many things I want to capture – what it is I’m finding hard, without suggesting I’m hard done by or failing to acknowledge the areas where I’m really lucky; the sense of frustration, without belittling struggles much greater than mine; the ambition I feel, without sounding arrogant; the progress I’ve made, without sounding cocky.

In the end, I decided the those contradictions were the thing to write about. I realised probably a whole bunch of people out there were, like me, struggling to put these tensions into words; struggling to allow themselves to feel conflicting thing.

So let me start with some of the things I’m finding difficult. And preface it by saying that I’m very aware – and thankful – I have nothing like the difficulties some are facing. I also have some really difficult circumstances I can’t talk about because it’s not my place to. It’s important to talk about training difficulties, especially Covid-related training difficulties. But it’s also really important to talk about the context of that training. This comes up again and again in different walks of life, and now is no different. It’s simple human science that if you have a ton of other stuff going on it is usually harder to train in a “regular” way. This talk by Rutger Bregman puts it well – and Shafir & Mulainathan’s book Scarcity is superb on it.

For me, there are several contexts that make things hard right now, but the biggest is being disabled in such a way that online spoken communication is really inaccessible. My brain just can’t process information like that – I can’t take part in back and forward conversations as a result, have no ability to follow the rhythms of discussion or even really grasp what’s being said until long afterwards, if at all. This has made the kind of creative interactions I needed in order to bounce ideas around pretty much impossible. It’s not that I lack friendship, it’s that because I can’t interact with friends in person I have no way of having those accidental or deliberate idea-generating conversations. And it’s made hard when I see others who thrive more naturally online still able to do that.

In fact that’s another big problem – the feeling of being left behind. A world that was already inaccessible in many ways has become inaccessible in many more ways. So the opportunities other people get have grown while those I get have shrunk.

But that leads me to one of the things that has worked. I’ve often realised, at least in principle, the difference between preparing a product or a project meticulously before launch, and launching in full public view and building something on the fly. I’ve always tended to the latter – in large part because of my ADHD. But the same neurodivergence has the effect of making my ability to follow things through really impaired. And the result is a lot of “started in fanfare, then ditched” projects.

I just can’t take that approach right now. My confidence has been too shaken to believe in things, and the ability to create a community around a project, something I’ve always taken for granted from the day I started apolitical party aged 10 to setting up a writing and performing collective in my 40s, has deserted me.

I have no choice but to see if I can build something, and make it fully-formed enough that I will have enough material to sustain it to a finish by the time I emerge. I feel like one of those people in a shed in a cartoon with someone outside shouting “what are you building in there?”

This build-it-first approach has taught me a lot.

First, it has taught me about slow, technique-based deep learning. The kind I talked about when I discussed press-ups. Because I’m not in a rush to show everyone what I’ve done, I’m just focusing on doing it the best I can. And that’s…almost meditative, though I hate to use such a clichĂ©!

Second, it has been incredibly introspective. I’ve learned a lot about what I am able to do by myself, in isolation. As a disabled person with a disabled spouse and many disabled friends, the public response to the pandemic has taught me a lot of not very pretty things about how society sees us. But it has also taught me about my own strength, and self-belief. About my desire to improve myself and find my boundaries not for anyone else’s validation but because I want to see what my limits are for my own curiosity. And about my desire to make the world better even if the world is a hostile place. I feel very like Morgan Freeman at the end of Se7en when he says “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘the world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

One thing that not seeing anyone apart from my spouse and favourite barista in 10 months has meant is that I have felt comfortable with a methodical, foundation-building approach to training. There has been an absolute absence of peer pressure. Which makes me realise by its absence how much I experienced it before. And makes me realise how little I actually need validation from outside. And I hope that will stay with me. I have, as a result, been able to gain the fullest benefit from very slow and very steady progress. My memory and cubing times have slowly dropped for long enough that the progress is substantial although the increments are small. I’ve lost weight very slowly, but I’m now at 15 stone 10, more than 3 stone down from last March. I can do press-ups. Last week I ran my fastest 5k for 4 years. Today I ran the furthest I’ve run without stopping in the same length of time. And I’ve written and published two books – my first in five years or more. All in tiny steps I would never have taken in non-pandemic life.

I think the way to sum it up is this. Covid has forced me to turn inwards. The things that have driven this have sometimes been very painful – feeling abandoned by friends, let down by institutions, and obviously, physically isolated by Covid, and made aware of how being disabled makes me unable to form connections other people find much easier. But having been forced to turn inwards, I’ve learned things about what I’m capable of (not to mention just how incredible and how much of a solitary kindred spirit my spouse is – and how lucky that makes me), and about how to learn, and how to train, that I hope will stay with me for decades after I re-emerge. It’s very much as though I am in a chrysalis, not by choice, but nonetheless one in which I am able to rebuild myself out of sight and scrutiny and, I hope, eventually emerge.

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