A few years ago, Dean Karnazes mentioned to me that he believed that it is in the struggle – in facing adversity – that we become most alive.
Karnazes’s comment wasn’t entirely surprising given the context. I had sent him a copy of my book, Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards for a review. While in my book I argue that setbacks are often the catalyst of profound growth and the very thing that results in a dramatic shift in our sense of priorities, connecting us to a more clear, authentic sense of purpose, and in the process, revealing strengths within ourselves that we never knew existed, Karnazes’s statement had me thinking that perhaps adversity isn’t just about growth, but rather, about life.
Perhaps in trying to remove all of the obstacles from our lives – to make life as comfortable as possible – we had forgotten how to live.
In her powerful TED talk, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Ourselves, says that where we used to go to social media to express a feeling, now we go to social media to find a feeling.
The point Turkle makes is that as much as we love our instant gratification world, it hasn’t really loved us back. While we can have almost anything we want with a click, swipe, or touch of our fingertips, the thing we want the most – to feel – has been lost.
I, like Karnazes, think that people want something more. I think that people want to feel alive, but they also want their lives to matter.
Greg McKewen, the author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, describes the process of connecting to your essential or most meaningful purpose like editing a book. You want to remove all of things that will confuse the reader, distract from the message of the book, or simply don’t need to be there. For McKewen, when you remove all of the obligations (spoken and unspoken), responsibilities, activities, and even relationships from your life that distract you from what you are most meant to do, the result is a deep-rooted sense of purpose.
As a psychotherapist, I have always felt that a sense of purpose was its own energy form. While we can’t calculate the number of ATP units like we can with carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, we can’t help but notice it when we see it. I remember once, years ago, running an ultra-marathon where one runner came through the aid station each time singing joyously at the top of his lungs. While he was given a few strange looks, he expressed what I suspect many of us felt.
I believe ultra-running is like that. It calls upon our deepest purpose – to face challenges, to persevere beyond our limits, to become alive. In its purest form, ultra-running is an act of self-actualization. We take what was given to us – two legs, a heart, lungs, and a mind – and we discover what we can do with it.
The limiting factor is usually not what we think it is. I have heard many people say, “I can’t possibly run that far,” or, “There is no way I could run for 24 hours,” but the truth is, none of us really knows. A friend of mine, who stills holds the cross country record at his college some 15 years later, used to tell me that you never know where a four-minute mile lies. It could be inside someone covered by heavy layers of excess pounds, just waiting to be released. And yet, it may never see the light of day.
For most of us, a true purpose is also hidden under layers of obligations, expectations, assumptions, and fear. I don’t know that most of us will ever find it. But I do know this: we will likely feel more alive when we do.