Karen's Quest with Karen Smith
It seems I’ve had the misfortune of falling into some kind of genetic and cultural trap that has seen me in over my head playing way too many sports in my lifetime.
Strike one: I look the part. I’m able to turn cartwheel and run up several flights of stairs, so color me sporty.
Strike two: I’ve got a foolhardy willingness to try most anything if I’m asked. Going to a rural school and looking the part, I got asked. The trouble is, I’ve got as much athletic sense as a dug up body. (It’s too bad I never actually thought to play dead. I might not have so many awkward memories.)
It’s two strikes and you’re out, right? Right, moving on.
To be sure, I’m no athlete. Most sports look a little scary to me. Ice dancers and their dizzying spins and death defying jumps. Hockey players sailing down the ice at the speed of a freight train, wielding sticks and slinging pucks. It all gives me the Heeby Jeebies (…didn’t he play for the Leafs?) Anyway, the risks they take seem insane, not to mention the rules and regulations (and let’s not. I can’t keep track of all that.) Sports overall seem so arbitrary that I can’t enjoy them.
There is one type of athlete though, one sport, that I can identify with. When I watch a fight, I can totally feel myself in the cage. My hands get sweaty, my pulse picks up. But I’m no fighter. In fact, I’ve declined any fight to which I’ve ever been challenged. Perhaps I should have been more open-minded. Maybe underneath my prissy exterior I’d actually like to see how far my best moves would take me. (My best moves include pinching, and knuckles to the ribs. They’ve only been exercised as tickle defense, but pretty effective nonetheless.) I can just imagine the searing roars of the crowd as they rise, entranced, from their seats, chanting my name…maybe I’ve been missing my calling…then again, maybe not.
Any time I throw a playful kick at my husband I end up shrieking “No, no, no!” for the following 30 seconds, even if he’s only taken a step towards me. Imagine me faced with an opponent who’s actually ready to whip my feet out from under me and choke me unconscious.
Oh my dear! Let’s face it, yellow-bellied, shrieking chickens like me aren’t cut out to fight, unless we’re talking about mental illness. (I use that term tentatively, not with shame but knowing it is too vague to convey the degree to which I struggle. It may cause any number of ideas about me. So be it.)
I might not be the cage-match kind of tough that I find so exciting to watch, but I’ve known battles. And, like fighters do, I focus my energies on all the things that make me stronger. I review my weaknesses and commit to sharpening my skills. I search out my fears and face them down. But it wasn’t always that way.
When I was young I was pursued relentlessly by depression. I was pressed and squeezed until I was limp and fatigued, for years. But I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to lie in bed. I wanted to cry. I wanted to feel happy. I wanted to feel the way I used to feel. I didn’t want to fight. But I had to.
I identify with fighters because they are committed to the test and the challenge. They’re not seeking after what’s comfortable or easy. For reasons unknown to me they too have been pushed out of their comfort zone and compelled to fight. The fighters I love the most are the ones who come alive under fire. A great fight is an exhibition of honesty, bravery, commitment, respect, and passion. Some call it violent; some say it’s barbaric. And I can understand why. A fight may get bloody, fighters may get hurt, but I think of the pain I’ve endured just feeling isolated in depression or anxiety.
At least a black eye means you’re not alone. (Anyone looking for a slogan?) There is no shortage of pain and risk all around us. But is that necessarily bad? I’ve come to find I would rather get up close to all that pain and risk and know it well than pretend the world is safe and comfortable.
The effort to protect and contain my life, to refuse the fight, has only lead to frustration and disappointment, and that’s been at the very least. Some people feel the need to thrill-seek or enter into physical combat as a means of acknowledging the fragility and fear inside us all. I feel better simply welcoming the fight to which I’m being challenged internally.
When I stopped being petulant, trying to ignore depression and refusing to fight, the first thing I learned was to duck. That took years. With more time, I could bob and weave, anticipating the patterns. It’s taken longer still to create the combinations and strategies that I can apply to really stun my opponent, allowing me to catch my breath and feel the surge of good feelings through my body that were gone for so long. And I’m slowly coming up with a sense of how to hit this thing where it will really hurt. I can’t know where this fight will end up but it seems to me now this opponent of mine is a gift rather than a curse. It is more my master than my enemy. Its aim isn’t to ‘finish’ me but to see me victorious. The more I grab ahold of it the more strength and wisdom I gain. It is shaping me, making me fierce and lean. If I am open, even if I get knocked down I can learn, I can grow.
You may not enjoy watching those sometimes-brutal competitions. But when I watch it I don’t see just violence, I see the struggle I’m engaged in internally. I see myself committing to my challenger, ready to be tested and proven. I see other people who also understand that their foe is really their partner in building strength and character and guts. Sometimes it’s not as noble as that, certainly. But when it is I am there, thrilled and moved and affirmed. Just like a fighter who believes in himself or herself gives thanks to their toughest opponents for the challenge, I give thanks for the depression that hunts me, challenges me and trains me. Though I may not be lit by bright lights, nor cheered by a crowd, I am a fighter after all.
Karen Smith is on a quest for personal truth and boundless consciousness. She feels lucky to live with her family in Truemanville. Her column appears bi-weekly in the Amherst News.