Have you ever heard of the ‘Hero’s Journey’? It’s the story of an individual who must face a problem bigger than themselves and when they come out of it they may have some bruises but they are stronger and wiser. The hero would have a fairly unremarkable life but for some reason he (or she) has been elected as the one to save their village. That hero must brave the scary forest alone (or lead a small team) and fight the evils within to get that one thing that will save his tribe. The Hero’s Journey can be seen in almost every story, fiction or non-fiction, that captures our imagination. In many classic books, top movies, and tv shows you can see it. From Frodo Baggins to Luke Skywalker. If you see an inspirational speaker, he or she usually has a story of overcoming insurmountable odds. You see yourself in their stories and you want to be like them and become them. No one wants to hear the story where everything went perfect for the hero without a struggle… unless you are hearing a sales pitch for a retirement plan that always delivers a high return on investment. The thing that draws us to these stories is the struggle and how the struggle was overcome.
In my life I have had a few struggles that I’ve had to overcome but the one that has the best illustrations and life lessons for me was when I ran the 300 meter hurdles in track my senior year of high school. I started track in my second year of high school. My legs were really strong from a newspaper route I walked every morning and I noticed that I was able to run faster, so I thought why not join the track team. In my second year of track the coaches wanted me to run the 300 meter hurdles because they didn’t have enough students interested in the race. I have long legs so I would have been a natural at it but the fear of having to leap over 8 hurdles while running almost the entire length of the track was too scary. There was no way I was going to do it. My biggest fear was catching my foot on a hurdle and scraping myself up as I fall on the track. By my senior year I finally gave in and decided to do it. With the help of the hurdle coach, who was in his first year of coaching hurdles, I got really good at leaping over those things without ever falling. One thing I learned is that in hurdles there is a lot of counting. You learn how many steps there are between each hurdle. You learn to trust your counting system. Once you reach 9 steps you leap.
Mid way through the season I had an unrelated injury that took me out for a couple of weeks. Someone in the weight room dropped a 25-pound weight on my foot. It was amazing that I was able to recover so quickly. On my first race back it was like I had unlearned everything. My steps were off and I had to jump instead of leap and I was knocking down almost every hurdle and I looked ridiculous while doing it. From what I heard, it was pretty funny to watch (see the yearbook photo below. The yearbook photo team was there to capture this moment). It was like I was the comedy half time show at the track meet. It was so bad that I was ready to quit the race. I can handle being laughed at but being frustrated with myself and being heckled at the same time was too much.
Come to find out I wasn’t doing well because I was setting my starting blocks wrong. I had them in reverse. I was literally starting off on the wrong foot (see what I did there, so many great metaphors). It was just enough for my counts to be off. I was upset that I didn’t think of it sooner but I was relieved that I didn’t quit over it and that I discovered a solution. Then it all came to my final race. It was a regional championship qualifying race in a large stadium full of people. I felt the excitement as I was on the starting blocks waiting for that gun to go off. When it did I could feel that this was going to be my best race ever. My counts were perfect. I wasn’t going to be #1 but I would at least be #3 and that would have been enough to qualify for the next race. About half way through on the turn, the guy in the lane next to me panicked and ran into my lane around his hurdle instead of going over it. I’m not sure why he didn’t stop because that was an instant disqualification. I made it over my hurdle just fine but somehow that threw off my count for the next hurdle. My count was so far off that I jumped right into the hurdle, it clipped my foot, and my greatest fear that kept me from starting the year before happened. I fell and slide on that hard rubber track. From the ground I looked up at the next 3 hurdles and realized that even if I got up and started running again my steps would be off and there was no way I could finish. My brief ‘career’ in hurdles was over.
I wasn’t sad, I was very proud of what I had accomplished. In fact, I found humor in the fact that what I had feared so much that kept me from starting the year before happened on my final race and it really didn’t hurt that bad. I stood up and looked to the crowd and smiled and waved as I walked off the track. My coach came over to me and I thought he would be disappointed that I didn’t finish but he saw what I saw early on, how well I was doing and he congratulated me on a job well done, not only for that race but for the entire season. It is interesting how the one race that sticks out in my memory is that one race where I fell down. It had the biggest impact on my life so it still lives with me today. For all my hard work I earned the coaches award that year. It felt good to be recognized. My old coach many years later was still telling his students my story as they began their own personal journey running hurdles.
In our lives we always have struggles but there are certain types of struggles that we need to begin. We seek out comfortable lives and we think that is where life is, in that prescribed plan that we are trying to follow step by step. We walk up against that wall of struggle and with the slight hint of fear and anxiety we walk a few steps away thinking that feeling is a sign that we need to avoid it. The opposite is true; the struggle is where life is. You need to begin your Hero’s Journey and become who you were meant to be. Look back on your life and think about the moments you were proudest of. Do you remember all of the days that went perfectly well or do you remember those times that you overcame a major hurdle in your life? You remember what you had learned from that journey and those are the stories that you love to share with people.
So what struggles are you avoiding? If it is debt, it is time to struggle living on a budget and not buying whatever you want whenever you want. If it is dietary changes then it is time to decide to make the changes necessary so you can live a better life. The choice is hard; Little Debbie snack cakes verse a good life. Is it an addiction that every time you try to quit, the urges to return to your habit are too overwhelming? Do you need to resolve an issue with a friend or family member? Or do you need to end a toxic relationship?
Whatever your struggles are, learn to find joy in those struggles. Enjoy your stories. Know that what you are going through now will make you a better stronger person tomorrow. You are writing that story today that you will be able to share with the world and hopefully inspire others who are going through something similar. We will always go through struggles in our lives and if you think happiness happens when the struggles are over, you are wrong. You need to find joy in who you are and where you are today. If you do that you can leap almost any hurdle that is in front of you. Also remember, like I did, sometimes you do have to stop. There are some hurdles that you were never meant to leap over. That’s okay as well. You can look back and see how far you have come and find joy in your failures and your successes.
So what hurdles are you going to leap over today?