Let’s start with the story of Ed. Ed was a new firefighter, in his fourth month with our department. At this particular training Ed was working the panel on Engine One for the first time. He got the signal from our chief, opened the valve and charged our big three-inch line.
Ed, normally a taciturn guy, punched his fist in the air. “This is the best job ever!”
At the time, Ed was sixty-eight years old.
But here he was, joyous as a child. It wasn’t just because he had opened a valve on an engine and flowed water (granted that’s fun!). For Ed, there was something larger. I talked to him later — after twelve years on the department — and he told me the reason he became a firefighter was to give back, to help others, to have meaning in his life.
In one of the last speeches my father Larry Wilson gave,
he reminded the gathered that it wasn’t death we should fear.
He said, “Did you forget that you too are going to die?
We’re all going to die. It’s pointless to fear it.
Instead we need to be terrified of not living.
What stops us from living? Fear. How do we overcome fear?
We need to be brave. How do we find our courage?
By creating meaning, a reason to be here, knowing that
we are making a difference.”
Creating meaning in our lives can reframe our entire existence. That’s what Ed knew, it’s what my father taught and it is vital to understand if we are to thrive in our tragic-joyous-hard-miraculous lives.
Finding Your Own Way
For volunteer firefighters, it is the meaning this vocation brings to our lives that keeps us going year after year and decade after decade.
For example, one morning, at a restaurant having lunch, all our pagers went off simultaneously: “Hondo, wildfire, Nine Mile Road.”
We all jumped up together and went for the door. I quickly paid the bill. As we left the waitress said to me, “Wow, you all look so happy!”
Logically, it makes no sense that we looked happy. Fighting a wildfire is nothing but hard, slogging, smoky and long work. We would be climbing up and down terrain with shovels, axes, and water bottles with a 20-pound shelter on our back for hours.
This is the work that my grandfather, a World War I veteran of the trenches, told me to avoid like the plague. Yet we were happy. Because at that moment in time, we were driven by meaning; it wasn’t just hard and slogging work, it was the hard work needed to save homes and save lives.
Meaning answers the questions: Why am I here?
What is my life about?
Creating meaning is easy for firefighters —
although the vocation can be difficult.
Every day the pager tones out a cry for someone
who needs help. Every day we get to concretely
fulfill our reason for being here.
An Outward Focus
But what about normal, “first world” life? In our busy, competitive world? Family, work, kids, house, money, security, ambition, vacations, parents, college, retirement, recession? How do we create meaning in our lives when all of these are competing for our most precious commodity: our time? Doesn’t something have to give? The answer is probably yes — there is no rule that says this way should be fair or easy.
And yet, if at the end of days we find ourselves asking
the question, “What have I done today that made a difference?
Why am I so depressed, tired, feeling useless?”
The answer is often that we need meaning in our lives.
It’s not complicated or esoteric. There are principles that we need to absorb. The first is that a meaningful life is not about “me.” It’s about other people. It’s about serving, taking care of, and building a better world for others. It requires what most spiritual practices consider the shift from “me”-centered to “other”-centered. On the Fire Department, for example, the shift comes when firefighters are no longer motivated by, “Cool, I’m a firefighter and I love adrenaline!” and become driven to do the very same job because they want to help people in need, even the drunks, even the addicts.
Your Work Matters
Next, and this is sometimes a life changing idea: we need to do our important work. If you want to build meaning in your life and your time is consumed by work that you deem not important, then you need to find different work.
We may have to work to make money. But we “make our living”
by doing our important work. Again, this is not an easy path.
Having a life filled with meaning, doing important work in
service to others, may require trading security for a bit of an adventure.
On the other hand, who knows where doing your important
work might lead you?
A final note. When my dad and I wrote Play To Win, also a book about meaning, in some ways we let readers off the hook. Of course, we wrote, there are times when you simply have to work to make money or you’re so busy . . .
Since then, I’ve learned there is urgency here. We are not meant to be doing dull and unimportant things. Life is too short. We live in a world crying out for help: Right now and all around us.
As important, it is a meaningful life that is the path to true joy. It is in serving others and doing your important work that ignites the experience of profound happiness.
But that’s for my next blog. As always: be brave, be kind, fight fires.
Our ancient water heater died last week. It sprayed water everywhere, soaking the wood floor, ceiling and walls. This week we are ripping out dry wall, replacing the water heater and hoping that we don’t have wet studs and mold behind the walls.
Our garage and laundry room are full of plumbing tools, copper pipes and debris. Our stashed vacation budget is up in smoke.
We learn yet again that stuff happens! Stuff falls apart and our only defense is routine maintenance.
For the next couple of days,
Cool! This Is Going To Be Hard!
Let’s begin with the demographics. I’m a sixty-five-year-old volunteer firefighter. Quit snickering. I just got Social Security and Medicare and you didn’t!
At 5’6’’ I’m just shy of six feet tall by Galactic measurement standards. I limp. As for CrossFit, I’ve been doing CrossFit-type workouts for five years now and two years ago I joined an actual “box,” Zia Crossfit, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
For those of you who are not aware of this particular subculture, CrossFit is a training movement that is focused on intensity, short workouts and is big on building community. ( the Same group of people there every day.) There are CrossFit gyms all over the country. A typical workout is usually some heavy weight lifting followed by a “WOD” (workout of the day) that is 8-20 minutes long and often ends with participants on the
floor gasping for breath. (see picture above)
And, I love it.
At first, this caused consternation in the Wilson household. “You’re not going to get tattoos and grow a heavy beard, are you? And always be doing squats and listening to heavy metal music?”
I already have a tattoo, (that’s another story) but I reassured them that my musical tastes; Broadway, Opera, Motown and Bruno Mars wouldn’t change. But yes, I might do a random squat or push-up at home just because.
My motivation for starting Crossfit, unlike some of the younger folks there, is not to be wicked strong. I don’t see myself at bars asking women, Joey Tribbiani-like, “How you doin’?” Although I reserve the right (with my wife Laurie’s permission) to try that out when I’m ninety in a home hanging out with the hot eighty-year-olds. I’ll be wearing a Twins baseball hat with a cane and a really gravelly voice.
My initial motivation for joining Zia Crossfit was to make sure that I would be physically able to put on my bunker gear at 3 am, climb into one of our engines and be useful at a fire. Also, I am keen to be able to stand, walk, ski and dance when I’m eighty. But along the way something changed and it has to do with what Crossfit as taught me about learning toughness.
Here is how it happened. I began to notice every time I walked into the “Box,” was a little anxious. Then, when I read the Workout of the Day on the board, I’d often think to myself, “I can’t do this!” I’d immediately begin planning escape routes. I’m old, my knee hurts, I have to go to Iran to help with the nuclear talks. But somehow I always was cajoled into starting. Then at the end of some of the most horrible, terrible workouts I’d ever had, my anxiety level was so high (Anaerobic Alert!!! Can’t breathe!!!!) I’d have to stand outside until I knew I was going to live and aliens weren’t trying to eat their way out of my lungs. This went on for a while.
Then I had an insight—mostly because the maniacs in the gym often had this twisted reaction to difficult workouts. They would cheer. They got excited. They were obviously brain damaged. I thought about it for a while before I understood. The true point of CrossFit is that every day you get to come up against that voice that says, “This is going to be hard,” or
“I can’t do this!” Every day you get slammed out of your comfort zone.
Take away the physically hard nature of the workout, (please?) and you would have daily exercises in doing difficult things and it would still be worth it. Because that is how we develop emotional toughness: by routinely doing stuff that pushes us, makes us uncomfortable, forces us to work hard. So this was a revelation, but still not an easy transformation. After all, our family motto for generations has been, “All things considered, we’d rather nap.”
Yet after some months of daily returning to Zia, I finally began to absorb the lessons. I also learned some strategies for having to deal with those “I can’t do this” moments of which there still are a lot.
Here are my lessons learned:
1. Manage Your Self-Talk: Part One
Listen to what you say to yourself as you confront something difficult. Often it is that voice that says, “I can’t do this!” When you hear that voice it is crucial, critical, maybe the most important thing you can do in your life to stop, think and ask the questions: “Is that rational? Is that true?”
Of course, there may be things we cannot do. But the problem is we hear that voice and that whine way before most us get close to our limits. We hear it when things have just become inconvenient or simply uncomfortable. Inconvenience and discomfort are not limits. They are not signs of the apocalypse.
Instead, say to yourself, “This will be hard. Maybe very difficult.” The difference is more than semantics. Saying “I can’t” to myself is like saying “It’s “impossible.” Everything stops, we turn away. Saying, “This is going to be difficult!” gives us a window to try, to start and go to the next step.
2. Focus On Starting Not Finishing.
Don’t think, “Oh my God, I have to run 26 miles!” Or “I could never write a book.” or add your personal challenge here:
The German novelist Herman Hesse wrote “In all beginnings dwells a magic force for guarding us and helping us to live.” Two points. When we start something, there is the energy of the “new.” There is
Two points. When we start something, there is the energy of the “new.” There is
When we start something, there is the energy of the “new.” There is excitement, anxiety, maybe a little fear. Those are the emotions of being outside your comfort zone, of being alive! That is what Hesse meant. Those are the magic forces.
If you’re worried about failing: who cares if you might fail? Get over it! Anything worth doing is worth failing at a few times. The brutal truth is most people don’t even start because they don’t want to fail or look stupid (Again, me: I have to stop wearing my t-shirt that says: Disco Lives!) Most
people don’t even show up.
So clear your mind, just focus on beginning. Magic will come.
3. Break Hard Stuff Down Into Manageable Chunks.
Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the entire task. At CrossFit, while the maniacs (I love you guys!) are doing fifty burpees, I focus on just doing five. Get through five and then five more. Maybe a rest in between. Eventually, I’ve done fifty. One day at a time. One task at a time. Set a pace for yourself, then push it a little bit. In Alcoholics Anonymous the goal is not to be sober for a lifetime, the goal is to be sober today, or for the next hour. Same with us. Break it down into manageable chunks.
Five burpees at a time.
4. Manage Your Self-Talk Part Deux.
Or, as I tell myself, “Don’t go batshit in your brain.” In the middle of hard stuff, I don’t know another way to put this, we need to clamp down on our thinking, what we’re saying to ourselves.
At a bad car crash, with all sorts of people storming around yelling, firefighters learn to focus on the task, shut out all the voices except those of their fellow firefighters and EMT’s. “Do the work,” as one grizzled old Captain told me once, “Cut the shit!” At CrossFit, same thing. All the voices in your head that are saying, “It’s too hard!
You can’t jump high enough to land on that box! You will die!!” need to be silenced or at least muted. This, by the way, takes experience. How do you get experience? By doing hard things so you’re exposed to those voices. It’s a paradox! (or as my daughters used say, it’s a pair of ducks.)
5. Begin With Breathing
The best way to begin to control your thinking is to practice controlling your breathing. Seriously, ask any singer, they will tell you that most people do not know how to breathe. And breathing, as in oxygenating your brain, is the single most important thing we can do — that costs nothing — to reduce the anxiety and beat back the bats in our brain. I’m not going to cover the technical aspects of breathing here, but you can Google it. The best gift you can give yourself: Learning how to breathe!
6. The Key To Pushing Our Limits Is Competing.
I shall wait until the furor dies down. Done “Furor-ing?” First let us understand what competition truly means, not how it’s been corrupted.
“To compete” comes from the Latin, “competere” translated means, “to strive together.” Embedded in this meaning is the idea that when we compete, we perform at a higher level. We push each other. This is clearly is what happens at Crossfit. Or another way to look at it is there is NO WAY I would even try to do fifty burpees by myself, but surrounded by a dozen or so others doing it and competing for time, I’ll at least start and do five at a time.
When we “strive together” we push our limits. When we push our limits, we’re moving outside our comfort zones. Getting regularly outside our comfort zones is how we build toughness.
So, find someone to “Strive Together” with. It makes a difference.
7. Self-Talk Part Three.
Recall, the principle behind all this is to build toughness. Toughness is required if we are to live the lives we want and thrive through the pain that the universe will throw at us.
Every day we are training for our future. To train well, we need to willingly embrace the challenge and bring difficulty into our lives.
So here is what I wonder. What if, as we train for our futures, when difficulty appeared on the horizon we said to ourselves, “Cool! This is going to be hard!” What if that was our response to all the daily irritants, inconveniences and uncomfortable moments? What if in those moments we said to ourselves, “Yes! This is going to be difficult! Just what I need!”
Believe me, nothing sounded stranger at Crossfit when the maniacs would high- five each other when they saw a really difficult workout on the board.
But now I get it.
I want to be a maniac too!