When you are in the throes of pain, when your body is moving like a robot (probably a malfunctioning one, at that), when your eyes are filled with tears, when your head can only point down, when life has become hateful, and when you know that moving forward will be futile, stop.
I know, that’s hard to accept. People will always tell you to keep going. They might command you to smile even though you’re miserable.
And these sound like the right things to do, don’t they? Certainly, they can be. Minor discomforts are bound to arise here and there, but if you just keep moving they’ll eventually go away.
Contemplating a nap on the side of the trail 40 miles into a race is an example of a minor discomfort: just keep running and you’ll perk up. If you get stung by a bee for the first time in your life a mile later, just throw some water on the sting, hope you’re not allergic, and keep moving. Another 22 miles is well within your reach. :)
I know that pain and discomfort can be at their worst when you stop. If you keep going the pain will remain as part of the background. But how much will it hurt if you stop? If it hurts while you’re moving, it will probably hurt more when you aren’t.
The most painful part of that 62 mile race for me was stopping to tie my shoe. Yes, that sounds downright silly, but it’s true. The most painful part of the 100 mile I race I failed to finish was stopping at an aid station after 50 miles to ask the volunteers whether I should keep running, who then proceeded to detain me for half an hour.
Once you stop, it can be hard to start again. “If you try to stand up right now I guarantee that you will pass out,” I was told after sitting down. Once I finally did get back on the path, I nearly fainted and probably would have fallen into the frozen Erie Canal if there wasn’t a fence between me and it. Whoopsie. :P
Then, it took me 3 hours to walk 7 miles. Then I stopped again, painfully, for probably half an hour. Then it took 2 and a half hours to walk/run 5 miles. At a leisurely pace, walking 5 miles (on flat ground) should take no more than an hour and 40 minutes. Even more whoopsie.
Finally, after shuffling across 62.5 miles of the iced-over Erie Canal tow path, I stopped for good. Just as the sun started to rise I kicked back into a lawn chair in the cozy aid station and slept. I did not keep moving. I did not pass Go. I did not collect $200 (but I did pay that much).
Maybe it’s not totally futile to keep going. Maybe you’ll figure something out or come upon some treasure that will help you on your journey.
But humans tend to be creatures of momentum. Once they get into doing something a certain way, they will probably continue as they are until they stop. It’s hard to get out of one vehicle and into another without stopping first (though I’m sure there are YouTube videos that demonstrate otherwise).
When, Why, and How to Stop
When the momentum of your life is fueled by fumes, what do you do? The pain is constant, but maybe it’s not that bad, and the thought of stopping is too much to bear. Should you keep doing the thing you think you’re supposed to, even though it’s hurting you to go on?
Lately, I’ve found the answer to usually be no. Maybe from some standpoint it seems logical to hardily discipline my body not to be a weakling, but after 2 years of fighting food and 5 months of running on a nearly-broken ass I have to stop. Maybe now I’ll melt into a pile of mush—I don’t know. The possible outcomes have scared me for a long time. But it seems that applying the lash to my body on a daily basis has only driven it mad and made it weak, just as I’m sure any overly-whipped horse would get pissed at its rider. So now the only reasonable choice is to stop.
To stop, however, is not to cease all activity entirely. To stop, in many cases, means to start over. When you stop going about things in a certain way, you pause to reflect briefly and then you build a new approach from scratch.
You might find yourself starting over multiple times over the course of your life—perhaps drastically so. You might start a new career or a new long-term relationship. Or you might want to start relating to people differently, or you finally realize that life can be worth living, and then you have to change everything.
All it takes, a lot of the time, is to learn information that leaves you with few sensible choices but to stop and start over. And that information might be one thing that turns your life upside down. Perhaps an example from your own life comes to mind.
For a moment, try to stop convincing yourself that your current line of momentum is okay. Pause and see how you feel about it, and don’t try translating those feelings through your hopeful-filters. Just see what comes up.
Is it hard for you to believe that continuing on your current path will turn out well? That you’ll ever enjoy much success on it? That it will deeply fulfill you? That it won’t coldly and slowly murder you? If it’s hard to emotionally convince yourself of these things, you’re probably going the wrong way. You’ll probably never be successful or fulfilled here—and if you are for a brief time, the success will ultimately destroy you.
Generally your emotions aren’t stupid, just as your body isn’t. These things are a part of every human and every animal (well, unless a human’s right-brain is missing). Logic, on the other hand, is a skillset humans must learn to use, so they don’t always use it correctly. Somehow, a skewed expression of logic can twist our perceptions of our body and feelings, and as a result we misinterpret their messages and trudge onward in the way we think to be correct. But if a person can shut off his mind for a moment, he might soon find that the rest of his being is not so stupid after all.
If you’re worried that you’ve gone down the wrong road too long and it’s too late to stop, don’t. A long trip back to the intersection you took a wrong turn at doesn’t mean you’ll never make it. It may even be that the right turn lies not behind you, but instead ahead. Maybe you never would have found the “right” way for you if you hadn’t picked this “wrong” way first.
Whatever the case, accept that you can’t undo a bad trip, but you don’t have to continue that trip any longer—not if you don’t want to.
What if it Doesn’t Work Out?
If you feel immensely relieved after stopping, it’s safe to say you made the right decision (better than continuing, at least).
It can take far more courage to stop and start over than it might to keep going, and it might be more painful in the short run. But, in the long run you will probably meet with more fulfillment this way. It might take a lot of work up front to start over, but once you get momentum going again you will likely find that effort to have been worthwhile, and your new path far more in line with your needs and desires than the last.
If you fail, you didn’t necessarily make the wrong decision by starting over. Failure can be a great way to learn and to reflect on the course your life has taken so far. By failing, you might notice things that people who more quickly achieve success never do. The best teachers may often be those who struggled with the subject or task at first, rather than the prodigies who understood it “naturally,” because the former has far more to teach. Knowing what not to do may provide just as much clarity as knowing what to do.
If nothing else, acknowledge that you took a courageous step to improve your life. You know your original path wouldn’t have worked out for you anyway, and it’s probably better to fail at being someone you want to be rather than succeeding to be someone you would rather not.
Things may not have panned out this time, but you proved that you can set a good intention and act on it. So figure out where you went wrong, and to whatever extent you need (fine-tune the current path or get on a new one entirely), start over once again. Odds are that this will get easier to do each time you do it.
Just as it’s never too late to start over, it’s also never too late to succeed. It’s unreasonable to expect zero mistakes from yourself, so failure probably isn’t something you need to dwell on. If you do find yourself dwelling on failure relentlessly, however, this may be a sign that you have some big changes to make. You might have to stop what you’re doing and take a good, hard look at yourself, just like you did when you started this journey and just like you will someday once again.
That’s right: even when things seem to go right for a while they will inevitably degrade in time, and you will thus decide you need to start over— again. Starting over is nothing to bear shame about. In fact, if done for the right reasons, starting over is a sign of growth. It means that you will no longer settle for a lifestyle that does not acknowledge all you are capable of. It means that you will do things in a way that makes sense to you now, and that is that. Wear your newcomer badge proudly (or whatever ridiculous item your frat forces you to show off the first week of school).
So, if you think it’s time to stop, then just… Stop. Believe me—you probably aren’t going to turn into a pile of mush. Instead, you might become something better and more beautiful than you could have imagined. Why not take the chance?