By Alison ConwayAt my first triathlon last summer, my partner took a picture of me in the water and the image speaks many words. I’m standing apart from the other women, who look relaxed chatting with each other as they await the start gun; I’m holding my hands awkwardly out of the lake as though afraid to let them dangle below the surface, despite the fact that the water was warm. I used this image my first day of class in the fall to reassure first-year students that however uncomfortable they were feeling as they began university, they would be okay. I pointed out the lifeboats by the buoys and told them that once I had begun my swim, everything was not only fine, but terrific. The lesson I drew from that day was that sometimes you have to just get in the water—and I returned to this idea with my class in the weeks that followed, showing images of PTSD survivors swimming in a tank with sharks, of a child looking down at the water from a five-metre diving board.
In the months since last September, this idea of discomfort and what we do with it has kept resurfacing in my daily life. I have been training for a half marathon that I will soon race (barring a snowstorm or last-minute injury), and that, of course, has its own challenges. But it’s not just about putting up with sore legs. It’s about the mental discomfort of boredom, of fear that cold weather will somehow get me by way of ice or frostbite, of putting up with the headache brought on by lack of caffeine before a run. That is to say, it’s about discomfort that is both physical and psychological and the way those two interact with each other.
At an after-school running and reading program for which I volunteer, Start2Finish, young children, grades 1-6, train over the course of the year for a 5 km race; each week we run and play games, have snack, and then read. One of the club rules is that children cannot take a bathroom break until after our running session. They can go before we start, but after that they must wait for fifty minutes or so. I’m reminded of one of my running buddies, who told me of the marathon she ran after a too-large cup of tea and how she decided to forgo a pit stop. I was simply amazed by that story when I first heard it, but now I think it contains some useful lessons, the same ones we’re trying to teach the kids we coach at the club.
Resilience involves not just tolerating discomfort, I believe, but embracing it. For women, in particular, a way of leaning into an embodiment that makes us uncomfortable may strengthen us in ways that extend beyond the physical. A recent New York Times obituary of Clare Hollingsworth, the British journalist first to report Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, notes that the journalist routinely slept on the floor into her nineties, “just to keep from going soft” (NYT, 10/1/2017). As a woman journalist in the years before second-wave feminism, Hollingworth would have had to sustain mental fortitude in the face of sexism and intimidation, both at home and abroad. On a much smaller scale, how often do women avoid challenging men who have made casually offensive remarks because their stomachs tighten at the thought? Maybe having our stomachs tighten, and learning to live with that feeling, is a good idea.
On Jan. 21st, I attended the Women’s March on Washington, along with about half a million others. The crowds were stiflingly close, and the day was long: a recipe for back pain and other challenges. But to focus on discomfort would have been to miss the enormous joy and happiness circulating among those gathered, peacefully and with purpose, to challenge a president whose sense of bodily entitlement has allowed him to sexually assault women and to degrade them with his comments. Talking about the politics of discomfort with my colleagues after coming home, we concluded that the difference between good and bad discomfort is the difference between those forms that empower, and those that deplete, our sense of agency. Discomfort itself is not the problem.
“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama tells us. Going high, I believe, means gathering strength, in our bodies and minds, to face the physical and psychological threats posed by men like Donald Trump. I’m thinking a few nights on the floor might be in my future. After I finish that half marathon, perhaps.
Alison Conway is an English professor at Western University. Her favorite workout is running the roads and trails of London, ON.