Your Beautiful Backstory

When I lived in Morocco, I learned devotion meant cabbies would park on any curb to unfurl prayer mats as the adhan echoed through Tangier’s cobblestoned streets. I realized a prince rooming across the hall was merely another human being. I discovered being American entitled me to win astounding scores from my pre-calculus teacher, travel the country on a whim, join the headmaster for drinks following the school play, and break curfew.

IMG_5587I came to appreciate that people see the world through different eyes. History and personality and culture color these lenses through which we apprehend existence. At the time, I was an avid runner. I ran every day after class, exploring neighborhoods that sprawled over the Mediterranean coast, bringing pedestrians up short with my bare legs, doubly shocking them with an Arabic greeting – As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you). Through old slums, down along the salty port, upward between walled estates of affluent Europeans – my running circuits expanded to cover the entire city.

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Photo: Tim McRae

For my edification or perhaps for my safety, one of the guards at the American School introduced me to a local runner, Muhammad. He spoke decent English and brought me to the Tangier’s outskirts, then the countryside beyond. We cut down dusty dirt tracks and surveyed arid farmland. Sometimes we tested our speed against each other, sprinting fast back to the campus gates and collapsing on a redolent green to stretch. On one foray into the hinterlands, we rounded a thicket and nearly plowed into a bearded old man clad in a white robe and sandals. Alarmed, he stumbled back and yelled at us as we sped past.

“What did he say?” I asked Muhammad, afraid that he was angry with us for trespassing.

“He asked what we are running from, who is chasing us.”

I laughed. Muhammad grinned. And we ran on.

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My friend Muhammad leads on the left during a 15K race beside the waterfront in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Tim McRae

Six weeks later, I found myself massed behind the starting line of my first ever road race, a 15K. At the sound of a pistol, Muhammad and I and a hundred others set off for five flat laps around a circuit near the waterfront. Moroccans are famously fast runners. Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi held the marathon world record shortly after my time in Africa. I watched the top seeded runners dash away as if I languished in a slow-motion twilight zone. They blasted past me on the far side of the median. Still I pressed on to do my best. Muhammad and I battled for advantage. The field became ever more strung out. When I passed alone under the shadow of some palms, a spectator stepped out from the crowd and bellowed in English, face contorted with hostility: “You’re going to lose, American!”

I returned his glare and ran on.

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Photo: Tim McRae

The alarmed rural peasant, an aggrieved race spectator, this privileged American exchange student – our worlds illustrate only a fraction of the breadth of human experience. Reflecting on these circumstances (and many more), I see huge divergence between the ways we know reality. I must accept the fact that we will not see eye-to-eye on a vast range of topics. Even here in the small town of Moab, where our views should align more closely, the lenses through which we see differ considerably.

How does a second-generation Mexican American relate to our politics and culture? Compared to a recent arrival from a big city, what is a lifetime Moabite’s perspective on this changing landscape? How do religion, family, gender, and unique life experiences inform the way your neighbor or your colleague see the world?

It comes as no shock that misunderstanding and offense are so common – an emoticon misinterpreted, a statement taken out of context, a subtext real or imagined, a motive assumed, a backstory unknown. Too often a natural human negativity bias and this confusing world join together to throw suspicion and judgment out-of-hand over people and concepts unfamiliar to us. Nature and hard experience have taught us that it’s safer to be paranoid, to reject perspectives different than our own.

51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_As counterbalance, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements hits upon some key ideas, in particular: 1) Don’t make assumptions. My assumption was wrong regarding that Moroccan farmer who seemed angry. Muhammad’s translation revealed that he was only confused by our sudden presence. 2) Take nothing personally. I was furious with that man who bellowed at me during the race. I was the target of his antipathy, but his anger reflected only his perspective. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Ruiz says, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on theirs.”

I no longer need to travel to a far-flung place like Morocco to appreciate that our standpoints are different. Mine and Muhammad’s. Yours and mine. Our neighbor’s and colleague’s. Experience of the human condition keeps piling up and reiterating daily: I should assume nothing and remember there are many ways, unfathomable or lovely, to see existence. Let us debate ideas and keep ourselves safe, but let us also acknowledge the vast unknown, usually benign, and often beautiful backstory of our fellow human being.

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Originally appeared in The Moab Sun News, June 23, 2016.

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Strength in Diversity

When I was five years old, I said to my mother, “I don’t ever want to grow up.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because,” I explained earnestly, “adults do not run everywhere they go.”

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Routeburn Rage Mountain Marathon, 2002.

I love running. I have run marathons and ultra marathons for fun and in competition, over trails and roads, on five continents. Sometimes I ran all day, lost in the beauty of mountain tracks and drinking the sweet nectar of what it means to be alive. After I’d been hit by a car and suffered amnesia that left me confused and groping for an identity, running was still there for me.

15k in Tangier Morocco, 1998.

15k in Tangier Morocco, 1998. The man in blue is Muhammad, a friend who ran with me all over Tangier and its outskirts.

Long story short: even though my knees aren’t able to travel at pace for such distances nowadays, running has always been an important part of my life.

So when I overheard a conversation recently while eating Indian food at a restaurant in Provo, it shook my world a little bit. The woman at a neighboring table told her husband about a mountain marathon taking place in the Wasatch Range. “All day they’re running on trails up there,” she said.

The man nodded, forked more tikka masala into his mouth, and said, “Hm.”

“I know,” she intoned with a grim shake of her head. She paused, looked at him seriously, and asked, “What’s wrong with people?”

What’s wrong with people?

I’ll be the first to admit sometimes it’s difficult to understand why folks do the things they do. 6f29db0d973638a5b6ad8c4532346c9dFor example, it remains a mystery to me why many people enjoy cooking. I don’t even like to heat water on the stove for oatmeal in the morning. And don’t get me started on math. Nothing could more thoroughly boggle my mind than the idea of somebody sitting down to a math proof and thinking, “This is fun!”

Honestly, I don’t even know why running is one of my favorite activities. Probably something in my DNA and in my past makes running light up the regions of my brain associated with pleasure and gratification.

Here’s what we do know, thanks to science and research: animal populations, including humans, thrive when a broad assortment of traits exist in their gene pool. diverseteamThe same principle grounds a common adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity strengthens a species’ shot at survival and success. So before we ask why anyone would bother to become a chef or a mathematician, maybe it would be wise to remember the good that comes from a broad range of skills and interest within our society.

After all, we like to eat, especially delicious food prepared by talented people. And it’s nice to know accountants keep our balance sheets balanced while engineers keep our planes in the air. For humanity, mathematics is good.

Our civilization depends on specialization. Only through a vast division of labor can we hope to develop new life-saving drugs, beautiful art, and advances in technology that increase our knowledge and improve our lives. Together, every person applying unique strengths and talents, we are far stronger than any one of us alone, not just for the horsepower, but also for the remarkable accuracy of these many brains working in synchrony.

Jbuilding_committee_-_surowiecki_book-resized-600.jpgames Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, explains collective knowledge can actually be more insightful than individual understanding. For example, if you ask a large group of people to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, the average of all those guesses will usually be extremely close to the actual number of jellybeans, often nearer than any single estimation.

When I remember that woman’s comment – What’s wrong with people? – I can’t help but think she fell victim to a very human tendency, that of dismissing others who are different. But more than that, she missed a very powerful question indeed: What’s right with people?

Answer: a whole lot.

image1We come in many beautiful shapes, colors, and sizes, with smart insights in every realm, from cuisine to mathematics, with a taste for many things, from gardening to running marathons. As a child, I was wrong. Adults do run everywhere they go. It’s just sometimes running looks a lot like chess and woodworking and mountain biking and doing community service.

No moment offers more opportunity for misunderstandings and judgements than our election season. This is when our different views and opinions collide and vie for distinction, just as they should. However, while navigating this election season, it would probably do us good to grant those different voices respect because only in our diversity are we most brilliant.

 

Originally published 9/17/14 in the Moab Sun News.

Lovely running track on the Banks Peninsula, New Zealand.

Lovely running track on the Banks Peninsula, New Zealand.

A Life of Failure

Failure is underrated.

IMG_4042_2I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.

With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.

One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.

Old_Running_ShoesOne of my most spectacular fails: I trained for months to run a 100-mile trail race only to drop out six miles from the finish line.

This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.

As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.

So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.

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According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.

The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.

So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.

403187I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”

By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)

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