If we're lucky enough, we have discovered something in life that fills us with joy. Not everyone does and that, I believe, must be a sad, dull way to live. But if you have something that you love to do and can do, then you make time for it and you do it because it eases life's other challenges - even if the thing itself is challenging.
Some people climb mountains. Some race dangerously fast cars. Some people paint pictures. Some knit or read books. Others dance or sing or play a musical instrument.
The joy of doing that something isn't about whether or not you get paid to do it. It isn't even about being the best. It's simply about finding something that makes you excited to be alive, that brings you a sense of accomplishment or triumph, or that invites a brief period of peace into an otherwise stressful life.
So why am I getting all philosophical about life's little pleasures? Because up until a few years ago, I took them for granted.
I'm told that by the time I was ten months old I was running. Lucky me, I had a daughter who was exactly the same way, which meant we fenced in our front yard to keep her from running into the street. She liked to test at an early age whether she could outrace us. My son ran into doors as a toddler, but despite that early clumsiness, he turned out to be a runner, too. So is my husband. For fun sometimes, we pile into the car and all go running on the bike path. Now, this might sound like torture to the rest of you, but if so, as you read on just replace your favorite activity whenever you see 'running' in the following paragraphs.
I started running competitively in distance events in high school. I had to be talked into it by the coach, who kept telling me I 'looked' like a distance runner, but once I started to get into shape, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. And then I started to get good at it. Good enough to have several records on the board by the time I graduated and good enough to run on scholarship in college.
When I got older, other things (work, family, home) took over. Being competitive wasn't important anymore. Running became my escape. My thirty minutes of peace. My reassurance that my heart was still beating, my lungs drawing air and my muscles still functioning.
Five years ago I started to have muscle and joint pain. It got so bad that not only could I not run, there were many days I laid in bed and cried, I hurt so much. I was seriously sleep deprived, because the pain would wake me up frequently. I couldn't mow the lawn, bring in the groceries or move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. I was in my early 40's and felt like I was 90. I wrote almost all of Isabeau while lying on my stomach with the laptop on the floor in front of me.
The first doctor I went to told me I just had a muscle strain. I knew it wasn't. The second one prescribed pain killers. I used them sparingly and when that bottle was empty I went to a physical therapist. He only had one treatment and when that didn't work, he merely scratched his head.
This cycle continued for three years. I got tired of going to doctors. None of them seemed to have an answer. It didn't help that I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to moan publicly about my ailments, so I have a tendency to downplay my pain if someone asks how I feel. The truth was that most of the time I felt like hell. I wasn't me anymore. I had become my pain. All I knew is that I didn't want to live the rest of my life like that.
Finally, an osteopath discovered that I had a leg length discrepancy. My right leg is 1/2" shorter than my left one, which is a pretty significant difference. So for 40+ years I'd been walking around lopsided and had ultimately developed muscular imbalances. That did chronic damage to my muscles. Turns out I have something called Chronic Myofascial Pain. These are painful knots deep in my muscles. I will probably never be rid of it completely, but I have learned ways to manage it, like physical therapy exercises, massage therapy and acupuncture.
I still have some pain, but it's only a fraction of what it used to be. I can, at least, lead a normal life. Despite that I've had several health professionals lecture me on how I would better preserve my body if I didn't run, I do it anyways. Why? Because I can. Even though it isn't as easy as it used to be. Last year I ran my first 5K in five years. Then I ran another one. It was six minutes slower than my lifetime PR, but it felt FAST! Sprinting to the finish line felt like I'd just won the gold medal in the Olympic marathon.
Last year I went to the state track meet and sat next to a man who told me he was 76 years old and had gotten up at 6 a.m. to run his five miles early so he could get to the meet and see all the youngsters run. I said to him, "I want to be you when I'm 76."
Whatever it is that you love to do, find a way to do it. Life's too short to play it safe.
(P.S. The picture is my son. He has exercise induced asthma. He runs because he loves it, too. Even though it's not easy.)