If you have ever run in the city of Boston, you’ve probably seen it from various angles. If you have ever run the Boston Marathon, you may have held it in your sights as you clung to race effort, barreling towards Kenmore Square on Beacon Street with less than 5K to go. When you’re running on the Charles River, sometimes it just pops out at you when you least expect it. It kind of captivates you for a moment. “Whoa, there it is!”
But then you try to photograph it and you get something like this:
The CITGO sign. Sometimes, it doesn’t look like much. But that probably means you’re looking at it wrong.
If you want to really see something, you have to be standing in the right place. Try Commonwealth Ave heading into Kenmore Square. Can’t see it anymore; where did it go? Look up and to your left, and BOOM, it dominates the sky. It towers.
Even when it’s not lit, it’s still luminous. You can’t even see those skyscrapers right now, because all that stands before you is the goddamn CITGO sign. It was never small. You were just looking at it wrong.
It’s easy to miss the things that only get big when you’re right up close to them. If you need a reminder of how big and bright you really are, then listen to today’s episode of today’s Morning Mantra podcast by Coach MK, featuring me, you and the CITGO sign. You do a lot of things that no one else notices (call it an educated guess). You don’t want to make a big deal out of all the things you do or make them hugely visible from far away, because you don’t want to come across as self-congratulatory, self-indulgent, or any of those other terms that begin with “self-“ that we use in judgment of others. But sometimes you think to yourself, does anyone see this work I do? Will anyone care? Does it still matter if I am the only one who really knows what went into it?
When I was younger, insecurity had the ability to take all the joy out of doing that work. The only work I saw was my own, the only struggle I could really empathize with was mine. Other people’s easy wins were everywhere: the super-intelligent comments in my grad school seminars, the impossibly swift pace of other runners’ warm-up laps at track night, the seemingly effortless handstands in yoga class. Yes, yoga class. I was smart, even sometimes wise, and I knew that these comparisons brought me nothing but resentment. I tried to push them away, but the underlying thoughts were still there. Everything comes so easy to everyone else. Look what I have to do just to achieve half the result. Does no one see how hard I am working?
The problem, though, was not the degree to which others saw me; it was how consistently I failed to see them. Believe it or not, I should have said to myself, those lithe bodies kicking into handstands have practiced for hours (many of them had completed yoga teacher training, I later learned). The other graduate students in my seminars who could effortlessly quote Thomas Aquinas on the spur of the moment, for the most part, had pursued masters’ degrees before entering the Ph.D. program we were now navigating together. Those who had come from European universities, in particular, had worked and studied and memorizedthese texts for years, because that was what you did. And the other runners at track night – maybe they warmed up that fast because they were just that fit.
Or maybe, like me, everyone is a little insecure and trying a little too hard and overthinking things just a little. Or a lot. Maybe everyone else is doing just as much emotional labor as I am. Maybe they all need a closer look, and a little compassion. Instead of seeing perfection when I look at the other people around me, I see work and dedication and a deep level of caring about what they do.
One of the best things I’ve read in the last few months is an essay by Lauren Fleshman on Oiselle’s blog: “This Is What Cage-Free Running Looks Like.” Now retired from elite racing, Fleshman reflects on how she used to judge the older pros who still competed even once they were past their prime, no longer a match for the younger, faster talent. “Pathetic,” as she and her fellow pros used to think. “I’ve since learned that judgement is really a mirror,” she writes. “When you find yourself standing in judgement of someone else, it is often a reflection of your own shame or insecurity. When I was most judgmental of the bodies of others, it was a reflection of my conditional acceptance of my own body.” As much as I envied the results other people achieved, I erased the efforts they had put into those results, which is just as judge-y as looking at others’ bodies and seeing only deterioration.
There is a lot to be pessimistic about in the world, but one thing that gives me hope is the sheer grit I see all around me. People like Fleshman, who make things at a relentless pace: in addition to Picky Bars, which she co-founded with Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, and Wilder, a series of writing and running retreats, she continues to coach elite athletes and write constantly, and as of last summer, she hosts a weekly podcast, Work Play Love, with her husband Jesse Thomas. I can only imagine that their drive to make this podcast on top of everything else they do comes from a desire to see, acknowledge, and honor everyday people who strive to build meaningful lives around their professions, their sports, and their families. They may be athletes who have competed with the world’s best (Thomas is himself a professional triathlete) but they shine a light on the hard work they do and the hard work that everyone does, no matter their age, status, or finish times. Fleshman again: “To really go for it in a state of ‘imperfection’ requires presence. It requires self-esteem: a realistic view of yourself, the ability to hold the present moment and present iteration of you as valuable and worthy without condition.”
Our world is full of creative, energetic people who are putting themselves out there and making things that really matter. They are working tirelessly, and if you actually look at the work instead of just admiring the result, it gives you space to recognize not only them but you and the work that you do. They are the Citgo sign. You are the Citgo sign. I am the Citgo sign. Sometimes our work looks little against the backdrop of huge skyscrapers, but that just means it’s time to get a better view. You are there, you are glowing, and I see you.