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  • Writer's pictureSandy Miller

An Emil Zatopek quote for strange times

So here we are, after a rather extended gap between blogs, and in a world that has been turned upside down. The truth is that a few weeks ago I was about to post a new blog, which I had done lots of work on, about decision making and avalanches, but just as I was ready to post it everything went from “we are keeping open for skiing as normal”, to “we have already closed” with very little warning. Posting a blog about avalanches when the resort had shut, and we were being told not to go touring, seemed a little bit silly, so I will save it for next season when it is topical again.

Skiing as normal, just before everything changed.

I have a new blog almost ready about people who inspire us, but before I post that I wanted to write something rather different to anything I have previously posted. Obviously we are going through tough times, and when that happens to me I often end up thinking about a quote that I learnt when I was a teenager, which is “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one”. This quote is attributed to Bruce Lee, though the basis of the saying seem to come from Phillips Brooks (who also wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), and whose original quote was used by JFK, and then in turn quoted and incorrectly credited by Donald Trump. The fact is that so much in life that is rewarding is at the same time anything but easy. When we start to consider what experiences help us to grow, develop and progress we will probably not find much that can be considered easy (I am fairly sure that it is not just me that this applies to). In fact I would go as far as to say that, in whatever we do, if we always stick with what is easy and comfortable we will never realise our full potential. Even if you look at the activities that we do in our leisure time we can safely say that we are not always choosing to make our lives easier. Skiing for example is not as easy as relaxing in the nice hotel that you have paid for, and running is not as easy as just staying at home with a cup of tea, but despite these activities not being the easy option they can give us something more, whether that is joy, adrenaline, fitness, peace of mind, or lots of other things. Then if you look at how rapidly the categories of ultra running and ski touring have grown, you can clearly see that it is not just a small niche group of people who are drawn to do things that are more challenging.

Not taking the easy option.

It was Emil Zatopek (if you do not know who he was now is a good time to do some googling, as he is certainly somebody who went through tough times) who said “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.” I certainly feel like this is something that reflects how I feel doing a long ultra, when, hopefully without sounding too cheesy, I feel like I learn about myself, overcome adversity and grow just a little bit as a person. The same can be said for some of our other life decisions, such as having children. During these current restrictions I have heard so many people talk about binge watching Netflix, but for those people with children the talk is all about home schooling (home schooling is also why this blog was not posted weeks ago). It is safe to say that the binge watching Netflix option is certainly easier than home schooling. Clearly we do not choose to have children because it is the easy option, but then we as a species clearly do not make all our choices based on what is easy.

Wonderful, but more work than watching Netflix.

Now we are all facing various levels of difficulty from this current situation, from having less choice in the supermarkets, through facing up to the financial stress, to the loss of loved ones in very difficult circumstances, and clearly how difficult it will be to come out of the other side of all of this will vary depending upon how much you have lost, or how much you have suffered, but I do think that we can all grow a little bit through all of this. When I think about Emil’s words I think that he was talking about the idea that the tougher challenge can make for a different life experience for ourselves, but we can also take it a slightly different way. To experience a different life can be about having our eyes opened to somebody else’s experience of life, and as such to gain empathy for somebody else; the idea of walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes. Unfortunately over the last few years the world has been nudged by a number of people in a fairly negative direction, where there is more emphasis on driving people apart. The trouble is that driving divisions between people is easier than educating them to become more empathetic, especially when we can be talking about very complex situations. An example would be how much easier it is for somebody to understand that an immigrant is speaking a different language than it is to understand the importance of that immigrant to certain industries, or the fact that immigrant workers contributing their taxes in a country can be incredibly useful when the country has an ageing population. This is even more the case when we are talking about refugees, and how easy it is to make people resent the influx of people, rather than feel compassion and empathy, and a moral obligation to help them. Unfortunately the world is a very complex place, and to understand more we have to engage with a complex combination of history, politics, human psychology, and economics, and that is before we even consider any details about the individual, and none of this is as easy as putting up barriers. This is a scary, negative road to go down, and one that we should know from history leads to very dangerous places, but even now during this time when the virus is causing such international problems, and as such people should be working together, we are still seeing people in high office using inflammatory and divisive rhetoric.

Strange times, when a bench understands more about altruism than many world leaders.

Right now we are experiencing tough times, and complete upheaval to our lives, and that is fairly universal, regardless of language, race, nationality, religion, sexuality or gender. This shared experience and hardship is a chance for us to remember that there is far more that binds us together as a species than there is that divides us. In fact, as humans, we share 99.9% of our DNA with the rest of humanity, and if we look at history we can see that people throughout time have travelled, and interbred with each other, to a point where the idea of anybody being ethnically pure, or even having a definitive claim on a country, does not really hold together. Actually the idea of racial purity coming from anybody apart from ethnic Africans is particularly ridiculous, given that between 1.5 and 2.1% of anybody else’s DNA comes from Neanderthals, which means that we do not have any claim on being a pure species, let alone on being ethnically pure. If ever there was a situation that could be used to unify a divided world this is it, and we will be stronger if we all work together, on both a global political level, as well as on a local community level. Every day at the moment I am reading news articles about the amazing and selfless things that people are doing for each other at this time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if when we all emerge from our homes after these tough times, like flowers emerging from underneath the snow when spring arrives, we keep some of this new found generosity of spirit, and we all emerge as slightly more altruistic, empathetic and compassionate individuals.

Whom will we all choose to be when we emerge from these challenging times?

I am sorry if this is a bit too political, and yet at the same time I have not even touched upon what we could learn from all of this in terms of consumerism, what is actually important, and how those things should impact our approach to minimising our environmental impact, but I am going to stick to one thing at a time.


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