Date: 9th March 2014
“Well, what can you do. Way it is….” No question mark at the end, flat acceptance. I’ve heard that phrase about late trains, bad traffic, poor behaviour, taxes, and life in general. It’s a fatalistic acceptance of a shitty situation, an external validation that it’s all out of our hands now. It’s stoicism in a way, a re-hash of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes” mentality.
And I think it’s a shit attitude. Stoicism is the refuge of the passive aggressive, the religious, the self-enfeebled and those who have given up but want to pretend that acceptance is somehow OK. It’s not OK to accept less of yourself, or at least it’s not OK for me to simply roll my eyes and say, “Well, what can you do….” The answer is that you can fucking well do something, anything, even if it’s just planning better so you’re not stuck in traffic next time, or whatever the issue is. Sometimes things just go completely sideways, but that’s a rarity. More often than not we set things up to go sideways. I’ve done lots of that.
But if you just turn the saying slightly on its side it becomes a different set of words entirely: Instead of, “Well, what can you do….” I try to ask, “Well, what CAN I do?” I watch people deal with life all the time; I’m a voyeur at airports watching the ticket counters and wheel of life I ride spin and spin. Some people slump over and let life wash them along like a balloon. Others plant their feet and start creating something cool. Their answer to the question of, “What CAN I do?” is in the “can.” They don’t make excuses, they try. And that is the standard I want to hold myself to. It’s not a self-help happy bullshit standard, it’s straight out of eighties punk music: The doing, the trying, the standing up is more important than anything else. Of course I screw it all up royally regularly. Most of my “can” plans fall apart. But I’d rather rage against the wind and try to do something about it than accept it. I’d rather fight for the possible than see setbacks as inevitable. I fail often at this standard, but I keep trying. In the words of Minor Threat, “At least I’m trying. What the fuck have you done?” What CAN I do?
How this relates to athletics and life is that I see many people who are injured, sick, tired, or unable to do what they used to do. So they stop trying anything, what can you do? But being an athlete doesn’t mean you get to stop being an athlete or striving in some way at life just because things change. I see the skiers without legs at my Nordic Centre, skiers with legs that don’t work, and the odd guy who can only pole in a jerky lurch. They don’t say, “Well, what can you do,” They figure out what they can do and do it. I love them, their movement is an expression of sheer guts and athleticism that inspires me when I feel weak and lazy. Right now there’s a guy out there double-poling his lungs out, what have I and you done today? We have no excuses in comparison.
I recently broke my finger, and climbed on it for a week. It hurt like hell. I could climb, and I was giving everything I had to succeed on a route that mattered more than anything to me, so I felt it was worth it. But training and climbing on it after that trip was really slowing down the healing, plus it hurt like hell. Initially I fell off the path and sat on the couch a lot. Broken finger, what can ya do… Actually, the list of stuff I CAN do is way longer than the list of stuff I can’t do. I can run. I can tape it up and swim. I can ski, hike, bike in the snow, walk with my kids, stretch, climb with only three fingers no problem, type with three fingers, etc. etc. I can put in my two hours a day of training anyhow, just do different things. The world of “CAN” is a lot bigger than the world of can’t. I just couldn’t see that for a bit. I let the vortex of stoic acceptance eat me for something minor. Fuck.
I’m not some kind of enlightened human grooving on spiritual rah rah pablum, and I hope I’m not dishing it out. I was just inspired by the difference a little punctuation and emphasis gave to the same words, and the idea helped me to ask what I can do instead of focusing on what i couldn’t. Cool. I went for a run in Chicago this morning and had a mini-adventure involving a breakfast I forgot the money to pay for and spanish-speaking locals, and it was way way better than if I had sat in my hotel room. Someone slap me if I ever utter the words, “Well, what can you do….” What CAN I do? A lot.
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Love this, thanks for the refresher! What can you do? Lots. Fell through a well-concealed attic hole up to my hip this week – ended up with an upper leg abrasion. Nothing broken, all moving parts intact. Had that “let’s do this!” encouragement yell through helmeted heads with my co-worker and we pushed through obstacles and wrapped the job! When things go to sh*t, problem solvers (generally) auto-pilot into their best skill sets, get creative, reassess – then keep moving, keep trying – because, as the saying goes: “it’s okay to fail, it’s not okay to fold.” I’ve personally discovered that “Can-Do” thinking strength is elastic and improves through regular, purposeful rewiring of even minor negative thought patterns. That doesn’t create a perfect problem solver, it creates a resilient and f***ing persistent one. I still wept a bit when the hot shower water hit the wound, but I didn’t tank when it was most important. Airport watching is great fun, Will. I do it all the time.
My son Kirk Turner sent me your link. Great to hear of like minded folks who keep on pushing. I can’t solve the world’s energy problems, however I sure as hell can get my own properties in line with something that makes more global sense that most. You might want to check out the 1000 Home Challenge web site, it got me inspired to push the envelope and do something about my own existence on the planet, or if you are thinking about those who have not much of anything other than a smile to offer, mission of hope haiti, where I spent 2 weeks in October painting block houses, which were a step up from a blue plastic one that was supposed to be there for 3 months and its now going on 3 years. Keep it up, and remember “never give up”.
The key distinction is right in the first paragraph. You’re a professional athlete, Vonnegut was a WWII vet who witnessed the bombing of Dresden. There are things you can control and there are things you can’t. Finger injuries may not be among them, but there are certain life circumstances to which stoicism is the proper response. The inherent dynamism of climbing encourages us to see ourselves as actors defined by our agency (i.e. muscular cartesians), but we have little ultimate control over our lives, I would expect someone who has done as much dangerous shit as you have to know that.
[…] Gadd recently wrote a very Gaddian post about asking, “Well, what CAN you do?” instead of the passive acceptance of saying, […]
Jacob, I think that’s the exact problem with so much of society in general. We convince ourselves that our ‘daily lives’ require us to be proper or stoic. To accept that circumstances constrain us, and our desire for something different is inappropriate.
You can make an argument that in some societies in the world, the “what can I do?” question may come with significant consequences; however, certainly in western society these consequences are usually only perceived. Sometimes the consequences of “what can I do?” may even be real. It may mean you quit your job, it may mean you find a different job where you don’t commute, where you don’t work with useless people, or maybe it means you end a long term relationship, or it could be that you throw away the blue blinking panel you sit in front of every night.
The answer isn’t that you have to accept circumstances and be a stoic, but instead that it is easier to accept the circumstances and be a stoic. It’s easier and more comforting to say that we must do something, when the reality is that we can’t be bothered to do something different.
Will never said it’s easy. Will never said that it’s better or right. But which life would you rather live, the one where you tried, you went for it and did what you could? Or the one where you threw in the towel, sat down and watched it pass.
Sadly, the later dominates our western dialogue.
Nice post Will. I wrote something similar a while back… think we agree on this one.
Awesome, it’s a perspective shift I need. Thanks for sharing!
Have you read the book ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ Will? I think you’d like the old man a lot!
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