Three Oatmeal Truths

Today at the library, I read Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman’s The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, an extended version of his original web comic about ultra-running. It’s of a piece with his usual ardent and absurdist takes on varying topics. In the book he illustrates a few tips for becoming a runner, which I have decided to paraphrase into three core principles for life:

1. Shut up and run.
2. Running sucks.
3. Suck in the present.

(The first one is a direct quote from the book, but the latter two are my own condensations, which also happen to create a delightful anadiplosis.)

I am not much of a runner—though I’m certainly inspired to be after reading this book—but I quickly saw the wide-ranging value of these aphorisms. Replace “running” with any activity, but especially an arduous or creative one, and the phrases still work. For me, it’s writing.

The first step is the hardest, but everything hinges on it. Ignoring the compelling excuses our inner demons conjure is key to achieving even a modicum of success. Just doing the thing, whatever it is, is the beginning and end of it. It’s the permission-to-play value, the minimum qualification for entry.

If we accomplish the first step, then the second one gets real on the quick. The initial burst of enthusiasm fades and we’re left with the undeniable notion that we’ve made a mistake in starting at all, that our muscles ache and that life would be easier if we stopped. But this, damn those pesky demons, is a lie. On the contrary: “Life is difficult,” writes M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled. “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Running/writing/painting/cobbling/[insert activity here] sucks. It’s beautiful, and we love it, but it sucks to do. It definitely doesn’t suck to have done something, but getting to that point means getting through the suck.

Which brings us to the third great Oatmeal Truth™: be present in the suck. Whatever we’re doing we’re doing it for a reason, and that probably is because we want to, or even need to. It might feel terrible or wonderful, as the book’s title asserts, or somewhere in-between. Either way, it’s something important to us. To honor that, then, we need to give it our attention. We need to live with it as it lives in us, even when it sucks. Even if we just want to get it over with to make the pain or frustration stop.

I think I’ll put these up on my wall.