I have always been cursed with a loud, persistent and frankly irritating self-critical voice. Nothing makes that demon happier than to perch on my shoulder and point out what it considers to be fatal character faults and imperfections, bad writing or a failed drawing and, you know, might as well give it up, since of course the only acceptable option in life is to be perfect at everything and not only that, also better at it than everyone else. Because, well, demon.
It’s been with me as far I can remember, gnawing and picking at me, unforgiving and never satisfied. Problematic nature? Failed nurture? Who knows, and assigning blame doesn’t help; it’s not like I can go back and demand reparations. Understanding the source of a problem can help resolve it but I tried that approach, and it didn’t work.
And yet here I am, lo these many decades later, still bravely carrying on and doing, as they say, my thing; the demon’s voice hasn’t stopped me. Not that it’s completely gone away — it can still show up, shrill as ever, trying to stab me with one claw and spraying a mist of self-doubt with the other, hoping to see me drop to my knees and beg for mercy. The truth is that I don’t have a clue what it wants from me, or what would silence it, since the bar it sets keeps going up, higher than whatever it is I’ve sweated over and maybe finished. Its seeming goal is not to make me do a better job at whatever it is I’ve undertaken; rather, it wants to torture me, slow me down, trip me up, anything to prove its point, that I’m obviously a failure and seriously why do I even bother.
So, the voice is still there, yammering away. But with the help of some very special kryptonite, I’ve managed to disable the demon, acknowledge it (it is part of me, after all), roll my eyes and move on. That seems to work most of the time.
At first I had hoped that the slowly accumulating evidence to the contrary would put to rest the demon’s claim that I was a failure. Nope. Not only did the creature prefer to dwell on my numerous and inevitable flameouts instead of those times when things went swimmingly, it also tried to sabotage the latter by cranking it up a level and injecting a generous helping of the dreaded Impostor Syndrome. Obviously, if I was good at something, that didn’t count since I was clearly faking it. Meta before meta was a thing. Sneaky demon, and seriously twisted.
No, the kryptonite came from an unexpected source, at least to me.
I started running.
Sports of any form, team or individual, were not on the menu in my family when I was growing up in Greece. My mother did like to go on long swims, and of course we all worried about her when she did, that’s how unusual that was. The rest of us preferred the sedentary lifestyle. In school I studiously avoided playing on the soccer team, and while I later tried track and field, those sports and I never clicked.
Then in the mid-1970s, in graduate school in Chicago, I, like the rest of my generation, discovered running.
It wasn’t just the rush of endorphins, a high that got so many of us hooked. It was that the demon didn’t quite know what to make of that strange activity, so it went meta again. I was out having fun when I should be working, I was jeopardizing my future, on and on, shrill and loud, but even though it did scare me now and then, 20 minutes into the run the voice was reduced to a faint murmur, followed by silence. I ran when it was hot and muggy, I ran when the temperatures had dropped to single digits and the sidewalks were covered in frozen snow, Vaseline on my balaclava-covered face. I wasn’t particularly fast, but the demon never used that to humiliate me. It didn’t have a clue.
“Go for a run,” my partner at the time suggested when I was fighting the voice — and I would, and my head would clear.
It’s been almost 50 years since I went on my first run. These days I bike and kayak instead, beautiful and often challenging workouts that I love and that can double as lumps of kryptonite when there’s a risk of the voices getting ideas.
And yes, I did go out on a long bike ride today.
Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.
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