The Endurance Trap

December may be the most festive time of the year but it is also a test of endurance for many of us. Mental, physical, spiritual; we all struggle to keep our energy up and our spirits high in the face of an endless excess of people, places and expectation.

This year my desire to escape it all has been stronger than usual, yet I’ve still managed to rope myself into an awful lot of socialising, travelling and entertaining. I am grateful for the opportunities to be with loved ones and to be blessed with gifts and food and comfort, but I’m also exhausted just thinking about it!

And that got me thinking about endurance and how the ability to endure has become an expected part of modern living. We’re all being sold on the merits of endurance at every turn: from energy drinks to extreme sports, from personal trainers to parental advice. Last year London was chock full of athletes who all seemed to prove that pushing the body beyond its limits will result in something spectacular and certainly something to be proud of.


Yet despite the buzz of the Olympics and my hardy Northern upbringing, my attitude towards endurance remains rather skeptical. I don’t have much of it, to be honest. I’m not a huge fan of physical exertion or discomfort. I like to sleep, I like to eat, I like to sit and ponder and stare out of the window and spend time with my head in the clouds or in a good book. Then I like to sleep a little more. When I’m tired I want to rest. When I’m in pain I want to stop or seek comfort. And I have learned that meeting these needs allows me to be energetic and capable when I’m doing a job or being with people. If I force my body to do without I start to flake.

And it’s not just my mood that suffers, although that can be one of the first things to go. I lose the colour in my cheeks, I lose clarity in my vision and it feels like my body starts to lose its substance. I become light, a little blurred around the edges and although this can be an interesting state to experience (from a purely creative point of view) it makes functioning in the world a real struggle.

Nouwen modern exhaustion

Ever had one of those days…



Now just writing that I feel a little uncomfortable. A struggle? What do I know about struggle? Talk about a #firstworldproblem! It carries the same guilt as whinging about having a busy holiday season; it makes you sound ungrateful.

But it’s true! Life feels inordinately difficult – physically and emotionally – when I am lacking in my basic needs. And I would like to be honest about it but I don’t feel like this is something I can say out loud. Not to my family, not to my friends. Sometimes not even to the hubby.


Why? Because in the past I have been taught (by people and by presumption) that to find life difficult is the norm and to bear it with anything less than a stoic stare and a stiff upper lip is simply unacceptable. We are prompted from an early age to cultivate and practice endurance; to find ways of convincing our bodies and minds to do more and give more than they are capable.

There is of course a precedent for this kind of advice being very useful, if we think back to those Olympic athletes: none of those gold medal winners would have reached their podium without pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones. But there is a difference between breaking out of our comfort zone and breaking past our ability that I think has become blurred.


This guy knows he’s reached a limit.



If an Olympic weight lifter decides to endure the strain of lifting a few extra pounds when his or her body is screaming to stop, back off and wait till it is better prepared, then they might severely injure themselves and perhaps scupper their chances of winning gold or ever lifting weights again. So they do what they can and stop when they have reached their absolute limit. Now, we may not all be potential Olympians but our bodies can and do tell us when we are going too far; but because we aren’t lifting weights or moving mountains, just going about our ordinary lives, we assume that the same fail-safes need not apply.

We think it’s okay to work those extra few hours, to miss that evening meal or to go out for that important social engagement despite the fact that we are dripping snot, feeling nauseous and haven’t slept for three days. We endure.

And why do we do it? Because we believe it is expected.

It doesn’t help that we define the act of endurance as follows:


ENDURE. (verb)

1) to suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently

(found at OED online)


I can understand why those who choose to “suffer patiently” through life must find those of us less inclined to do so to be lacking. We seem to demonstrate no determination or strength and a poor commitment to making it through the battle that is life. Worse than that, we undermine their suffering by proving that there is another way. Their suffrage is often a source of great pride and pomposity for them and comes with the inevitable slogan:

“You just have to get on with it!”

They are often also good people, kind people who don’t actually want to suffer at all but have never considered endurance could mean anything else.

But there is another meaning, which the OED also offers if we keep reading:


ENDURE. (verb)

2) remain in existence; last

If life is a struggle then subconsciously we’re probably wanting it over as quickly as possible. But if we are aiming for longevity, to last, then we open ourselves up to the idea that life is actually enjoyable and something we wish to experience as much as we possibly can. To do that we will need endurance but not the kind involving suffering; otherwise we will fall into survival mode and actually experience very little. Instead we endure by nurturing and feeding our body and mind, respecting our needs and limits; thus ensuring we have the resources to survive the tough times and appreciate the good with equal enthusiasm.

This kind of endurance involves far less pain and discomfort but it doesn’t discount them. Rather it encourages us to recognise and acknowledge them as indicators of a need which our body or mind has and is trying to inform us about. An increased knowledge of the delicate balance within each of us allows us to develop and grow our abilities in a safe and sustained way, rather than dashing for the gold and then burning out.

One might argue that being able to listen to and be honest about our needs and then allowing ourselves to act upon them (despite outside pressures and incentives encouraging us to do otherwise) is a brave act itself and shows a stronger personal endurance than simply allowing our life to become a state of endless battle, resistance and struggle.


What do you think? A weak excuse? Or an intuitive alternative?


Of course we are all capable of both types of endurance, though it is likely that we’ll favour one. I’m hoping to see a shift in society towards the lasting kind that currently comes most naturally to me; to see endurance cultivated as an act of kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others. I don’t pretend to know what affect that would have on other people or our species as whole but I’d like to think it would give us the chance to experience life and those we love more fully and with more energy than our current social and cultural structures allow.


It would also be nice to express my need for a nap, out loud, without being called lazy.

I’m not lazy. I’m just in it for the long haul.



Sometimes we all need a cat nap



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. petetomlin
    Dec 19, 2013 @ 17:13:10

    I started making a comment to this, but it turned into more of a post.


  2. Trackback: Endurance; a response. | Outside Life

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All written materials and images, unless otherwise stated, are property of Kelly Tomlin 2016.
We gather together to Walk the Wheel; to share with one another and be inspired.
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