Monday, December 3, 2007

Challenge or Opportunity?

When I was visiting my sister in Philadelphia, she said something amazing, something well beyond the wisdom of a 23 year old. I'll never forget it. And I've thought about it daily ever since my return home, wrapping my mind around the concept while seeking out a situation where I would be forced to make the choice.

Challenge or Opportunity?

The Monday morning after I arrived in Philadelphia, Karyna and I were driving towards her work. She is currently an intern the Devereaux Foundation at Villanova, who specializes in helping adults with developmental disorders, including (but not limited to) those with autism or who have special needs. Her job is not easy, as it entails working with challenged populations who have very specific needs. Some patients are very high functioning, while others struggle to survive on a daily basis. Each case is as unique as the individuals who have the various disorders. It it demanding, the pay is very low, the turnover of non-intern staff is extremely high, the hours can be long, but at the same time she loves what she does.

Moreover, she is great at what she does. On a very simple level, she enriches and helps the lives of individuals who otherwise can't help themselves. She doesn't do it for the money, she doesn't do it for the location, or glory, but rather she does it for the simple satisfaction of making a difference. She wants to help people; she wants to raise awareness for autism and IDD (individuals with developmental disorders); she wants to make a difference. She would never admit this, but she already has.

She already has. In so many ways.

As we were driving through the small but quaint Pennsylvania towns located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, she was discussing different aspects of her job. It was already clear to me how much she enjoyed what she did: the first thing we did after finding our way out of Delaware (we went the wrong way on the interstate and found ourselves in a completely different state. Who hasn't done that before?), we made a stop at Devereaux. She wanted to show me the building, the grounds, and possibly meet a few of the patients.

As we entered the building, I watched my little sister transform into a graduate-school candidate, professional woman, and passionate intern. The transition was amazing, and her interaction with clients was wonderful. She was very respectful of them, treated everyone as though they didn't have an IDD, but set boundaries when they tried to behave in unacceptable manners (one young gentleman wanted to hold my hand. I didn't want to upset him, but Karyna was very firm. She asked him if this behavior was socially acceptable, and he reluctantly let go while I remained uncertain of what exactly to do.) I was the pupil and she was the teacher, a very different reversal of roles from when we were growing up.

"Is that acceptable or unacceptable behavior?" she asked. "Is this how we behave? You know better than that."

But she didn't lecture, she didn't chide. She didn't get angry or frustrated. She didn't make anyone feel bad or self-conscious. None of that. Instead she asked them a question and helped to redirect their behavior. She gave them a choice, and then gave them the control to respond.

I know a lot of "normal-functioning" adults (I say that in quotes because a lot of people exhibit very childish behavior at times) who could learn quite a bit from this idea. Is that socially acceptable or unacceptable? Nothing will change what has happened, but you can control the way YOU respond. The way YOU react. Is throwing a tantrum going to help? If so, tell me when you're done and we can move on. It's your choice: acceptable or unacceptable.

Very grown up for a 23 year old, if you ask me.

On the drive I asked her, "Isn't it hard? Don't you get frustrated?"

She thought for a moment, then responded, "Yeah, I'll admit it's challenging..."

And then she stopped.

Without a moment's hesitation, she corrected herself. "No, not challenging, an opportunity."

And then she continued driving, narrowly missing a turn that would have sent us towards New Jersey. (By now, you probably get the idea that she's not the greatest of drivers).

The beautiful Pennsylvania fall foliage faded, as I stared blankly out the window. Passing cars, rush hour traffic, or the light drizzle did nothing to dampen my mood or distract my busy mind. In my head, I turned her words over and over again. Challenge? No! Opportunity - yes! I kept mulling it over, letting thoughts drift in and out of my brain while applying these two very different words in varying contexts.

How many times had I faced a challenge? How many times in my life have I gone up against the odds, gone up against myself, gone up against something larger than life? How many times this past season did I face difficult workouts or seemingly impossible hurdles? How many times had I been scared of sharks, fellow competitors, or even against myself? How many times have I looked at "the challenge" as simply a challenge?

And while I knew Karyna's idea of a challenge-turned-opportunity was based on her work experience, I thought her comment was brilliant and could be applied to life in general.

There's something about the word "challenge" that inevitably makes us nervous. We want to succeed, we want to battle, we want to overcome the odds and ourselves. When we face a challenge, we get ready for battle. We arm ourselves with the best tools, put on our game face, do everything in our power to succeed. The challenge is laid before us. It's us, our minds, and our bodies, versus the challenge. We thinK "challenge", and we instantly think "hard".

But opportunity is different.

When opportunity presents itself, we take it. We run. We soar. We don't think about going into battle, we don't think of arming ourselves, rather we look at the opportunity as success. It's ours for the taking, it's ours to claim. A la, "Rosie the Riveter's WE CAN DO IT." Not a battle for success, but rather the opportunity to shine through. A challenge seemingly sets limits, while opportunities give us innumerable chances to succeed. A challenge can seem difficult to overcome, while opportunity is endless optimism, boundless luck. Glass is half empty vs half full. Challenge versus Opportunity. Opportunity seems easy. Opportunity is ours, our choice.

It is OUR choice. It is OUR opportunity. Yes we accept a challenge, but we EMBRACE the opportunity OF the challenge.

And that, at least in my over-worked brain, is the difference.

But I'm still working it through, picking apart details, going from one idea to another. An opportunity if you may, for further exploration.

(I also realize that the sport of triathlon is very different from working with adults with IDD. I have so much respect for Karyna and for what she does, that it dosen't seem fair to compare the two. Triathlon can be for the benefit of the individual, while Karyna devotes herself to helping others. The idea lays not with what we're doing at the time, but instead, what manner we choose to face circumstances or events beyond our control. As a challenge or as an opportunity?)

Lucky for me, I had a chance to test Karyna's idea last Friday. Last week, I started a little bit of base training, a mere 10-12 (if I'm lucky) hours per week. Not a lot of speed or hard stuff, just enough to get my body moving, my systems charging, the juices flowing. I have a lot of mixed emotions about it: while I love training and pushing my limits, I realize that my body needs a break. I rationalize this when I've only got an hour run on my schedule in one day. In the past, I would have looked at this as a challenge. Instead, I'll look towards this as an opportunity to let my body rest and get really prepared for next season!

On the other hand, I get super excited even when I've got a little bit of "hard" stuff on the schedule. When I saw my 6 X 6 min bike intervals I just about went through the roof, I was ecstatic! I miss going fast, I miss the rush, I miss the opportunity to improve myself in that way. Mostly now though, it's short and slow stuff.

However, last Friday I was given an hour ride to be spent in heart rate zone 3. The first and last 10 minutes were to serve as a warm-up/cool-down, but the body of the piece, the "main set" if you may, was to be done in zone 3. Again, nothing too serious, but enough discomfort for your body to have to work. Once you get going, once you get the gears cranking, and the pedals turning over, the gradual lactic acid buildup in your muscles begins to intensify, and what appeared to be a simple workout can slowly turn painful pretty quickly. But it was okay. I was happy with the workout, ready and raring to go.

I set up the bike and trainer out on the deck, overlooking the forest in the backyard. While the day was beautiful and I could have ridden out in the country (Pensacola traffic is too crazy and not very bike friendly where we live), I really didn't feel like driving 30 minutes one-way for an hour ride. I reasoned that by the time I arrived up at the Blackwater Trail or NAS Whiting, got my gear set up and ready to go, I would be a full 40 minutes into the workout had I just remained at home, and it would save a bunch of time if I just gutted it out on the trainer. Humbug!

It wasn't that bad, after all, I could zone out and listen to the ipod, while enjoying the forest scenery from the safety of our 2nd story deck. Beautiful.

After a brief warm-up, I selected my play list of "On-the-Go 2" (mostly techno stuff, grinding to a steady beat and that kind of thing. Great for hammering in the big ring), and started my 40 minute piece.

5 minutes passed, and my heart rate reached zone 3. I re-positioned myself in the saddle, got as comfortable as I could, and focused on keeping good aero posture while maintaining high (but controlled) rpm. I could see the veins in my arms start to pop out, feel the beads of sweat as they broke out on my forehead and rolled down the side of my face. The music was reassuring, yet I remained focused on my saddle discomfort (my "lady bits" weren't happy. My search for the perfect saddle remains never-ending, I suppose). 7 minutes slowly became 9, and then slowly became 10.

Great, I was 1/4 done and miserable. This is not what I had in mind. I tried to hone in on the music, take my mind off the workout. I looked at the leaves, waving in the wind, and watched a neighbor take their dog along the forest's edge.

Oops! My heart rate dipped below zone 3. Must Concentrate!!!

10 minutes dragged on, and then turned into 11. What was going on? I felt as though I was in a time-warp, stuck in a surreal dimension where time was slowed by a honey-like substance. My legs felt sluggish and I pushed the discomfort out of my head. Listen to the music, just zone out and it'll take you away. My saddle discomfort increased, as I hit the 12 minute mark. Wonderful: only 28 more minutes left to go with this stupid piece, this dumb workout. Lovely. I should have drive up to Milton, then at least I could suffer while actually going somewhere. I looked at my watch again: 13 minutes. Lucky number 13.

And then, something amazing happened. Something horrible but amazing at the same time.

I picked up the ipod, perched on the end of the table. As I lifted it up, a huge drop of sweat dripped onto the surface of the key pad. I tried to change songs, change tracks, but the darned thing wouldn't work. I pressed a few buttons, but the blasted thing had frozen up on me. Bloody Hell! I tried desperately, but in vain to get the stupid contraption to work. I cursed. I got angry. I thought briefly of chucking the flippin' thing off our balcony, but then thought better of it as our neighbor was still walking his dog below and was within sight.

What is it with me and computers? Or electrical contraptions in general?? I hate DVD players, don't like cables, and can't even figure out or stupid remote. This sucks! I thought about getting off my bike, asking Nathaniel for help. But really, what could he do? I reasoned. This has happened before when a lot of moisture has gotten into the dial part of the silly contraption. Besides, this doesn't mean you can't do your workout. Just do it without music.

My rational side had won, leaving me to push aside the stubborn device. I would have to let the batteries run down, and then recharge it before it could work again. In the meantime, I still had 27 minutes left of this workout. And I was darned if some silly electrical thing was going to stop me from moving forward. It would be a challenge, but it would be okay.

And then, at that very moment, at the mention of the word "challenge", I remember what Karyna had said.

Challenge. No! Opportunity - yes!

Immediately, my brain shifted. Challnege.No.Opportunity.Yes.

My workout was no longer a challenge, something I had to overcome.

Instead, it was an opportunity. A chance for me to finish the piece sans ipod. An opportunity to push aside the idea that I couldn't work hard on the trainer without the help of music. What rubbish! Of course I could work hard on the trainer - I had never given myself the opportunity to do so. Up until that point. It had always been trainer + tv/DVD/Ipod. Nothing else. Never trainer + me. I had never given myself the chance. Never the opportunity.

And that was a shame.

Because what started out as being a pretty shitty workout, ended up being one of the best this year. 27 minutes of me + my bike + my trainer + my mind. I was focused, I was set, I was ready. I wanted this opportunity: to show to myself that I could do this. Zone 3 with just my mind for entertainment? Not a problem.

And then I noticed little things about myself that I had been too preoccupied with before to realize. My back was a little tense, so I loosed my grip on the aerobars. So far so good. I focused on smooth pedaling, on an efficient turnover, and realized the bouncing in my saddle lessened, and the pain in my saddle began to ease up. I noticed the sound of an airplane overhead, heard the breeze rustling the trees, saw a hawk circling overhead in search of prey (luckily our 18.2 pound tiger was safe indoors, asleep on the green recliner). All because I was paying attention. I had the opportunity to do so, and it made all the difference.

Before I realized it, I was at 25 minutes, and only had 15 left to go. A sharp noise over my right shoulder momentarily drew my attention away from the workout. I saw one of our neighbors walk onto his deck and take a long drag from the cigarette. Realizing I wasn't alone was all I needed to take another posture check.

Back? Relaxed. Check

Legs? Efficient. Check

Stomach? Sucked in, looking like I didn't eat half a carrot roll over Thanksgiving. Check.

12 minutes to go.

I gripped the aerobars without letting my back tense up. I had done 12 minute pieces before, all the time. I knew what they were like, I had felt every moment of them in the past, and knew that I could do this now. This was my chance. My opportunity.

The sweat was pouring down the sides of my face, dripping onto my arms and pooling on the deck. I could feel my legs tighten under the strain, feel my heart pound in my chest. I took in great lung fulls of air, and timed my breathing to the rhythm of my cadence: every 4 rotations inhale, ever 4 rotations exhale (something I would have never counted had I been listening to Fat Boy Slim). I was mesmerised by my effort, captivated by how I felt, how I sounded. Time was flying by, and I was regretful that the workout would be over so soon. I felt like I still had aspects of myself that needed to be explored, parts of me that I hadn't yet discovered.

An opportunity for another day, no doubt.

As I finished up the workout, I looked back on what I had just done. What had started off as a pretty rocky beginning, had turned into one of the best workouts ever. All because I had made a choice: I took the opportunity, and ran with it. It was my choice, my opportunity. I could have easily chucked everything out the window, called it quits when the ipod shut down, or simply sat up and spun the remainder of the piece.

But I didn't.

Karyna's words echoed through my brain, resonated through my mind, and shook me to my very core. I realize now that I'm not the same person I was before I went up to Philadelphia. She has presented me with a new way of looking at the world, challenged me to view life as an opportunity. Next time things get tough, a workout is hard, or I'm having a difficult day, I'll remember her words and how she uses them to enrich the lives of the people she works with. She is a true inspiration, in every sense of the word. Life is going to happen, time will pass by, and we can't do a darn thing about it either way. But we do control our approach to life, how we view events, how we respond, how we react.

So, next time you're faced with something, how will you look at it? As a challenge or as an opportunity?

I know what I'll do.

1 comment:

BreeWee said...

Very encouraging post- motivating! Good read this time of year, your sister sounds like a blessing to so many!