Thursday, July 26, 2012

To go barefoot

Forest urchins, an alley, and a classical lesson

It's been hot out, so to help combat the inevitable bucket's worth of sweat each day, I've been wearing shorts and sandals as much as possible. Sometimes, rather all the time, sandals get on my nerves though as I don't feel as agile as I'd like to while walking around. Fixing this problem has left me with the choice to either adorn shoes and sweat it out or forego footwear altogether and walk around barefoot, which was my solution last weekend.

The grass was not a problem, and I didn't mind walking over the gravel all that much until day two, when I stepped on a pinecone. All at once I was reminded how perfectly engineered those little forest urchins (think sea urchins) are for piercing the undercarriage of fleshy human feet. I grimaced a little, and complained of the pain, then retold the tale of how this wouldn't have bothered me years ago, how I used to run around barefoot all the time as a kid, how I used to be so tough.


When I was little, my sister and I would run barefoot up and down the coarse blacktop alley behind our house on Seventh Avenue. This shoelessness was encouraged by our father who swore our feet doubled in size every few months; so, if we could go without shoes for some of that time it was easier on the wallet. This cost issue was of little consequence to us, however, as we eventually realized our free-form bi-peding was advantageous, particularly in foot races with the neighborhood kids. We even went so far as to pride ourselves on the number of days we hadn't worn shoes. Eventually, we become bold enough to challenge the kids notably faster than ourselves because we had a secret weapon - toughness.

You see, the catch was the neighborhood races had to be done without shoes, and the two of us were masters at building up tough skin on the bottoms of our feet so as to avoid the hard, sharp, and potentially tetanus-inflicting surfaces we always walked on. Be it sidewalks, paved streets, or gravel driveways, my sister and I would never turn down a race challenge, as long as all participants were barefoot.

Some of the other kids blamed us for cheating, saying it wasn't fair we'd been practicing, gaining an unfair advantage over them all summer by being barefoot all the time. I can't recall my exact response to this accusation, but I hope I brought up the point that it wasn't cheating as long as they too had the chance to toughen up. At which point the line was drawn - our friends were not willing to sacrifice a week's worth of foot shredding for a summer's length of inhuman speed.

We had changed the rules, my sister and I; we had found a caveat, a niche in which we could triumph. She and I were willing to push the envelope, find the edge, get a little crazy and reset the standards. I found something I wanted to be good at. I wanted to be unbeatable, I wanted to be known, and I wanted to strike fear into anyone dumb enough to take me on. Tougher than anyone else, barefoot in the summer was what I wanted to own, and I went after it. The other kids were not willing to commit to something that difficult and painful; they were not willing to accept discomfort and risk injury for the glory of being the fastest kid on the block. Oh, what fame.

This was my first memory of going after something, my first inclination that I could be great. The concept of chasing glory is an ancient, internal human struggle. It is a choice in front of all mankind throughout all history. Classics such as “The Iliad” concern themselves with nothing more obsessively than this pivotal life question: glory, power, and death, or servitude, humility, and life? Clearly the only choice we have is a balance between the two.

Everyone wants to be respected, i.e. glory amongst one's fellows. If left unchecked, though, this becomes a fiend we call ego. To counter ego (unchecked glory), it's important to practice servitude, or spread yourself and your resources to other people with your head bowed and for the soul purpose of helping someone else. The act of which actually makes your life more meaningful, because lets face it, nobody exists for themselves. While I may have wanted to be the toughest and fastest, my little sister was my protégé, my student, and she looked up to me. If it were not for our shared interest, I would have had no one to help but myself; the goal would be empty.

In much the same way, becoming proficient, strong, amassing wealth (in knowledge, money, or other resources) is to become powerful. Your power is influence, something you wield, and yes, it can hurt people. In this instance, humility will keep your power in check, to be used only when the circumstances demand it. We often call striking this balance sportsmanship or class, but hitting it just right induces admiration and respect in the like-minded.

Lastly, and I hope this goes without much explanation, is the ying-yang of life and death. This world is an ebb and flow of energy, a with and without existence of peaks and valleys, 99 percent of which is beyond our control. Here is where, as a child, I addressed the bodily risks of what I was doing by setting priorities for what I wanted to achieve. Was this a life or death decision I made at age 10? Absolutely not, but it was an early lesson in managing bodily sacrifice.

Decisions and priorities are at the heart of what it means to be an adult, and we study and learn to improve those choices simply by living each day of our lives. Consequently, when we take the time to connect the dots between fleeting moments and the wisdom of human history, we see a lot more than just the present. The world is filled with big lessons in tiny, skin-piercing packages, and if you allow yourself to notice, acknowledge, and study them, you'll begin to build up a system of compiling toughness for yourself. Someday, whether you want to or not, you’ll use that toughness to run down one hell of an alley.

“If you're proactive, you don't have to wait for circumstances or other people to create perspective expanding experiences. You can consciously create your own”
- Stephen Covey
See you out there,
A woodsman in training

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