Monthly Archives: April 2012

Dancing Through the Pain, Part I

Over the winter I sat down with my good friend, Jane Haugh, a former professional ballet dancer, to talk about physical courage. Specifically, I had questions for her about her experience with and understanding of pain, and how it relates to her role as a mother of three. Our conversation was a long one covering three distinct topics relating to pain and physical courage, so I’ll offer the adaptation of our dialogue in three parts. To avoid confusing our first names (Jane and Jen) I’ll refer to us by our last names, Haugh and Armstrong.

I began by asking her about when she started ballet, what it entailed, and when she knew she wanted to become a professional dancer, despite direct experience of the pain that would involve.

Haugh: I was very little when I started ballet class, maybe six or seven, and I was 12 when I decided I was very serious about it. This involved lots and lots of class and going on pointe, which is painful.

-->There was an aesthetic, there was a dream of something which made getting blisters on your feet okay. There were a bunch of different components. One was that you had graduated to a point where you could wear these very special shoes and then the fact that they hurt was – the mystique around them was enough to keep you going. Then the other part was that there was a bit of a culture around, “How many blisters do you have? I have four.” “Oh, I only have two.” It’s like when you learn to play violin when you’re very young and you get blisters on your fingers – those kids are also talking about it as a badge of achievement. “I worked so hard that I have more blisters than you do.” I think that there was a point at which blisters hurt and there were coping mechanisms for that – things you could put on your feet, things you could wear in your shoes to try and help that. And there was this other pain that had to with fatiguing your muscles and getting to the point where you worked yourself so hard that the next day you were very sore. Or you pulled something slightly – not enough to stop but enough to know that you hurt.     -->You weren’t a serious dancer unless you were having some pain. Armstrong: Did you ever have a conversation with an adult about that? Like the teacher or your parents? Haugh: -->There were two different conversations. One conversation was with the teacher: “Oh my feet really hurt,” and the teacher said, “Everybody’s feet hurt and if you don’t want to do this you should go do some mundane job, like maybe you could go become a secretary, dear.” So there was this subtle put-down that this is what it’s about: either you tough it out and keep going or you step out because someone else will take your place. When I had conversations with my parents about it they would say, “Stop! If it hurts so much you should stop.” But I really wanted to be that dancer, that person on stage wearing that costume. And so them saying “stop” wasn’t a solution for me. I wanted someone to make it stop hurting and nobody could do that. So there has to be a goal, and that goal has to be so important that even though you have these conversations – like my parents kept saying that’s not okay that your feet are bleeding, stop. But   -->it was entirely up to me. My parents said, this is crazy, you should stop, but then when Tuesday came around I went to class. Or I said I wanted to go to class, and they would ask didn’t my feet hurt and I would either lie and say they didn’t, or say they did but I still wanted to go. Armstrong: -->So, as a parent, looking back on that, what do you think about that? Because after all you did end up with this career, with achieving this dream of becoming a professional dancer, so if you were in a position to counsel your parents in that moment, would you say “make her stop,” or would you say “yes, it’s painful and maybe she’ll hurt herself but this is really important to her dream, her goal.” Haugh: -->I didn’t let Z. [her elder daughter] do ballet but I think it’s probably for other reasons. There certainly are things about neoclassical ballet that are bad for your body, like arthritis in your hips and stress fractures in your feet, but mostly I didn’t want the competitiveness and aesthetic stringency and criticalness of that world. I didn’t want that for her. But the physical stuff – I think that’s okay. I think it depends on the culture within which that physical stuff happens. I think ballet culture specifically is slightly ill, and therefore not healthy and not something I wanted for my daughter, but I think mountain-climbing culture is not ill, or not in that same way, and so when you take your kids on a hike and they start complaining, they’re tired and their feet hurt, getting to the top of the mountain is still a worthwhile goal, and the things that you learn by making yourself or making your children get to the top of the mountain are so worthwhile. I’ve talked to Z. about it a little bit: the things I learned as a dancer had to do with how far you can go and even though it hurts you’ll be okay the next day.
-->: Let’s talk about being a mom. You’re raising three kids in an environment that we could call very physical [High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains]. Lots of outdoor activities, a very cold winter climate. What decisions have you made about when you know your child is cold, or tired, or uncomfortable, and yet it’s – this is our lifestyle, this is what we do.
-->Right, and we’re not all going to stop. There are a couple of things that I think I learned dancing that I’ve tried to teach my kids. One of them has to do with being tired. When you’re really tired, and you’re on a hike, and you’re not there yet, but you’re close enough that if you really put on a push you could get there – what I know about being tired from dancing is that if you pretend not to be tired for a couple of minutes, you will find more energy. It’s a phenomenon that we learned in the studio. You’re really tired and you’ve run the thing fifteen times and the rehearsal master says we’re going to do it one more time and everything in you says “oh god, no!” but you know you are going to have to do it again. You go back in your corner. You take a deep breath, and when the music starts you come out with 150%, because if you can gather that and put it out there it will carry you through. You’ll make it and be okay. You’ll find the energy. And that’s something that I don’t think most people – most adults – don’t know. That they can do that. When we go on hikes and we get to that point I say, “Okay, we’re going to stand here, and I’m going to count to three, and then we’re going to run. I know you can. We’re going to run, and we’re going to yell as we run, and we’re going to run up this mountain.” And you find that if you can get them over that hump and they yell and they run they’re laughing and then they’re walking again, and then when you get to the top of the mountain you can say, “See!? This is where we got to! And you guys were so tired and that was twenty minutes ago!”
We have a rule at the mountain because it’s often very cold at Whiteface and yet we all like to ski. You’re not allowed to talk about being cold. You can stay inside. But don’t complain. Don’t say the word “cold.” We all get in the gondola, and we can say “Wow, what’s the temperature!?” but saying “my feet are so cold!” No. I say, “then go in.” But don’t ski and complain. You can choose to ski, or you can choose to go in. And a lot of times when they were littler they would choose to go in. M. [younger daughter] especially would choose to go in. But then she’d see us come down, and we’d be laughing and skiing and she’d come back out again and she’d ski longer than I thought she would.
Please join us in for the second part of this interview on dancing through the pain, an apt metaphor for much of life by clicking here: /2012/05/dancing-through-pain-part-ii.html And please feel free to share your thoughts about pain, physical courage, and how you feel about your kids doing physical activities that may hurt them.

Horatio at the Bridge

One of the very popular tropes in action films is the lone fighter making a courageous last stand in order to buy time for others to get to safety.  “Go!  Save yourselves!” is the command through gritted teeth.  “I’ll stay and hold them off as long as I can!”  Typically the odds are wildly against this hero: an entire army, a savage monster, a powerful wizard.  “He’s never gonna make it,” someone in the retreating party will mourn.  “I’ll never meet anyone braver than him!”
It’s a popular tradition in stories of physical courage.  One of the most enduring versions that has been told again and again since Roman times is the legend of Horatio at the Bridge.
The mighty army of the Etruscans was marching toward Rome, which was still a young and small city.   Farmers and villagers from the surrounding countryside had fled in advance of the enemy, streaming across the bridge that spanned the river Tiber, seeking shelter within Rome’s walls.  “But what happens if the Etruscans cross the bridge?” the people wailed.  “They will tear down our walls and destroy us!”
A troop of Roman soldiers stood guard on the bridge, hearts pounding with suspense.  At last, over the crest of a hill showed a line of spears that grew taller and taller as the advancing soldiers marched forward.  The army came on inexorably, massive and terrible, the tramp of their feet booming like thunder.  Rome’s walls could not withstand an assault by such a force.  
Among the soldiers stood young Horatio, tall and proud.  “We must tear down the bridge,” he said to his companions.
“There’s no time, Horatio!”
“Tear it down, I’ll hold them off,” he replied, gripping his shield straps tight in his fist.   While the other soldiers raced to the safe side of the river and began hacking at the wooden bridge, the vanguard of the Etruscan army came within shouting distance.
“Who among you will fight in single combat!” Horatio cried, evoking the epic battle between Achilles and Hector before the gates of Troy.  “One soldier of Rome stands to fight your whole army!  Who among you will do the honor?!  Or are you an army of slaves, ordered to die by a tyrant?”
The Etruscans hung back,  unsure how to proceed.  Horatio could hear the frantic chopping behind him, and the groaning creak as weakened bridge timbers began to sag.  From among the ranks of the Etruscans, someone threw a dart, hitting Horatio in the eye.  Emboldened, the enemy surged forward, and several spears flew toward the lone hero.   Horatio warded them off with his shield.  Then, as he heard the bridge collapse with a great splash into the Tiber behind him, he dove into the river.  
The Romans who watched this show of bravery turned their faces away in grief.  Their city was saved, but how could Horatio survive falling blinded into the flooded Tiber in full armor?  “Wait! Look there!” came a triumphant shout.  And there, swimming powerfully across the churning river, was Horatio.  Cheers of victory greeted him when he reached the Roman shore, and forever afterward he was hailed as one of the greatest heroes of the Republic.

Failure Is Always an Option

I have been reflecting recently on how often I hear, “Failure Is Not An Option.” From earnest motivational posters to hard-bitten action films, this phrase is bandied about as if “failure” is tantamount to total annihilation, like the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star in “Star Wars.” No, we definitely don’t want that.

At the same time, I see chirpy messages like “Reach for the Stars!” “Go for it!” and “You Can Do It!”

So… which is it? It can’t possibly be both! The command, “Go for it, but for heaven’s sake don’t fail!” seems perfectly calculated to cause an epic choke and an epidemic of anxiety. Oh wait, that’s what we have, isn’t it? It is axiomatic that we learn more from our failures than from our triumphs, so how have we made any result short of first place so toxic?  Of course we always want our kids to do their best, but are they always clear on the difference between doing their best and doing the best? 

I recently entered a national contest – never mind what it was – and spent some time studying past winners on the website with my daughter. The skill and expertise demonstrated in those examples made my effort look pretty amateurish, and the Lovely K. and I agreed that my chances of winning looked pretty slim given the competition. So why do it? Why even try? 

My willingness to fail is very recent! Time was when I would do pretty much anything to avoid putting my standing as a winner at risk. That meant I had to restrict myself to a quite narrow range of things that I’m really good at, and steer clear of serious competition. One by one, other activities or interests withered away, killed by the life-sucking judgment of “not good enough.” Failure had too sharp a sting.

But as a parent, I see the harmful effects of the fear of failure in my daughter; there are plenty of things she shrinks back from trying, or things she throws in the towel on after a first failed effort. “Failure is not an option” means it’s better not to try than to come up short. And yet, if our reach exceeds our grasp we still come away with something in hand. Even if you don’t make it all the way to the top of the mountain, you still have a better view than you get at the bottom.

I sometimes suspect that we’ve created a rigid dichotomy around the concepts of winning and losing.  There’s first place (winner) and then there’s everything else (losers).  But really?  Would you really say that the Olympic athletes who don’t win a medal are losers?  That the kids who finish second, third and fourth (etc.)  in the National Spelling Bee are losers?   Success is measured in many ways, not just by a glossy first place ribbon.  I don’t advocate the “everybody gets a trophy,” standard, which rewards kids just for showing up.  But somewhere between Failure Is Not an Option and Everybody’s a Winner there is a happy medium, where hard work is recognized and applauded, and perseverance is a reward that will enrich your child’s entire life – not to mention what your child might learn along the way about what she is capable of, and who she is as an individual.

So I am setting my sights on some activities I will probably fail at, trying to summon each of the six types of courage in turn to risk disappointment, loss, blows to my ego, and possibly even some bumps and bruises as well. In some ways it’s a performance for an audience of one (my daughter), but I also know I’ll end up with a little bit of stardust on my fingers. Here I go: watch me fail!

Carnegie Heroes

If you ever want to give your faith in humanity a boost, take a look at the hero profiles on the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission’s website. What is the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission you ask? From their website:

The two-fold mission of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission: To recognize persons who perform acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada, and to provide financial assistance for those disabled and the dependents of those killed helping others.

Reading these profiles is truly inspiring, and you may begin to notice some themes running through these stories of ordinary citizens who performed extraordinary acts of courage – usually on behalf of strangers. Many of these heroes credit their family relationships with giving them the core belief that every life is worth saving. The influence of parents is clear in profile after profile. The youngest medal recipients of 2011, three teenage Florida boys who saved a woman from drowning, explicitly credit their parents. “I grew up with my dad helping people,” one of the young heroes told reporters. This is the influence of family connection and strong attachment.

A second theme is the influence of rehearsal, either mental rehearsal or actual practice. Another teen medal recipient credited the self-discipline he learned in baseball practice with helping him rescue a drowning man. Other recipients cite safety drills in childhood, or hearing stories of courage and service to others with inspiring them and encouraging them to act. It is because of this rehearsal that heroes are able to act “without thinking.” The thinking happens ahead of time.

A third theme I observed in these profiles was gratitude – not the gratitude of the people whose lives were saved, although of course that’s there! – but the gratitude of each of these heroes to have been able to help! That is a truly beautiful thing, in my opinion.

So do yourself a favor and read a few of these profiles. Share them with your kids. Who knows? Maybe one day the Carnegie folks will be honoring you.