This Is Why We Freeze
In whatever area of your life you’re convinced you’re behind in, I want you to know something.
You are not behind, your pacing is just different from the expectations you, and, perhaps, our society, has.
A story to illustrate my point:
What the T.E.S.T. Program taught me about being afraid of wolves, being ahead and being behind.
When I was 9 years old, in grade 4, we had a special guest come to my catholic public school and give a presentation about a skiing program for kids and teens. I was so impressed by what he was sharing that I went home that afternoon and told my parents I wanted to join.
The Territorial Experimental Ski Training (T.E.S.T.) Program was created by Father Mouchet, an Oblate priest from eastern France, who came to Canada in 1946, and, from 1955 to 1982 he served in a small Vuntut Gwich’in village at the very top of the Yukon Territory (Canada) called Old Crow.
Before coming to Canada, Father Mouchet developed a love for cross country skiing while serving on the French Ski Corps during World War II and wanted to share this love with the community of Old Crow. He was known for praising the exceptional hardiness and physical fitness of the Vuntut Gwich’in people: “Old Crow skiers have the ability to find a source of energy that we don’t know exists.”
So he began by organizing an informal ski program for youth and by 1967, with the support of the Yukon Territorial Government and the education system, he founded T.E.S.T., and later travelled to Whitehorse and Inuvik to set the same program up in those communities.
The T.E.S.T. program was so extremely successful in training worldclass competitive skiers (and runners) that at least three Vuntut Gwich’in women (from a village of only 250-ish people) competed at an international level, including the Olympics.
So in 1987, when I came home excited about this program, my parents were excited too. We weren’t really a skiing family, or a running family. We were very much an active family though, and my parents were smart, smart, smart.
I’m the firstborn of two parents who grew up in dysfunctional families, mired in poverty, and my young parents, 28 and 31 at the time, with 4 young children, were devoted believers in the great promise of the North American 1980s – that if you work hard enough, if you’re a good enough person, if you strive and keep educating yourself enough – you can bootstrap yourself out of circumstances you’re born in, and move into the middle, or even the upper class, make enough money to be comfortable in life, and bring everyone else along with you.
Once a week during the school year, every Thursday after school I’d go to the front of the schoolyard and wait for the citybus to pick myself and the 2 other kids in the program up, ride for 15 minutes, then get off outside an elementary school in a different neighbourhood, where one of the two Whitehorse T.E.S.T. teachers ran the program.
We were a range of kids between the ages of 9 and 14, and when it was winter we’d ski, and when it was autumn and spring we’d run.
Our little group’s teacher was not Father Mouchet, who seemed kind yet firm, but one of the elementary school’s teachers, a tall, handsome, stern man.
Winter in the far north is very, very dark. By the time we’d pile into the gear room, change into our skiing clothes, get our skis waxed and start walking across the road to the wilderness hillside trails rimming the neighbourhood of Riverdale, it would be dusky, and not long after, dark, dark, dark.
I was the slow kid.
In a program designed to get and keep kids active, fit and engaged with their bodies and with winter, many excelled, kept up with the pack and led the way. But I was the slow kid, just trudging along, struggling to keep up.
In my memories I’m usually dead last, or in a cluster of the last 2 or 3 skiers.
I always felt like I was behind, because I was literally behind my peers, watching them speed ahead, up and down and around corners.
I didn’t like our teacher. One day, perhaps out of frustration that we weren’t moving at a similar pace, he said something about how if we didn’t keep up the wolves would get us. This wasn’t a group with two teachers, one at the front, one at the back, bookending the kids. This group had one teacher, who was always near the front.
So every time I’d start to fall behind on the twisting, winding, forested ski trails we trained on – in the dusky dark – I’d remember those words and my imagination would go wild.
That’s when the panic would set in. “I’m so behind, I’m so slow, I can’t keep up, the wolves will get me!”
Those thoughts would chant through my head and I’d pick up the pace of my ski swishes and dig my ski poles in and push off more firmly, getting wobbly and losing my balance as I sped up, and then, just as I’d round the corner and see the group, stopped, waiting, resting, and I’d start to catch up with them, they’d be off again, and I’d be behind, again, without a moment to rest and catch my breath.
This feeling of being behind sucks.
Two weeks after I joined I decided I wanted to quit. My parents made me stay in the program for 2 years. They were so excited about the opportunity for the 13-year old grade eighters to take a two-week trip to Father Mouchet’s French village – the possibility of travel and different cultural experiences, which they’d never had.
I wanted to go on that trip too, but I didn’t want to always be the last one, struggling to keep up, never getting a break.
After I finally quit the program I also quit skiing and I quit running and everytime I thought it might be fun to go with friends I couldn’t get over this knotted up feeling in my belly that it wouldn’t be fun, so I stayed away until, at the age of 33, I finally decided to start skiing again. And I discovered I loved it.
When I started skiing again, I only skied with my 8 year old daughter, a friend, or by myself.
I’m a trudger. I’m slow. But now I really don’t care that I’m slow.
Because this is the most important thing – I go slow and I never, ever feel like I’m behind. Ever.
Because I enjoy going slow, I don’t go skiing with people who want to go fast. It’s not fun.
I ski for the pleasure and beauty of gliding on snow instead of taking steps, of moving through forests of trees topped with pillows of white snow, of marveling at the tiny birds flitting about in the cold.
I don’t ski to achieve. I don’t ski to do my ‘personal best’ or break any records for my age group, or any other currently deeply uninteresting idea (to me.)
I’ve reflected a lot on this experience of being behind.
Because in other areas of my life, I’ve been the one who is ‘ahead.’ Catching onto things faster than my peers. The ‘smart’ one.
I felt a lot of pride in being ‘smart’ and ‘ahead.’
But the problem with being behind and being ahead is that it’s predicated on the behaviour of the group. The average.
I was only behind, in the skiing program, because, in that collection of kids, I wasn’t as physically fast. If I’d been the oldest, maybe I’d have been one of the fastest. If the combination of kids had been otherwise, maybe I’d have been the average one, and then I would have had a different mindset about who I was and what my skills were like. But in that particular configuration, I was the slow one, and slow ones don’t get rewarded for anything, because in our culture we desire bigger, badder, faster, stronger!!! So we rewards all things better, bolder, speedier!!
So let’s look at your own ideas of being behind. In your creative work, your life path, your employment, your family, whatever it is.
Where do you feel like you’re behind? And by whose standards are you measuring that?
Where do you feel like you’re ahead? And, again, by whose standards are you measuring that?
What if, instead, you went inward and measured your sense of pacing against your own needs, at this moment, then assessed your standards accordingly?
You might discover that, although you think you’re behind and need to catch up by working hard and doing more, your bodypsyche is saying ‘I’m so tired, I just need you to rest and play and stay off screens for a good 6 months!!!” In which case, are you actually behind? Maybe you’re ahead productively of where your bodypsyche needs to be, and the best way to ‘catch up’ is to actually to drop everything and release the grip of pressure and desire so you can actually rest?
Or you might discover that although you think you’re ahead, you’ve been doing the bare minimum and you’ve generated a lot of fluffy substance, but you haven’t allowed yourself to slow down to a pace that will generate material with more depth.
In which case, slowing down the productive culturally valued busywork will mean you look like you’re doing less, but in the long run, it’ll allow you to get ahead by waiting for the complexities to surface, then working with them.
Or, you’re a long-distance runner competing in short races against sprinters? Of course you’re behind. It’s simply the wrong venue.
So I want to encourage you to not compare yourself to where you think you ‘should be’ in terms of your big, ambitious, creative projects.
I want to encourage you to take the pressure off.
Try to acknowledge where your desires and this constant cultural pressure for productivity and busy-ness are taking over, then tune yourself inwards, assess what your true right timing and pacing is, and honour that. Even if it looks and feels like ‘falling behind.’
Because, really, if we’re fretting all the time about being behind, we’re devoting all of our creative energy to the fretting rather than the creative work. And that’s the thing that’ll really make us fall behind.
Ways to work with me:
After teaching my much-loved Outline Your Memoir workshop over 15 times live, in-person and online, I’ve turned this free 2 hour workshop into a pre-recorded and on-demand workshop. If you haven’t taken it yet, you can do so by clicking here.
If you’ve taken it and found it helpful, feel free to forward it to anyone you know who might like to take it. Thanks!
Please note – the first 5 minutes are a little blurry but then the recording clears up.
A Winter Solstice gift: Honouring the Darkness is a series of 10 daily contemplative e-mails, ending on winter solstice (December 21st.) It’s intended to offer you a way to explore themes of darkness as we move towards the longest night of the year. You can learn more and sign up here.