When I was in the Air Force, I used to tell my pilots that accident reports and Air Medal citations both started out with the same phrase: “With complete and total disregard for his own safety, and that of his aircraft and crew…”. The difference was the description, either of heroics or ignorance, in the paragraphs that followed. Determination is much the same.
I started thinking about this yesterday at mile 25 on my long bike ride for the week. I had taken a new route, and part of it retraced the path of a run I did a few years ago with a man who was very determined… but for all the wrong reasons. He was the husband of a woman we knew, and he was also a chronic alcoholic. He’d been in and out of rehab a number of times, and was back “off the wagon.” I guess the term for someone like him is “highly functioning”, because he had run a successful financial planning office, had a very nice house, expensive car… the whole package. But things had begun to unravel lately, and his wife was getting desperate. She asked me to see if I could befriend him and convince him to change.
We’d met for coffee a couple of times, talked about some issues, and I was encouraging him to go to AA meetings for more specific, educated support. I thought for a while that we might be making some headway, when one Saturday he asked me if I wanted to go for a run. Now, I don’t think he was much of a runner, really, and I was seriously out of shape, but I agreed, hoping it might help build some rapport. Wrong. His real goal was to run me into the ground and prove that I “was no better than him.” I guess the thinking was that, while he might be an alcoholic, I was just an overweight loser, so who was I to tell him how to live his life. He was determined to prove that nobody else could tell him what to do. I stuck with him pretty well, although I needed a few walking breaks to survive. In the end, he broke off all contact after the run. He lost his business, his house and car, and ultimately his family. Last I heard, he’s still in and out of the bottle. But nobody can tell him how to live. He’s determined.
I’d like to think I’m determined, too, but in a healthier way. I’m determined to find ways to fit in the workouts I need to hit my triathlon goal and accomplish my Chasing Fifty Challenge, but not at the expense of my family and my other priorities. I’m determined to become a better husband as my wife continues to patiently endure after almost 29 years of marriage (many of which included periods of less positive determination). We have to be determined to stick with an undertaking like triathlon, or running marathons, or any sport that requires hard work and sacrifice for only intrinsic rewards of feeling better and a sense of accomplishment. So when does determination go from a positive to a negative? I’m sure there are psychological studies about such things. But as I was on my run this morning, a few criteria came to mind.
- Determination toward anything becomes negative when it begins to displace other noble priorities in your life. Noble is an archaic word to use, but it seemed to fit the best. Priorities like faith, family, and friends all add to our lives. When we start to push them out to make more room for something less critical, it should be a warning sign. Certainly even those priorities can become distorted… it’s all about balance. To the man in my story above, his determination to prove that no one could tell him what to do, including drinking, cost him everything.
- Determination is negative when it becomes destructive to your own well-being; when it moves to obsession. This is as true of exercise and diet as it is of alcoholism and drug addiction. Determination to be thin that becomes starvation, compulsion with getting that last mile even though you’re exhausted and need a rest day… there’s a line between mental toughness and obsession for all of us. And it’s not carved in stone. We have to monitor our drive to do “just a little more” as closely as we might our resting heart rate or weight. Economists track factors they call “leading” and “lagging” indicators of financial health. Obsession is a “leading” indicator of a life out of balance. Things are about to go south unless something changes.
I’m sure there are lots of holes in my logic, here, and lots better ways of saying what I’m trying to get across. I’m definitely not advocating a life of aimless wandering with no goals or aspirations. What I am proposing is a life lived in balance, with priorities in place that mutually support each other. In fact, I’m determined to achieve it.