24 July 2022

In spite of

Hitting dew point, fingertip feel and confronting the enemy of difficult

Instinctive responses towards doing the difficult but important things are surprisingly misleading, especially when the weather is cold and the sun is yet to rise.

A prime example of this for me are morning runs. On Wednesday earlier this week, the exercise was in particularly frigid surrounds.

The moment I had left my bed, I knew that the temperature on that day was lower than the already-low usual, but it became especially evident once I had stepped outside and my ears started tingling.

‘Oh boy, here we go.’ I exclaimed to myself while simultaneously mesmerised by the plumes of white mist emerging out of every exhale.

I started running very shortly after that, with the compelling desire to get just a little bit warmer than I had been while stationary. As a pleasant surprise, this evolved into a scenario of aligned incentives. The harder I ran, the warmer I got, the closer I could be towards being a little more comfortable while steeped in the discomfort.

From reading this, you might think that I am some crazy, brazen idiot for doing such things, but in reality, I had arrived to that moment prepared. The running gear I had on with me, even before stepping out the front door, was an important piece of the equation. I had running shoes, shorts, a warm but breathable long sleeve shirt and most importantly, gloves.

Sure, it was terrifying to step out into that cold but I also had the reassurance that, as uncomfortable as it might be, it ultimately was going to be manageable and not pose a critical risk to my wellbeing.

When the temperature is cold enough to reach below dew point, it is also a novel experience to observe the ‘steam’ that gets emitted from the evaporation of perspiration. It is weird to use the word ‘steam’ in this particular scenario, since there is no boiling kettle in sight, but on a micro level it is indeed the beads of perspiration that is vaporising from the heat of one’s body that leads to the observation. Similar to the white mist coming out of every exhale before, this steam forms as a result of the surrounding air not being able to hold any additional moisture, so a portion of it condenses out and becomes visible.

So, by the end of the run, there was the fire-breathing like sensation of white mist being exhaled and the body emitting more clouds as it tries to cool itself down with sweat. There was something unusually magical about this experience.

Magical, more so in the sense of striking awe and wonder at how things came to be rather than mystical and unknowable. The surrounding cold tries to submit the body by sucking away its heat and the body reacts by prioritising core temperatures and redirects energy from extremities (e.g the ears and hands), continually optimising itself to best adapt to the hand it is dealt.

The instinctive response to immersing oneself into cold is rational and predictable, which is to go back into warmth and to not do much. This makes sense from a biological perspective, as the body tries to revert to a default state of hibernation when the environment is actively seeking to steal away as much of its heat — optimising for a state of maximum energy conservation and minimum unnecessary expenditure. What lies on the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is very much unknown.

For me, this is where the real fun lies. It becomes an adventure, a mini expedition of sorts, created from something as simple as the task of going for a morning run.

And who is to say that hibernation is an optimal state of being for modern life?

The fact that it is so damn hard to get started, every single time, is the price one pays for acting out against the instinctive responses.

This is not to say that every good thing has to lie behind intimidating barriers of discomfort, or at least I very well hope not, but there are many things that come to my mind where the reward is sweeter when the journey of getting towards it was not as simple as one had expected in the beginning.

An ever-reliable reminder of this for me personally comes from my hobby of tinkering around with classic Japanese cars. The factors that hooked me in at the very beginning were the low financial barrier to entry, aesthetics and the enthusiast culture but what has kept me interested was the opportunity of maintaining, restoring and upgrading these machines with my own hands.

I am not an automotive expert, nor someone gifted with the art of doing this sort of stuff, but I am a learner, and tinkering with cars has evolved over time to become intensive and personalised lessons in doing the thing as opposed to passively reading, hearing or delegating away the things I would like to do.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the most profound and memorable experiences have come from fixing things that have already broken or triaging mistakes commissioned by yours truly. There is not much of a story to share with others from doing routine maintenance of engine oils and transmission fluids, but there is plenty of hard-earned insight that comes from being stranded on the side of a freeway late at night.

The motivation behind engaging in such a hobby is by no means masochistic, mind you. The hard things are not done for the sake of their difficulty, but for the greater rewards they ultimately lead to. For cars, this is the ‘fingertip feel’ of knowing what the machine sounds and feels like, of being defensively armed against adversity by knowing how to troubleshoot and instinctively take action when things go wrong and of the sunny Sunday morning cruises up in the hills.

There is a natural inclination within me towards celebrating hurdles overcome, hills taken and victories achieved, not from basking in comfort. Yet, the instinct whispers seductively about sleeping in, leaving the hills for another day, taking the easy way out.

The greatest temptation and fallacy is to avoid at all costs what appears difficult, but it is precisely within those experiences that lie those moments that are worth telling stories about, of the hills we have deliberately chosen to take, not the troughs that we mindlessly, arbitrary find ourselves sliding into.

Not all things have to be difficult, but not all seemingly difficult things are necessarily so.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings — nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run — 
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

- Rudyard Kipling