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Karen M. Wyatt, M.D. Headshot

What Marathon Runners Can Teach Us About Coping With Suffering

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We are picking up the pieces once again from a great tragedy that has taken innocent lives and shattered our sense of safety in the world. Again we see before our eyes that what is good and noble on the Earth can be brought down in an instant by the evil that lurks in the shadows.

The bombing that occurred at the finish line of the venerable Boston Marathon is deeply ironic in that it threatened those who had already proven their greatness by running 26.2 miles, along with the supporters who cheered them on. Many of those runners who were nearing the finish line were already carrying stories of triumph over tragedy. They were running on Patriots' Day to celebrate a personal victory or commemorate a deep loss or champion a heartfelt cause.

Having run two marathons in the past, I know firsthand the dedication and inner fortitude it requires to train for and complete a marathon. What marathon runners know about suffering can help us all learn how to cope with this tragedy and rise above it:

1. You must be willing to change yourself. Marathon training requires a new schedule, new priorities, new diet, and a new way of looking at life. Surviving any tragedy requires you to open up to the possibility of change and even to celebrate that change. Many of the problems in our society arise because people demand that things around them change, but are unwilling to change themselves.

"You cannot change a single thing on this Earth except yourself. And when you do change yourself... it changes everything."

2. Change happens one step at a time. No one can become a marathon runner overnight. It takes patience, time and a step-wise process to train the body to perform at a high level for 26.2 miles. How much more then does life itself require patience, time, and taking simple steps?

"You must overcome your need for instant gratification and prepare yourself for 'the long haul' of life."

3. Be passionate about the goal without attachment. Training for a marathon, like surviving a tragedy, is never a sure thing. There are no guarantees that the runner will make it all the way to the race or be able to finish it after starting. But the possibility of failure is not a deterrent to the training process, and marathon runners are able to stay true to the goal even when there is no certainty of getting there.

"You have to be willing to stay on the path even when you don't know for sure where it is leading you."

4. Commitment must override comfort. Many marathon runners have to endure injuries, illness and failure on their path toward successful completion of the run. Training itself, even on the best days, is a difficult process that requires discipline and focus. Many aspects of our society promote pleasure and comfort as achievements, without an appreciation for effort and determination.

"You must choose commitment to your goal over comfort in the moment if you want to change yourself and the world."

5. Don't run away from suffering. Marathon training is all about learning how to manage suffering to enhance strength and endurance. The best athletes know where the balance lies for them between discomfort and overexertion, which is the point of maximum growth. The attempt to avoid suffering at all costs leads to addiction and hopelessness, which are common problems undermining our society.

"You cannot achieve greatness or fulfill your true life purpose without suffering."

When senseless tragedy befalls us -- which seems to be happening frequently these days -- it is important to remember the larger picture of life. These moments in time that would seem to crush us can also bring out the sweetness and strength we carry inside -- like grapes being prepared to become fine wine.

We must accept the crushing forces brought to us by life and allow ourselves to be broken, so that we can emerge from our own process of change and transform everything around us. The world needs us now -- there is no time to wait.

Visit Dr. Wyatt's website at www.karenwyattmd.com to subscribe to her newsletter.

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