The voice

Sometimes, we hear an unreliable narrator

“If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”

Vincent van Gogh

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard a voice in the back of my head.

It’s not even a voice, really. Not one that speaks in words or fully-formed sentences, anyway. It’s more of a feeling I feel on the tip of my shoulder, that seems to appear whenever I contemplate trying something new. It jumps in with its opinion even when I haven’t asked for it, sharing things like:

“Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

“I don’t know… you may not be ready to try that…”

“C’mon, you can’t be serious that you want to do that.”

Bear in mind, it doesn’t hit me over the head with a two by four. It’s subtler than that. It throws a drop of doubt into the water of something I’m dreaming about, just enough to make me stop and reconsider whether I think I really can do it.

In my junior year of high school, my history teacher — who doubled as our school’s varsity soccer coach — asked me to join the team. I told him I would, and stayed after school for practice. But when it came time to actually suit up for practice and go on the field, I panicked.

Who was I to think I could go out on the field and play with those guys? I thought to myself. I hadn’t played organized soccer since I was 7 or 8 years old. I hadn’t even touched a soccer ball in several years. And I was supposed to go out and expect to be able to do things the other people on the team could do, from day one?

So, I bailed. I put my things back in my car and drove home. I didn’t say anything about it to my parents, because I hadn’t told them I’d been asked to be on the team in the first place. I just tried to forget about it.

The next day, I ran into my history teacher again (because I was in his class). He asked, of course, why I hadn’t shown up for practice the day before. I replied that there’d been a mix-up, or that I had something I couldn’t get out of. (I can’t remember exactly, but I do remember fumbling for an excuse.)

My teacher looked at me for a moment, and then said, “why don’t you just come try it for one day. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come back.”

That took the pressure off, and so I did. It ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made, as I loved being on the team and playing the game. My last two years of school are some of my favorite memories in life — and they very nearly didn’t happen at all, if I had listened to the voice in the back of my head.

Sometimes, the voice might be right. Twenty years ago, I traveled to South Africa with a friend. On our drive through the country, we came upon the highest bungee jump in the world, the Boukrans Bridge, which stands some 700 feet over the Boukrans River below. My friend really wanted to do it, but I balked — and don’t regret it!

The first time I set out to train for a marathon, I heard the voice again. I was in my mid-twenties, and the longest distance I’d ever run was Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race. This time, it used my recent accomplishment against me: You’ve only run 6 miles at one time ever in your life… what makes you think you can run 26.2?

Thankfully, of course, I didn’t have to run 26.2 miles right out of the gate. Our training group followed a plan, starting with a 6-mile run. Then we added another mile the next week, and another mile the week after that. Before I realized it, I was running 10 miles at a time. I stopped worrying about whether I couldn’t do it, and that 10 became 12, 13 and then 14 miles.

It wasn’t long before we were running 20 miles. At one point, I looked back and thought, “what the hell has happened? How did I get to the point where I can actually run 20 miles without stopping?”

I was proud of myself. But the voice in the back of my head never went away. I thought all the training I had done would be a kind of proof that would make it fade away into the background for good. That once I crossed the finish line and completed 26.2, it would finally fall silent.

Well, that still hasn’t happened.

Even today, when a thought occurs to me about a goal I might want to reach for, I feel that familiar tap-tap-tap on my shoulder: Do you really think you can do this? C’mon, this is for people who know what they’re doing, who’ve been working on this for years… stop kidding yourself.

At this point, I’ve come to accept that the voice isn’t going away. But that’s okay; it’s a part of me. I can choose to struggle with it, or I can choose to invite it in and listen to it, knowing that often — most of the time, in fact — it can be an unreliable narrator (to borrow a term from literature).

That maybe I’m going to have to hear the doubts, and feel those doubts, but still find the courage to act anyway. And maybe… that’s how everyone feels when they go after a goal or a dream they’re not sure they can reach?

I hope you’ve had a great Wednesday so far and a great run out there, if you’ve had the chance — keep in touch and let me know how things are going.

Your friend,

— Terrell

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