Monday, October 17, 2011

Tomorrow We Will Run Faster

"Tomorrow we will run faster -- stretch out our arms farther ..."  
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

It was sometime last winter on a backcountry ski day with Andrew – one of those days with clear blue skies, chest-deep powder, and no one around but my favorite adventuring partner. In other words: perfect.

I recognized this perfection, this utter happiness, and breathed it in. Held on to its every passing moment. Not just because it was glorious, but because I knew it wouldn’t last.

“When do think was the best time in your life – when you were happiest for the longest amount of time?” I asked suddenly.

We’d just spent 30 minutes laboriously breaking a fresh skin track and now stood at the top of a ridge, looking out over a wide, white landscape of mountains, preparing for the reward of a beautiful float down through the powder.

“I mean,” I felt the need to explain, “it’s just so hard for me to feel content. Satisfied. It’s not that I’m unhappy a lot, it’s just that I always have this feeling of anxiety that there’s something more I need to do, to achieve.”

I find such beautiful locations, ones that require such effort to find, to be the perfect settings for these kinds of soul-digging conversations.

Not long after, I read this post by Nathan Bransford which struck such a chord with me that thoughts of it have been marinating in my brain since reading it seven months ago. Mr. Bransford proposes that writers, by their very nature, are strivers – those not content to simply live, but to always reach for something more. His writes what has become my favorite recent quote about writing:

“Writing is an act of getting down on your hands and knees and pushing on the ground and hoping the world spins on a slightly different axis. It’s the art of not taking life for granted and trying to make something, anything change.”

This feels so exactly, completely true.

I began to wonder about myself not just as a writer, but as a runner, too. Even after a nearly perfect race, (which is rare) the sense of satisfaction never lasts. Always, there is something new to accomplish, some new goal to occupy ones attention. And this is good because if there wasn’t, we would never get better. Never run faster, never go farther. This is what moves us forward as runners – this inner need for something more. It’s what makes us improve.

When the mind dwells on a certain topic, it finds that everything relates. So, it was not surprising that while reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl that same week, this quote jumped out at me:

“For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”

And I began to wonder – is it not just writers, not just runners? Is it all of us?

I was especially intrigued by the assertion that our inability to be satisfied is a talent. Again, this is what moves us forward. Think about the great achievers of the world, whomever you see as having accomplished big things. They were people who were not content to rest on the glory of their early successes. They always strove for something more.

So perhaps dissatisfaction is a talent. Still, I have to think it’s one best tempered with an attempt at balance and an appreciation for one’s blessings.

Because Mr. Bransford’s post related the idea of striving to The Great Gatsby, and to F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, it came to mind while recently watching John Green’s video on Gatsby. If you’re familiar with the book, his is an excellent, and concise, interpretation that is fun to watch.

As I followed the links on the serpentine path of the internet chain, I eventually watched the American Masters episode on Fitzgerald, “Winter Dreams.” It was fascinating! I learned what Mr. Bransford had already asserted – that Fitzgerald himself was a striver, like the characters of his stories, someone always reaching for more. And in spite of all this striving, Fitzgerald felt that the golden moment – what we think we want – can never live up to our dreams. The important thing is the dreaming.

“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” –This Side of Paradise

To some extent I think the “becoming” holds more appeal than the “being” because real life is much more challenging than our dreams. It’s messier, sometimes uglier, and often more mundane.

In spite of all of this, I think it’s far too easy to glorify the tortured artist, and I don’t think a person has to be unhappy in order to feel driven. I hope not anyway. Jay Gatsby himself was described as having an “extraordinary gift for hope.” Maybe that’s the flipside of dissatisfaction, the positive spin. From our discontent, hope is born.

I know happiness comes from within. I know this. It comes from living deliberately, appreciating the small moments, doing meaningful work, and developing strong relationships with other people. This is why I could stand at the top of that mountain with Andrew and live that happiness so fully, even while accepting that it may be short-lived. 

I also know that this inner feeling of need, the desire for something more, to do something more, can drive a girl nuts if she lets it.

I have a recording of a live U2 concert. At one point in the show, in order to introduce the next song, Bono declares to the crowd, “I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty good about the fact that I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I feel good about it. I do know that I have an extraordinary hope that I won’t leave this earth without having affected, just the tiniest bit, the tilt of its axis.


What do you think? Are humans by their very nature dissatisfied? Could this be a good thing?


  1. Just a beautiful post, Gretchen. Makes me want to go outside and tilt the axis a little bit, too :)

    I think we are generally a dissatisfied species, yes. And, I do think it's a good thing as long as we allow ourselves to dwell on the pure satisfaction we find each day in whatever it may be. Low grade dissatisfaction keeps us moving forward, just like your post mentions. Otherwise we'd all just be a bunch of bumps on a log! Dreams keep us in motion, and, as runners, we sure do enjoy motion :)

    Not sure if that makes any sense written out, but it does in my head, heh ;)

  2. I think there is a great combination of being content and strive to become better at the same time. The "content" part is to keep oneself from going so mad that the forward progress won't occur. But not enough content to simply stay where one is. It's a balance. I believe while the most brilliant people in our world were not content at all and drove the progress in huge steps, they also drove themselves into mad houses - could they have served better if they didn't? Or may be their presence on Earth was to be exactly that, mad and madly driving forward?
    Keep being unsatisfied. And leave tracks of changes behind. Hopefully, in hearts of more than a handful. Even if the progress itself will not happen by my own "not completely content", may be I'll inspire others:)

  3. Paige - Dreams keep us in motion, YES! And perfect observation about runners liking motion. Maybe that's part of this need to run.

    Also, I like your term "low grade dissatisfaction." Yup, in this particular case, low grade is good!

    Olga - I totally agree with you - it's all an attempt to find that balance between pushing for something more, and still being happy with what we have. For me, the pendulum tends to swing a bit in either direction. But fortunately I don't think I'm crazy enough to drive the progress of the world in huge steps.

  4. Oh. My. Goodness. Let me count the ways I love this post ...

    Cool intro quote
    Steinbeck reference
    Sweet U2 reference (to one of my favorite songs ever)
    Literary symbolism (from one of my favorite books ever)
    Meaningful introspection
    Beautiful prose
    Two subjects - writing and running - that are dear to my heart

    I think this is one of the best you've ever done, chica. Thank you so much for expressing all of this - I relate to every word of it.

    I also officially take back what I said earlier. You don't suck anymore.

  5. Perhaps it's the fate of the creative person: Always trying to fit your present situation into the more perfect (or more whole or more satisfying or something) idea of it in your head -- if that makes sense. You use your mind creatively (writing) and your body creatively (skiing to untouched places), so you have a double whammy dose! I think it's all good as long as you keep doing what you're doing and snapping into the moment (right here, right now) every now and then.

  6. Once again, Gretchen, a most excellent blog. BLINK!

  7. Really fantastic post, Gretchen.

  8. Donald - Glad I could redeem myself. ;)

    Pam - I think that was Nathan's thought as well - that it had something to do with being a creative person. Makes a certain amount of sense.

    Teresa and Hank - Thanks! :)

  9. Very thought-provoking stuff. In fact, this is one post I didn't want to comment on too quickly because I didn't want to risk that act putting an end to the thinking you provoked. I think that's a sure sign you're doing something really good here.

    Maybe this will seem pessimistic, but my outlook is pretty close to what Camus talks about in the Myth of Sisyphus. Life is absurd yet beautiful in its struggle.

    A few of the other references this post triggered were the end of Candide:

    Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide:

    "There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts."

    "Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but let us cultivate our garden."

    and Boethius as channeled through 24 Hour Party People:

  10. Well Stac, you've provided a very thought provoking comment in return, which I totally appreciate. I've had many a grand conversation/debate about Camu's Sisyphus, albeit not for quite some time, so I love your reference. It's not even just the absurdity of life commentary he makes, but the possibility that Sisyphus must have had some happiness (some hope) in spite of being doomed to an eternity of frustration. It highlights Fitzgerald's idea that it is the becoming, rather than the being, that is important. I sort of think that is the opposite of pessimistic, actually.

    Anyway, thanks for adding to my internal conversation here. This one is kind of a never ending topic, you know? Perhaps we'll get to revisit it on a long run sometime in the future.

    And I love the other references. Great video clip - adding Party People to the Netflix queue. Boethius and his Wheel. Ha! Good stuff.

    Also, I must add, that I adore the fact that you are a connoisseur of things classical and literary along with with those of modern popular culture. Such a lovely combination in a person.

  11. How many times can I comment that this is a terrific post before the kudos lose their luster?!

    I think our ability to reason (and rationalize) are both a blessing and a curse. It gives us the ability to a appreciate life on a higher level, but also to sabotage it by overthinking instead of following our feelings like other species.

  12. I wonder if our balance has tipped too far to the side of dissatisfaction. Studies are showing that if we can be more grateful for the lives we lead, then we will live happier lives. See Is happiness what we are really after here on this Earth? If you ask a parent what they want for their children, would they not answer "health and happiness"? And if they don't, why the heck not?!?

    I have recently come to recognize that I have trouble "living in the moment." I have worked to do so more, but only with moderate success... need to keep working at it! I can say that I am best at living in the moment when I am out on a long run or ski, and it usually takes 60-90 minutes to settle my brain into enjoying said moments! Can I get that "settle in" time down to 5-10 minutes? I am dissatisfied with my progress! Can I learn to enjoy other moments in just as well? Will mindful gratitude help?

    I love this article by the gazillionair owner of Patagonia: I want to write something clever about how it ties into this topic, but I will live that as an exercise for the reader.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Gretchen! (I also love the U2 reference!)


  13. Anne - Oh, those things never lose their luster with me! :)

    I don't know that I overthink things a lot, it's just the dwelling on what's missing instead of focusing on all the wonderful things I already have that tends to get to me. It just feels negative. And yet, any real long-lasting sense of contentedness eludes me.

    Helen - I do think running, pushing our limits, and even just being in the wilderness are all good pathways to being in the moment. It is something I work on as well, and sometimes it feels easy. Hooray! It would be easier if those beautiful, in-the-moment times weren't so short lived, but I do think it's just part of being human.

  14. This is a fantastic post. I love The Great Gatsby. Thinking about it always makes me delightfully sad. I enjoyed your thoughts here.

  15. Thanks, Jaimie. I love that description, "delightfully sad." Very apt. Well, Gatsby's a classic for a reason.

  16. Gretchen,

    I clicked over from Nathan Bransford's blog, and want to say that I really love what you've written here. The running, and writing, and skiing, and searching and pressing toward more really connects with me. Thank you for sharing. Press on!

  17. Jennifer - Thank you, and thanks for reading! It's always good to hear from other writer-adventurers.