The Starting-Line Miracle

What makes hard decisions hard? What makes leaps of faith so … faithy? When people make big commitments, decisions, or changes in their lives, what is it, exactly, that requires so much?

You can move, you can get married, you can get divorced, you can start and stick to a healthy-eating-and-exercise program; you can switch careers, you can switch genders, you can have a baby or go back to school. We see people doing it all the time, and we’ve done it ourselves, and we always marvel a little bit when someone pulls it off, especially if it’s been a while since our own last life change.

My decision to quit my job to hike the AT has caused more marveling than I expected it to. People get teary, they call it inspiring, they say they admire me and envy my courage. (Or they touch me tenderly on the forehead and ask if I’m okay.) People are so unabashedly proud of me, and while that’s nice—who would turn down adulation?—it feels unearned. The hike starts in April, so I haven’t done anything yet.

Or … have I?

A bumper sticker caught my eye right around the time I decided to thru-hike. It was an oval shape, you know, the kind that might have a mileage number or the two-letter abbreviation for some great vacation spot. Only it had a lot of writing so I had to inch my own car forward to read it. It said,

“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

It’s a John Bingham quotation from No Need for Speed: A Beginner’s Guide to the Joy of Running.

To be honest, at first this gave me a little eye-roll. The courage to start? Come on. How hard is starting? Two thousand people start an AT thru hike every year. They’re not the miracle—the miracle are the very few of these (about a quarter) who finish. Amirite? The sentiment seemed squishy-wishy in an every-kid-gets-a-medal kind of way. The courage to start. Pfft.

But that reaction lasted less than a second, because in fact it had taken me almost a miracle just to decide.

Starting was still months away (46 days still from today). When I thought of that, I got that little hot-prickle thing behind my eyes, the one that signals my body’s recognition of something very true: I could still very well not start, it could still very well take a miracle to get me to Georgia. There is certainly a lot of planning and training and buying and organizing to do, not to mention mental preparation and the psychic work of managing the saboteur in my head shouting, ARE YOU CRAZY YOU CAN’T QUIT YOUR JOB WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU WHO ARE YOU?

And so on.

Deciding was big, and staying decided is big. No, I’m not thinking of changing my mind, but no matter how hard one tries to think through every implication of a big change, one misses some. Then, in the weeks and months following the decision, they choose random moments to smack you on the ass:

Like that random moment you discover the trail is as long as 83 marathons. (You ran one marathon. You hated it.)

Or the moment it occurs to you your plants all need homes.

Or the 3 a.m. moment a toothache wakes and reminds you that you haven’t been to your dentist for three years, and didn’t he mention back then that your wisdom teeth should probably come out, and don’t you need to get Obamacare before you go?

Or that random everyday every-minute moment you wonder how you’re going to pay your bills without an income when you return.

So, come to think of it, yeah. G’head and adulate. It is a miracle that I decided. And after all the mind-fucks and worries and administration and planning, it will be a miracle to start.

The best part about adopting this perspective is knowing that everything after the start will be whiskers and kittens. Having nothing to do but walk will be a true wonder.

And finishing? Finishing will be gravy.

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