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I grew up in a small town about an hour west of Boston. I remember it vividly. The winding roads. The myriad ponds. The towering trees that watched from above like gargoyles. It was here my life got started — where my identity got constructed.
There’s an old picture of my mom holding me while trying to ice skate on one of those very ponds. At maybe three years old, it was my first exposure to the sport that eventually shaped much of who I was throughout adolescence: hockey.
As generally a fairly confused and frightened young man, it was only while playing hockey I felt a little clarity — a sense of meaning and purpose. The fog that captured the landscape of the ice in the early morning moved me. My unbeknownst leadership capacity that awoke touched me. The acceptance of me from my teammates, just by sharing a common goal, inspired me.
It was as close to bliss as I’d ever get.
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Over the years of playing and honing my craft — camp after camp, practice after practice — I became quite skilled. My coaches looked for me to push the pace, set the standard, and inject the life into an otherwise-empty game-plan.
This all worked against the teams we were better than, but for some reason, there was a level I just wasn’t willing to go to when the opposition was formidable. A heart I couldn’t bear wear on my sleeve. A leap severely lacking in faith.
An invisible force held me back—both in hockey, and in life. My mother referred to it as my “5th gear” — the higher level I was either unable, but mostly unwilling to go to.
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Upon reflection, the invisible force was always pulling me back. Something keeping me from placing my heart on the line or putting myself at issue. It retrospect, whatever this was kept me from being responsible for the results my absolute best produced. This force protected me and held me hostage at the degree of something wildly unremarkable, and wildly safe.
Nowadays, we have pretty firm grasp on what ordinary means. Derived from general expectations the public sets for one another on what it means to be a human being, there’s a plethora of actions that are simply par-for-the-course.
Yelling at a loved one in the heat of the moment. Harboring resentment for someone you’d rather not see be successful. Holding someone’s feet to the fire who made a mistake at your expense. All of these — coupled with bitching at people in traffic, challenging clients, and the wait staff — are part of the run-of-the-mill bucket that makes up some of life’s ordinary reactions towards people (all of which I’ve executed firsthand).
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More times than not, my ordinary game was good enough to get us by. We made the playoffs, we scored goals and celebrated, and we shared some powerful moments as a team. We just never reached the pinnacle — and I don’t mean the championship.
What my ordinary game kept us from was reaching the apex of why you play the game in the first place. The magic, the beauty, and the honor of charging side-by-side toward a goal much greater than a single person, that you have no guarantee of reaching and an even better chance of getting heartbroken in the process.
This is much of the same way my ordinary way of living got me by. When conflict wasn’t afoot, everything was fine. But when a test of my character was issued in the presence of others, I always let myself off the hook.
Whatever the status-quo or lowest-level response was, I initiated. I blamed. I got angry. I let frustration bury me to the point that I would routinely consider the day a total loss in the middle of the afternoon — and I made sure my vampiric, self-absorbed communication got the point across to everyone in sight.
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You probably notice my communication style was centered around protecting myself. The knee-jerk reaction is the most common, most universally accepted way of being. It’s safe. It doesn’t take much effort other than letting the human condition run amuck and best of all, it withholds yourself from others. You don’t give them the satisfaction of feeling heard, feeling understood, or even acknowledging them at all.
Yes, people make mistakes. People do shit we don’t understand. People even act like assholes from time to time. But unless it’s legitimate malice, serious physical harm, the majority of it can be categorized as pretty trivial.
Getting worked up, shutting down, or losing your center places you firmly in the category of ordinary. This was a hard pill to swallow for me. If I’m ordinary, then me being here is inconsequential to humanity — I’m neither adding nor taking away. If I’m inconsequential, then I’m not contributing. And if I’m not contributing, then what the fuck am I doing here?
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Back to the invisible force: I eventually figured out it existed as an unintended by-product of creating nothing in its place. I had no guiding standard to fall back on when things got challenging, so the invisible force ran the show.
I’ve stated I’m not perfect on more than one occasion in my writing — and quite frankly, that’s a cop-out. That’s something I tell myself to I make it okay to not give my best and accept the consequences that come with it.
If we’re constantly disproving what’s impossible from a medical and technological standpoint these days, why not disprove what’s impossible from a humanity standpoint? Why not aim to be absolutely, positively, 100% not-at-all impacted by others and surrender to the standard of who we say we are at all times?
The benefit here would be two-fold: 1) you yourself reaching a level of freedom and autonomy never experienced before and 2) your unwavering commitment to your standard would inspire and free up those around you — especially those of which you’re at odds with.
Remaining centered no matter the degree of annoyance, displeasure, or animosity, is truly a 5th gear for human beings. The minute the temper gets lost, the magic dissipates — and everyone that witnesses unconsciously lowers the bar for both themselves and others.
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My mom told me about my 5th gear my entire hockey career — spanning close to twenty years — and I never once upshifted. I may not be able to go back and elevate during my playing days again, but I can certainly honor her by upshifting the level of human being I am today.
My standard, my promise to her is to be extraordinary — to stand for others seeing what’s possible for themselves. A commitment to excellence in the bland, drab, and mundane day-to-day. A compassionate presence that acknowledges what everyone is dealing with. And a powerful knowing that even when I have an inkling that I deserve better, I’m more than fine and it’s only temporary.
Paying attention to the thoughts that say something’s unfair or someone’s crazy takes away all of my ability to make a difference. It may even be valid — it’s just not helpful.
Letting go is difficult to do because in a way, it can get collapsed as settling or forgoing one’s needs — a fear of loss of respect, reputation, or importance. However, when you can really get in your heart that you’re enough, you’re okay, and nothing’s missing, there’s no longer anything to compare against. You simply let it go.
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Right now is it. The past is a distant, heavily subjective memory and the future isn’t here yet. We can only cause this moment.
Other people are busy — it’s up to you to take responsibility for how this is going to go.
Grab ahold the stick-shift, and push up with a vigor like never before.
I hope for your (and everyone’s) sake,
It gets stuck in 5th.