The first time I ran 3 miles was during a typical Houston summer, hot and humid. It was just past one, past the hottest time of day but still above 90, still hot enough to see the light shimmering in the liminal space between the planes where your eyes focused. I started cross country in middle school to follow my brother’s footsteps, and I kept with it because I figured it was a good way to keep myself fit. I was quite possibly the opposite of the picture of health then, so I did my duty by rounding out the back of races and practices. That was okay because we weren’t super competitive—all that mattered was that I kept with it—that I committed to keeping with it. Things changed the summer before I entered a new high school, a place where cross country was a no-nonsense, state-competitive program. I remember my stomach twisting into a million knots, my breath tripping over itself, and the organ stampede threatening to break out as my mom drove me to a summer practice. I didn’t know then that we were running 3 miles. I was content with my slow and steady 1.5, thanks very much. I recall seeing the juniors and seniors pull up. An intense air muddled with an apparent nonchalance hung around them, their sinewy legs simultaneously relaxed and tensed. It was the air of practiced piety to the sport, to the way of life.
That first year I improved leaps and bounds. It passed by in a blur—the rhythmic beat of rubber against the hard pavement, the shockwave shaking off the crusty fear that solidified on loose jersey tank tops and far-too-short short-shorts in the pre-dawn chill. The army-enhanced bark of Coach Kerley resonating through the suffocating waves of hot humidity, and the fleeting moments of intense contentment following an intense workout. I was caught in a trance, following the regiment of waking, studying, painful living, and sleeping. Rinse and repeat. Work and rest. Commit to toil.
That blissful yet forced automatic operation didn’t last long. Soon enough, the stomach acrobatics had returned with dreading the end of the school day because it signaled the start of my regularly scheduled torture session. Each day, my motivation sapped further. It was an endless drain. We trained every week, all year long. We even had a schedule that we were supposed to follow during the summer away from school, a personal quota of mileage—an independent study of the art of running. Now, I’m familiar with the professional nomenclature of “burnout.” Then, I only knew how to push farther and reach further and fail harder and spiral deeper into the depths of frustration with my situation, and, ultimately, with myself.
I was taught that hard work would bring you riches. That effort was the key to success in whatever you did. I never even considered the question of what I wanted to dedicate my effort to, never questioned the responsibilities I found myself committed to. New commitments popped up every day, a wonderful surprise due to my inability to say no to requests that came along my way. Every day became a step further down, another day of little progress and increased yelling, another day of feeling more lost, more trapped in a paradox. The sort where you tell yourself you want something so bad, almost as if you need to convince yourself, while your body refuses to listen. All in all, a pointless argument from the start.
The paradox was that the more effort I put in, the worse I did, and the worse I did, the worse I felt. The worse I felt, the more effort I felt I had to put in, and around and around it goes. That trite saying about the hammer and the nails comes to mind: if all you have is effort, then everything looks like a hill for you to climb, something to conquer if you invest enough work. I was investing as much as I could muster, and I was pulling out some used-car salesman tactics to strong-arm my body into investing more, everything from classical conditioning attempts at giving myself rewards after a good workout to visualizing a blissful state of being in the midst of all the pain. The problem was that my mind was trying to convince my body when I really needed to convince my core. My heart wasn’t in it. Every movement, every choice, felt sluggish, like when we put on yellow, buoyant belts and ran laps underwater.
The situation was an ultimate lose-lose. To cope, I learned to embrace the numbness of indifference, to quarantine the disappointment to the surface-level at the cost of my emotional expression. I chose to cut myself off from my emotional instincts to avoid the crushing weight of frustration. My relationship with cross country shifted from a commitment to an obligation.
Although my ability to recognize these situations has improved, I still find myself stuck in this cycle of obligation instead of commitment. I feel obligated to say yes to every friend gathering that comes my way even if it’s a day where I’d prefer to stay home and write or cook or just laze around and do absolutely nothing. I feel obligated to monitor my behavior and filter my thoughts, curating my authentic emotions to expose ones that match an image of someone put together, someone who gives off the air of everything coming naturally to them, who doesn’t need to bother anyone with requests for help. I obsess over how to phrase a message to tastefully decline yet express gratitude and a dash of i-really-do-wish-i-could-be-there. I qualify all my nos with probabilistic and squishy crutches: probably can’t, don’t think, might just. They are protective charms, trinkets to guard against the disappointment of letting someone down or putting on the wrong image. I feel obligated because I feel like I owe it to the people coming to me, more so if they are closer in my life; I owe it to my parents to craft the right sort of image for them to show off.
Obligation is a curse. It pretends to give you the safety of participation except without the fulfillment of commitment. It disguises itself as commitment, setting up the wrong sorts of expectations for people around you. They see you out there in the trenches for whatever you’ve obligated yourself to and start to associate you with it—something you explicitly didn’t choose. The difference between obligation and commitment is a matter of choice and deliberation. Obligation is doing something because you think that you have to and don’t want to face the difficulty of confronting whether you want to continue or stopping it altogether. Commitment is doing something because you’ve chosen it, because your heart is in it. It means saying no if your heart isn’t in it, to take the one-time cost of potential disappointment or rejection to set up the proper expectations for a healthy relationship moving forward, embracing conflict and its healthy resolution rather than hiding it under the bed.
My mind is a raging war: a constant gunfight between a side steeped in half-heartedness and a side embracing the authentic and the passionate. Obligation versus commitment. I tell myself to be greedier—to take more gambles for what I want and what I feel. I’m back to the timeless struggle between mind and body, intention and reality. I tell myself it always works out when other people say no to me or share their work broadly or remind me to be better or even make mistakes, so why can’t I do let myself do those same sorts of things? Why is it always so hard to expose myself to the risk, to put myself on the line for something better?
As a society, the perception is that we’re losing commitment. Having commitment issues seems to be a popular thing to make fun of in the media now because collectively, we’ve been taught to always keep one eye to the horizon, on the lookout for something better that comes along the way. Committing to something that isn’t the best isn’t cool, so instead, we get obligation, while always looking for the next big thing to commit to. FOMO is all about feeling obligated to what you have in front of you, for your present moments, while wanting to commit to the big thing that’s always out of reach, the greener grass on the other side of the fence. We want to commit to something that is already desirable, rather than putting in the work to craft something desirable. This is the flip side of investing pointless effort—of wanting to put no effort in for the same reward.
Effort alone won’t get you to commit to something that you can’t find the energy for, but formless energy won’t manifest anything meaningful without real effort. I’ve been hearing the term somatic mindfulness more recently, and although initially, it just came across as a fancy term for navel-gazers, I think it succinctly captures a lot of what it means to embrace commitment. It describes being mindful and present with your whole body and achieving a level of meta-awareness to consciously make decisions in moments, proactive rather than reactive, slow rather than fast thinking. Where obligation is a leech that saps your energy for its own good, commitment is the art of living deliberately, of embracing what truly matters to you that’s in your reach, of being greedy enough to go all in on being true to yourself.
This piece evolved out of the 18th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. To get updates, subscribe to my newsletter below.