I bike to work in a squat little office building a block off Nebraska Wesleyan’s campus. It’s a short, one-story outpost in the shade of higher education’s ivory tower, where college elites supposedly lounge in enlightened ease.
It’s not a bad gig. But the ride gets a little dreary in late December. The sun’s barely up when I arrive and already down by the time I leave. Throw in some windchill and thoughts can ice over and slide toward bleakness.
It gets downright crowded in the mental dark. Just down the hall in our building is the university’s counseling center. Its counselors are discreet as snow leopards. They take their clients’ privacy seriously. But there’s no hiding the growing march of students to see them. Students dealing with stuff.
I have three teens at home—great kids whose grittiness, I’ll just say, fluctuates. They can tell you about my “kids-these-days” self-righteousness. And I admit I sometimes think the young people coming in and out of these counseling sessions are wilting buttercups who just need to buck up. But I realize that’s a cocky notion. I have no idea what boulders they carry.
Speaking of big rocks, there’s a chunk of pink granite maybe 200 yards to my east with a heavy message for me. It’s part of a campus memorial to a professor I adore. A bronze plaque on that rock translates a passage from “Beowulf”.
“Whoever remains for long here in this earthly life will enjoy and endure more than enough.”
Everybody has their dragons, Prof. Mary Smith tells me from beyond the grave. Maybe, Eric, you could cut the kids some slack?
The sharp uptick in college students seeking mental health services is a national phenomenon driven in part by a healthy reduction in the stigma surrounding mental illness. But reduced stigma doesn’t explain all of it.
T. J. McDowell is a friend I’ve ridden gravel with a handful of times. He’s assistant vice chancellor for student affairs over at the University of Nebraska—that far more towering ivory tower downtown. I ran into him at the Y recently and asked if UNL was seeing what we were seeing at NWU. He nodded in the affirmative. They can’t hire counselors fast enough.
He’d just come from a conference where he’d seen some interesting new research. T. J. made clear he was talking about correlation, not causation. But he said the growth in students experiencing depression and anxiety tracks strongly with—get this—the introduction and dissemination of the iPhone.
Aha! shouted my soul. Kids these days and their damned phones! (If I’d have been holding a cane, I’d have rattled the shit out of it.)
T. J. declined to join my tantrum. But he did describe two unhealthy dynamics that couple with life wrapped up in smartphones and social media.
We do a lot of our “connecting” with each other in isolation, he said. And we can easily use social media to posture a false happiness.
“If you’re struggling and you look around on social media, everybody’s pain is hidden. You don’t see anybody who feels like you do,” T. J. said. “And you start thinking you’re the only one.” And your loneliness gets worse.
I’m working on it. Suffer quiet.
I have this little workplace daydream where I’m sitting out front in our reception area. And each time a student comes in for a session, I intercept them and say, “I’m afraid your counselor couldn’t make it today. But she told me to give you this.” Then I roll out a gorgeous new gravel bike and just give it to them. They take it, bewildered, and leave.
I do this again and again, all day long, handing out free race machines until the whole campus has one. I have no idea where I’m getting all these free bikes, but daydreams don’t care.
In my dream, everybody gets happier. And they thank me for saving the world through bikes. Which is pretty awesome.
Mary Smith materializes in my office, saying she’s seen me on my bike. (Ghosts can see whatever they want, I guess.) You don’t look happy, she says.
I protest, because biking makes me happy. Always.
Sunday afternoon? At Pioneers Park? On your sixth hill repeat?
I look at my shoes. I hate ghosts.
What did you do on your sixth frenzied lap up that hill, Eric?
I swallowed puke.
And did that make you happy?
And June 2018. Racing in Kansas. When you stopped in the heat and sat down in the middle of the creek and held your bike in the current. Were you happy then?
What did you want to do?
I wanted to let go of my bike. Just let the creek have it.
I see. Because you were so unbelievably happy?
Is your happiness more complicated than a bicycle?
Maybe your own happiness is hard enough to figure out, my dead professor said. Maybe you could stand to be a little less certain about everybody else’s.
I frowned and blinked her gone.
I’d like “Get off your phone and get on your bike” to be everyone’s simple prescription for happiness. It won’t be.
I’d like to help my kids and yours by convincing them their pain is an illusion they can just ride away from. It isn’t.
Biking often makes us happy, but it won’t always. What it can do that’s more constant—what it’s done for me—is deepen our perspective on the pain we’ll surely find as we lead our lives.
Cycling happens to be a perfect laboratory for the harmless study of suffering. That’s because cycling’s pain is incredibly pronounced, yet contained and toothless. You can set your legs on fire, thrash until you feel your heart’s throb in the flesh of your eyelids. And seconds after you relent, it’s gone. Assuming you don’t wreck, all the pain evaporates almost immediately. Even that deep ache in the meat of your buttocks and neck never lasts more than a couple days.
On your bike, you can study how pain behaves. Turn it over and poke its sick belly. Run experiments. Learn shit.
One thing I’ve learned: Pain isn’t an illusion. But it is an illusionist.
Pain’s nature is connective. (Being human, Beowulf says, means enduring more than enough of it. Odysseus says the same. So does Hamlet…) But pain’s experience is most often isolative. Because no one else can feel our pain for us, it tricks us into feeling alone inside it.
In just about every breakaway or chase group I’ve raced in, I’ve thought the thought: I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I get so wrapped up inside that curtain, I’m convinced my pain distinguishes me from the group. But everybody there is hurting. Yes, maybe the fittest racers hurt less. But if your lungs feel tattered, if you’re thinking about letting go, chances are excellent you have company.
What happens to human resilience, I wonder, if we drop the idea that we’re alone in the hurt? Would we panic less? Could we persevere more?
It may feel good to know we have company, but it’s still strangely hard to let go of the pleasant notion that our pain is special—that our legs and lungs and hearts hurt like no one else’s. But when we realize how many people have already done this work, we can follow the best examples.
The path we thought we were blazing alone is actually well tread. And the scary dragons we’re fighting all had their throats slit centuries ago.
Look on your suffering with a little bit of boredom, and it loses power. And what rises in its place can be a strength we didn’t know we had.
So I’m changing my daydream.
I’m done handing out gravel bikes to reform buttercups. In this dream, I walk down St. Paul Avenue with a cowbell instead. And I catch the students as they walk. I leap out from between parked cars, and I hoot, holler and shake hell out of my bell for them.
Forget trying to make them what they’re not. In this dream, I cheer and rave and rattle—anything to celebrate the gritty bad-assedness we all have inside us, if we just keep grinding.