The Well: Why We Must Surrender to Our Limits

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The urgency to live life to its fullest, to do the most that we can with the time that we’re lucky enough to receive, seems more urgent to someone like myself who lives with stuttering. This is the case because as superb writer at The Atlantic John Hendrickson proclaims we who stutter live our lives on delay until we confront stuttering itself. In other words, we waste much of our finite alive time stuck fighting against whether we accept stuttering or not. 

In my own fight against stuttering, my life was delayed by roughly twenty years. I moved through my hours, days, weeks, months, and years wanting to be more, do more, experience more of life. It was an all-consuming feeling of what life could be like if I didn’t stutter, as much. The feeling was inescapable. When would I finally get to do what I wanted when I wanted without having to worry about how stuttering would stop me?

But, living in this perpetual FOMO state had a more significant side effect once I finally embraced stuttering. After self-acceptance brought a heightened awareness and thereby a self-inflicted pressure to use every waking moment of my life. 

To put this in perspective, I wasted 1,092 weeks—which amounts to roughly 7,665 days—consumed by stuttering. The average human lifespan, in the United States, is about 4056 weeks, or roughly 78 years of living. I started stuttering around five years old and broke through the traumatic state of stuttering at 26, equating to 260 + 1092 weeks. This left me with 2,444 weeks to learn how to live in cooperative terms with stuttering. I am now in my mid-30s, so I will be lucky to have 1884 weeks left. 

A bit morbid, I know, but the reality is striking. It’s been 10 full years since my breaking through of stuttering, and while I feel like I’ve really filled those years, the urgency to live without regrets still biases my daily life. The pressure has hit me hard lately as my weeks pass by in a blink of an eye, and even more so since I’ve become a father.

So, what have I done to counter this striving to live (do) more now that I have a choice and stuttering no longer has a say?

Try to do as much as I can in each day, pushing the limits of what is humanly sustainable without giving myself the chance to rest and recharge. 

“Just push through, you can take more.” 

“After you do this, then you can rest.”

“You’ve done a lot more in the past. This is nothing.”

“Your family needs you.”

“If I don’t step up, who will?”

“There is nothing to fear, you’ve endured worse.”

“I don’t know how you do what you do.”

“You have enough resilience in the tank for this.”

“Nothing can or will break me…”

If I recognize I’m saying these motivating affirmations to myself, I am in trouble. And yet, I push on anyways knowing that I will be okay and that I’ll get through whatever is forcing me to dig deeper. 

However, this is the lie of resilience—the more you drain the well, the sooner you run dry, and break, without a say in the matter. After it is too late, you become aware that you’ve been sleepwalking through life just getting things done, solving problem after problem, and never truly living any of it. 

Herein lies the problem—I already went on resilience autopilot to break through the traumatic state of stuttering. I don’t need to put myself through that again, willingly. I have done the one thing after another, one problem after another, one stutter after another by showing up, pushing through, and confronting each to learn once and for all what exists on the other side, the freedom to live how I chose

Thus, this awareness deflates reality giving way to the uncertainty of how to recover my freedom to choose. The answer is never to be, do, experience more.

Life is teaching me this lesson as I type. Since I have been going to the well day after day, my presence has been increasingly deadening. I’m pushing harder, asking more of my mind and body, and feeling less alive. Resilience is not about testing the limits of how much we can or are supposed to be able to endure.

To the observer, it looks like success. I have a beautiful family, I’m operating at the highest level at work, I have everything I need, I put the interests of others before mine, and I am healthy. My choices led me to these. 

But, the question I’m left asking myself is why am I still striving as hard as I once did to break through stuttering ten years later?

This state of striving is fueled by stuttering. It is an unsettling feeling, one that was ingrained by the breaking through journey. If I don’t keep going to the well to quench it, I am wasting the life I fought so hard to get. 

Now that I have the life stuttering once made impossible, and I’m clear on through to the other side…it feels impossible to stop the pursuit. 

Strive literally means strife, and that’s how it feels, like I’m amid a self-propelling conflict. I’ve cultivated the opposite kind of life that I longed for during those 1,040 wasted weeks trapped within stuttering. 

Yet, I know I’m not alone, whether you stutter or not, or whether others want to admit it. The pressure inherent within today’s culture to live as one chooses has never been heavier. Each person feels this fog differently. The busyness of life, coupled with the pressure to live every waking moment, calls for an intentional pause. A curating of stillness to surrender and embrace our limits of what is humanly possible. 

We must choose to break on our own terms to allow the well the refill. 

Why must we choose to break?

Hemmingway answered it best in A Farewell to Arms

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Those words level me every time as if I were reading them anew. 

How am I allowing the grass to grow back on the path to the well?

First, I read Oliver Burkeman’s instant bestseller Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals at exactly the right time. Burned out and striving, his words—like Hemmingway’s—centered me. Burkeman changed my perspectives on many things, but I won’t spoil the opportunity for you to have the same experience (so please read his book!). 

I will, however, weave in some of his guidance into what I am currently implementing in my own life to alleviate the pressure and reset my meaning of resilience.   

Lost Time is History: The 1040 weeks were already lived. I’ll never get that time back, nor can I make up for it. Living with stuttering—even amid its traumatic state—is a looking-forward-into-the-future existence because of the paralyzing uncertainty of what it will allow we who stutter to do. After the breaking through, living with stuttering transitions the lens backwards into a pressure to never relapse. This is why I’m striving. The only thing I can do is…

Reframe ‘Wasted’ to “Figuring Out’ Time: The 1040 weeks weren’t wasted. There were many great times and I lived what I could. But, what isn’t specific to the experience of stuttering is we all go through a figuring it out phase. While 20 years is too long, it was a natural coming of age into adolescence and adulthood. Part of this, for me, is I have chosen to delve back into my journey to write about the many aspects of living with stuttering, including how I fought my way to freedom. With that comes the daily reminder of where I came from, ever present as if the moments just happened. In the figuring out, I stayed the course, certainly failed, succeeded more, confronted shame, and cultivated a lasting resilience. However, it was the trial and failure of allowing myself to weather the wasted years that set me up for the break through. The traumatizing resilience bread a more lasting knowing-I’ll-be-okay resilience where, despite draining my well, I know now that I’m capable of figuring my way through

Wait For It: Burkeman poignantly argues that many get off the bus too soon. Staying the course is key to any figuring out phase. From the moment I set out to change my life—or my relationship with stuttering—until I realized the freedom I sought had finally arrived was 10 full years. This is where it gets interesting—I can’t get off the bus yet. Burkeman says we must invest in the early stages of figuring it out, and learn the process of journeying and accumulate experience, which I’ve done enough. I immersed myself in the break through activities like pursuing and finding love, taking considerable risks with my career, and, most of all, bringing my identity into alignment with stuttering by stuttering more. I was patient and put in the work. Still more patience is needed to let the path forward reveal itself, going to the well more won’t make it refill faster. 

Things Take the Time They Take: Burkeman repeats this reality throughout his book. And I’m going to repeat this again—it took 10 years to break through the traumatic state of stuttering. In the doing, being, and experiencing more, I’ve lost the patience I had then. I crammed a lot into those 10 years. I met and married my wife, became a three-time Ironman triathlete, changed careers, survived the pandemic, and had and raised a now 2-and-a-half-year-old son. Each one of these took the time they took, and there was nothing I could do to hurry them to fruition. More did not reveal freedom, focus did, meaning I am trying to do too much to will life in the direction I can’t seem to get it to turn. Thus, I’m reflecting on my priorities.

Strategic Underachievement: This was a practice I was already using but Burkeman explained it better. We have to decide in advance what we are going to fail at or in what areas of our lives we’re going to underachieve on purpose in favor of higher priorities. These can be big or small things in which we stop expecting to achieve excellence. It can be for a period of time or indefinitely. For example, when my son gets sick everything else in my life goes on autopilot to tend to his needs. Similarly, with stuttering, when life gets too overwhelming, I allow myself to underachieve with how I open stutter, meaning some tricks may help get me through or I chose to do the bare minimum—read as avoid—until I’m sailing on calmer seas. 

Everywhere is Nowhere: The Stoic philosopher Seneca claimed “[The person] who is everywhere is nowhere.” This is a truth that I must make a reality. I cannot do everything. I cannot be everything to everyone. And I cannot physically experience everything that I want to do. It is not possible. Being on for every waking moment of life is not possible. Here is where my priorities fit—family and service to others. If whatever stands before me doesn’t fall into these two categories, I’ve fallen off the path. And, now, that is okay because I’m confident in the figuring out of how to find it, again.

In reverence to Burkeman’s influence on how I move forward, I end with a quote that epitomizes the reality I’m standing before, ready to confront:

Distractions are just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting our limitations.

Distractions signify the unnecessary using of my time for some unknown future benefit. I must let the unnecessary fall short of perfection so that I can stay focused on what are my real priorities. There is no making up for lost time, only living the time I’m lucky to receive.  

We must give in to patience and not endlessly pursue that which breaks our limits. See and decide for yourself who, what, where, when, why, and how your actions break you. And, allow the breaking and recovery to occur without fighting it. 

The well water stops absorbing back into the earth when we give up hope that it won’t rain tomorrow. Embrace the rainy days, break with the thunder, and rise again with the sun. 

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