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Sometimes You’re the Hammer; Sometimes You’re the Nail

Posted by on Nov 27, 2013 | 2 Comments

Sometimes things go our way and we feel as though we’re on top of the world and have this whole “life” thing figured out. Other times we’re mired in negativity, convinced we’re complete failures. This spectrum of experience plays out day after day as we venture through life. This roller coaster  plays out in our relationships, our careers, and even our hobbies. The highs are great; there’s little discussion needed. The lows, however, can be crippling. How do we deal with the negative moments in our lives?

When Shelly and I did a lot of running, we’d occasionally have great runs where everything fell into place. We could run for hours in the mountains, experience very little fatigue, and feel great afterward. Moments like this reaffirmed our ability to excel at the sort we loved.

We were the hammer.

Sometimes we’d have the stereotypical “bad run.” It would suck from the beginning. Things would hurt, legs would feel heavy, breathing would be off, and we’d be fatigued almost immediately. Feelings of self-doubt would creep in. We’d question why we bothered with this dumbass sport.

We were the nail.

This last Monday, I had a similar experience in jiu jitsu. Drilling various techniques felt awkward and unusually difficult. When I rolled (what we call live sparring), I got by butt kicked by someone that’s usually a fairly even match. I was a fish flopping around on the mat. I felt genuinely depressed about my progress in the sport, and it cast a negative cloud over the rest of my day.

I was the nail.

The next day (yesterday), I had a great day. Drilling felt intuitive and flowed effortlessly. When rolling, I did exceptionally well. I had an offensive game plan and followed it perfectly. I did well against a more skilled opponent which included recovering from a handful of mistakes. The despair of the previous day was instantly replaced by beaming confidence.

I was the hammer.

This same pattern plays out in my overall life. As a stay-at-home dad and “writer”, I spend a lot of time either interacting with my three young kids or lot in my own head searching for creative inspiration. The two are often related. Like running and jiu jitsu, I’ll have some great days and some terrible days.

The kids have the potential to be incredibly needy and/or annoying. I’ll go through the normal problem-solving routine: Are they hungry, did they get enough sleep, do they need one-on-one attention, is something troubling them, are they bored, etc. Sometimes the problem-solving fails, and that failure causes me to question my ability as a father. I’ll count the minutes until Shelly returns from work. My writing, what little I manage to produce, usually sucks. It usually sinks me into a fairly depressed mood- apathetic, irritable, unmotivated, hopeless, and the worst part- hungry. I want nothing more than to lie in bed curled up in the fetal position, though even that sucks.

I’m the nail.

Other days are great. The kids play independently, make their own meals, and make insightful or funny observations that highlight their intelligence and creativity. On days like this, my own writing flourishes. I may churn out 5,000 words or more of high quality (or me) material. I’m cheerful, energetic, and motivated… almost manic. I get shit done.

I’m the hammer.

Slowly but surely, I’m learning to embrace and fully enjoy those highs while surviving the lows. I had previously spent a great deal of time trying to eliminate the lows (my self-experimentation applies to pretty much everything), but I’ve only managed to reduce the incidence and duration. The difficult part, of course, is the thought patterns of the lows. Intellectually I know it’s a temporary state. I know things will get better. I even know a few strategies that will help get out of the lows. Emotionally, though, I’m more or less crippled by apathy, despair, and a lack of motivation.

I’m the nail.

Surviving the lows can seem overwhelmingly difficult, but ultramarathons taught me a valuable skill:

Acknowledge then embrace the pain.

When running hundred milers, you go through incredible highs and lows both physically and mentally. The lows are impossible to describe to anyone that hasn’t experienced them, but they’re strong enough to break you. I used to HATE the lows and did everything I could to avoid them. The result was predictable. When I’d experience a low, I’d eventually quit. It’s not a good race strategy.

Once I figured out the lows were unavoidable, I started specific training that would induce lows. I quickly learned the most valuable lesson- the lows are temporary and will eventually end. While trying to figure out how to fix the lows, I started to feel a weird comfort during the low. It was sort of a detached, morbid fascination of the agony I was experiencing. I believe the Buddhists would call it “mindfullness.” I realized I had a choice to either become consumed by the darkness or turn it into a learning opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong- the lows still sucked. The pain is real, the hopelessness is real, the desire to quit is real. The mindfullness doesn’t make it go away. It gives me a sense of control while it’s happening. As it turns out, that ultrarunning lesson can be applied to other “lows” experienced in life.

In jiu jitsu, the low days are usually correlated with poor execution of technique or a gap in knowledge. Instead of being consumed with my suckiness, I can use the knowledge gleaned from the poor performance to guide future practice. I acknowledge I had a bad day and ride it out until the next good day.

In parenting, I can do the same. The bad days are usually correlated with some glaring mistake I made, such as not realizing the middle kid is being a jackass because he’s hungry. I learn, acknowledge the bad day, and ride it out until tomorrow.

Sometimes the bad days string together. This is problematic because my confidence in my ability to “ride it out” diminishes with time spent in the low. Experiencing a three mile low in a hundred miler is tough. Experiencing a twenty mile low is catastrophic. In this case, I’ve learned another valuable lesson:

Sometimes you can’t do it alone.

When the low is too overwhelming, I have to rely on my crew and/or pacers. That’s tough because I love being self-reliant, but it’s better than the alternative of quitting.

The same happens in jiu jitsu. If there are too many bad days in a row, I may want to quit the sport entirely. In tat case, I know I can rely on Shelly or my fellow gym members to pull me through. The low is still temporary, but I’m okay with getting help when I no longer ave the ability to see that.

The parenting/writing thing works the same way. When the bad days start to string together, I have learned to rely on Shelly to help me survive. When it comes to writing, I’ve also learned to back off for awhile.


Life is filled with highs and lows. We usually don’t need help “surviving” the highs, but the lows can be catastrophic. Developing coping mechanisms is essential, and acknowledging and embracing the lows works exceptionally well. If the lows are too low, there’s no shame in seeking help from others. The highs will always return no matter how lost we become in the darkness. Celebrate the days we’re the hammer; embrace and learn from the days we’re the nail.



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  1. Tess
    November 29, 2013

    This was good to read today. I’m injured, out of running and other activities, possibly needing surgery, possibly with permanent effects. trying to remember the highs and lows are always cyclical and always relative.

  2. Bare Lee
    November 29, 2013

    Be the carpenter!