Early one day during a break at the Jersey shore, I climbed the stairs to a deck overlooking the boardwalk. It was a gorgeous morning with cool breezes sweeping in off the ocean. Heat from the sun was already breaking through the morning fog and it was obvious that the day was shaping up to be a hot one—perfect for basking on the beach. As I sipped my coffee, I watched a parade of people going by on the boardwalk below—vacationers out getting some exercise before the day got too warm.
I saw people cruising along on bicycles, looking contented as they pedaled by, soaking up the sunshine and ringing their jingly bells to warn slower folks to move aside. I saw walkers—some speed walking, looking strong and determined, others walking in groups, moving less quickly—conversation with friends apparently more important than pace.
I saw a young woman, wearing an iPod and ear buds, sailing past the crowd on roller blades, happily gliding along to the beat of music only she could hear.
An assortment of runners passed by: some jogging, clearly in it for the exercise, but cheerful nonetheless, and a few—full-on running—long and lean, loping along like gazelles, their beatific faces proclaiming to the world, “I was born to run!!!”
And then I saw her : a woman running—in apparent misery. She was sweating profusely. Her face was twisted into the kind of grimace usually reserved for passing kidney stones. Her body was slanted so far forward that I was amazed she hadn’t yet fallen flat. (Her poor ankles must have been throbbing!) As I watched her lumber by, all I could think was, “Who told her she had to run?”
Observing her struggle to do something that was clearly not right for her, I wondered: was she trying to emulate a friend who is a naturally gifted athlete? Or a neighbor who runs like the “gazelle people” I’d seen earlier? Clearly, she was trying to be healthier—to get into better shape—which is always a good idea, but why not start with some speed-walking, then some jogging, before trying to run? Who was she comparing herself to and why was she torturing herself this way?
As I wondered about her motives, I couldn’t help but think about my own. I’m a happy person with a good life, yet I can make myself miserable in a heartbeat by comparing myself to friends and relatives who seem to be more accomplished, more prosperous or more attractive than I am. Comparing myself to them, and then trying to be like them, is a bad habit. I’m guessing it looks as wrong on me as running looks on the woman from the boardwalk. As my life has progressed, I’ve come to realize that I have the ability to be pretty good at being me; but the minute I try to be someone else my joy evaporates and living my life becomes a chore.
I was still pondering my life and the life of the “misery runner,” when I saw him.
He was trim and muscular, bare-chested, wearing loose-fitting, high-waisted shorts. As he made his way down the boardwalk, he was neither walking nor running. He was boxing! Like a fighter warming up before a bout, he was dancing and ducking, throwing punches at an imaginary opponent. As he shadowboxed down the boards, people stopped in their tracks. Bikes were pulled over to the railing. Cell phones were raised to take his photo. Mouths hung open and smiles lit faces as people watched this unique man, getting his morning exercise in his own unique way.
At first, I thought the smiles were strictly smiles of amusement, but as I looked closer, I saw that there was admiration there, too. Admiration for a man daring to just be himself—a man not caring what anyone else thought of him.
Judy Garland once said, “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”
That’s pretty good advice.
I have no idea whether this man is a good fighter: how his skills stack up against other boxers in the ring. But, without a doubt, he was the best boxer on the boardwalk that morning—truly “first rate.” If he had run by, walked by, biked by, or skated by, I probably never would have noticed him. I’d have missed out on seeing the real him. I’d have missed out on seeing something really special.