What do you like about yourself?
The question is asked by a friend I admire enormously, both personally and professionally. She’s just turned 30 and she’s travelling through Colombia with her husband, not because life has given her any easier a time than it has you or me, but because she had a plan and made it happen.
She lists the things she likes about herself and if you could see her beautifully authentic smile (yes, it’s on her list) you would know in a nano-second that these are no shallow boasts. They are self validations, not comparisons to others but very much deserving of celebration in their own right.
I try to think of some things I like about myself (my wonky smile is definitely not on the list). It’s been quite a gruelling year, which seems to have brought out all the things about myself that most need improving. My lovely friend and I very nearly share a birthday; she spends hers under a hot Colombian sun and I spend mine running a solo ultra marathon through snow and ice. I very much like the running and the sparkling, snow-globe scenery fanning ahead for miles, but they’re not things about me. I spend some pre-Christmas leave with my three favourite people and we walk, eat plenty and drink a bit, after two ultra-prepping months of not drinking at all. I like all of the above but, ditto – not about ‘me’.
For Christmas I have tonsillitis (tinselitis?) and spend a week being utterly miserable, at which I can be very good but which is hardly a self quality I can admire. I have too much time to reflect on and worry about the past year, which started with the near-loss of someone I love very much and moseyed along in the same lane from there. I watched two teens carry the weight of the near-loss through hastily-assembled A-levels and GSCEs, and held the hand of one of them as they were hospitalised, for the second time, with the awfulness of quinsy. I watched the funeral of an old friend, who was too funny and too many years short of even his 50th birthday for it to be fair, and I watched a cloudless sky from my son’s bedroom (no, not through the window, but through the rafters, that time we had no roof). And I wasn’t good at any of it.
But among the loss and near-loss came the strips of turquoise coastline in the hottest of years (timely, when you just have rafters). The camp-outs and the climbs, the sea swimming and the lazy days campervanning. The joyful finish lines and some surprising finish times, my running family pushing me, if not quite to ‘good’, then certainly to ‘good effort’. And along the way I listened to the stories of so many runners, all with their own weighed-down teens and family illness and stressful jobs and loss (although I’m pretty sure none of them were two rooms short of a full roof).
It comes to me, in my slow, still-quite-miserable, post-Christmas recovery. I’m good – no, I’m bloody excellent – at listening, and that’s quite something to like. I’ve always been that person to whom others open up, the one who picks up on, and responds to, the important words, at the important time. Have I honed my listening skills through years of journalism and comms, or did I become a journalist because I was always good at listening in those small moments people choose to reveal their clues? I watch my older teen take on the weight and worry of everyone around her, soaking up their stories and not always having hers heard in return. She is my making in so many ways, and probably the answer to the question.
Being a good listener can be exhausting, especially when the stories come uninvited, unasked. But mainly, it’s a privilege, afforded to few. At this looking-back, looking-forwards time of year, I stop short of resolutions, but I map out my goals; the small things designed to replenish, not deplete. For 2023 there are some running aims, certainly, a commitment to mindful shopping and a bleary, 4am-sketched outline of The Book. And now, the seed of an idea to listen in a way that’s really meaningful, starts to grow.
Quite what this will look like and how it will take shape is not for this side of the first strike of a new year. But I think of my friend, living out goals she planned and then made happen, and think I might just be good enough to make mine happen too.
“But my darling, there’s no such thing as the light at the end of the tunnel. You must realise that you are the light.”