Mantras are important, says my running magazine, because they pack powerful ideas into short words that we can repeat to ourselves in extremis to push ourselves to do better. Power. Victory. Strength. Those were the mantras suggested by other runners. I stuck with my own: I can do hard things. No need for a cheerleader with a coal like this on my tongue.
That mantra sustained me through law school and those too-many weeks when I couldn’t sleep without pills or eat anything more solid than a chocolate milkshake. It helped me learn Spanish when I gave myself a deadline of four weeks in a third-world country to do so. I chanted it as I trained for first a half marathon and then a full marathon. It played on a continuous loop during those 90-hour work weeks and 300-hour months I worked last year. I cling to it when the task of aligning my will to God’s will seems harder than I can bear.
Although formulated as a statement of fact, the motivating power of the mantra is greatest when it’s used as declaration of hope: I can do hard things. I repeat it most urgently during those moments when I most hope it’s true (and most suspect it’s not). As time passes I can look back and see that yes, I can do hard things: I’ve done hard things. Which of course means I’m ready to do more hard things.
There are a few problems with this system, though.
First, there’s a difference between doing “hard” things and doing “impossible” things. Impossible things look and feel exactly like hard things, only they can’t actually be done, mantras notwithstanding. This tricky resemblance means that when I encounter impossible things I usually start plugging away – I can do hard things; I can do hard things – without stopping to think that no amount of diligence or brains or bull-headed determination is ever going to be enough. That’s what happened this last week. I was given two massive assignments with overlapping deadlines. I killed myself over the weekend and was in a blind panic on Monday morning when I realized I had at least 48 hours’ worth of work and only about 18 hours left. I can do hard things, I CAN DO HARD THINGS! Yes, but I can’t do impossible things. So said a good friend of mine from down the hall when she stopped by and saw my distress. Step back, breathe, and tell the partners that the laws of physics and the space-time continuum can’t yet be broken. Right. Because that’s what sane people do. So I made a plan that broke the impossible thing into a couple of hard things, cleared the new plan with the partners, and went back to work. I’m not out of the woods yet, but so far so good. I can do hard things.
The second problem is the fact that just because I can do hard things doesn’t mean that I want to do hard things. As rewarding as it can be to do hard things, part of me would love to spend more time doing things that aren’t so hard. Maybe even easy things. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen too often. Partly that’s my own fault (join three choirs at once? sure!). Partly that’s just the way life is (another etched-in-my-mind General Conference talk: “life was never meant to be either easy or fair”). But every once in a while something that seems hard at first turns out, at least for a minute, to be less hard than I’d initially feared. Take last night, for example. I needed a break from work, so I called Dad for a short chat before going to bed. By the time we said good-bye three hours later (it was 2am for crying out loud!) we’d talked about a lot of things that neither of us had expected to discuss. We learned that each of us is currently trying to do hard things, and neither of us has figured out entirely how to do them. For once, rather than keeping my thoughts under wraps and relying only on myself (I can do hard things!), I opened up and shared more of what was on my mind than I’d ever done before. What I got back was not a terse mantra but instead a simple and much-appreciated assurance of love and support; a long-distance hug from my Dad that had the unanticipated effect of making something that had seemed like a very hard thing (perhaps even an impossible thing) seem less so.
Which brings me to an important lesson. I use a mantra to motivate myself when things get tough and there’s no other source of motivation. That’s the virtue of a strong mantra—it’s all me. It works because it taps into my mania for self-reliant independence and my need for a sense of accomplishment. I go through life by myself, I do hard things by myself, so I have to find the strength within myself to do those things: I don’t need other people. Because I can do hard things. Or so I tell myself. But then the friend at work reminds me of the difference between hard things and impossible things. And then my Dad listens and loves and somehow makes a hard thing seem less hard. It makes me think: A mantra from myself can be a powerful motivator. But a shift in perspective and some genuine care from another person can heal and fix in ways that a mantra can’t. I need more of that.