The first time I ran more than a mile — without taking breaks to rest my hands on my knees and pant and cough and take long, deep breaths — I thought it was a miracle. I was new to running, diligently training myself each day with an app that let me take walking breaks, and we had a love-hate relationship. For example, I loved an excuse to get out of the house safely, listen to loud music, and pretend nothing else was happening in the world besides the movement of my two feet (mostly because I got so tired so quickly that I couldn’t focus on anything other than my labored breathing and the alarm in my brain begging me to stop.) That’s where the hate came in. It frustrated me that as soon as my inner dialogue said “I can’t do this anymore,” I couldn’t. A run became a jog became a walk.
The only solution was to start lying to myself.
I’ve pretty much always found affirmations to be corny. I’m about as far away from spiritual as you can get — despite many of my closest friends being the kinds of people who buy crystals, visit psychics, look for signs, read each other’s birth charts, manifest. Spirituality to me feels too close to religion, and religion feels too close to my great-grandmother declaring 13-year-old me a heretic for saying I’m not sure I believe in God.
Ostensibly, the rest of my family did believe in God while I was growing up, but there wasn’t much evidence of it. We weren’t the kind of Russian Orthodox followers who actually had icons hanging up or were recognizable to anyone at the church nearby. More like the kind who bought kulich for Easter that we didn’t eat, and celebrated Maslenitsa with dozens and dozens of blini, wafting the smell of butter throughout the house, but then failed to observe Lent.
What my mother did outwardly, loudly, insistently believe in for a period of time — and what she desperately tried to pass down to us via audio tapes during nearly every car ride — was The Secret. Rhonda Byrne’s self help book The Secret (based on an earlier film of the same name) came out in 2006 — and took what I imagine to be scores of suburban mothers by storm, selling tens of millions of copies worldwide. The secret to life, Byrne claims, is the law of attraction — the idea that one’s thoughts have the power to directly change their life. My mother was convinced that positive energy was the thing we were all missing in our lives, and that if I just heard the audio tape tell me to say “Thank you” with every step I took enough times, then I would start doing it. Then I, an elementary schooler, would finally ascend to a more complete and happy way of life.
If I had a chance to yank the tape out of the player and throw it out the car window, I probably would’ve — but I still sat in the backseat those days.
What bothered me most about The Secret back then was that I thought we all had good lives anyway. What bothered me about it later on, when life was objectively much less good, I resented the idea that I wasn’t allowed to say what I was actually feeling out loud. My mother was the master of “thinking positively” — often to the point where I felt we lived in different realities — and I hated being asked to only see the good in situations that were very much not. I preferred my adolescent brooding, which eventually just turned into acceptance of the fact that there is always going to be some good and some bad. Declaring anything else felt like lying.
Which brings me back to running a mile.
As sweat from my forehead dripped into my eyebrows, and my heart beat so loudly I swore I was about to pass out, I found myself repeating something in my head: “The hardest part is over.” And then, “I’m running downhill.” Neither were particularly true — I still had a long way to go before I was home, and the rest of the route was uphill. But something clicked, and my feet kept going. This was all a surprise to me. It felt like something my mother would tell me to do, and my thoughts quickly turned back to the sound of The Secret disc being booted up in the car stereo. But eventually, over time, one mile turned into two into three — all to the soundtrack of these two lies I kept telling myself.
I don’t know if these two sentences quite count as affirmations, but I’ve definitely found something in between lying, believing, manifesting, attracting. At the very least, I find solace in taking a moment to believe myself — even when what I’m doing shouldn’t be that hard, or I still have a long way to go, or with each step and huff and puff I find myself climbing a bit higher. Even if it never comes true, I can imagine a world where it does long enough to get me home. And right now, that sounds like enough.
I still don’t believe in positive energies, or the idea that I can attract good to my life through any belief system that relies on a power outside of my own body. But what I do believe in is the power of playing slight tricks on myself to make it through the day, the idea that today’s uphill may very well look like tomorrow’s downhill. So, for now, I can say: I’m running downhill. I’m running downhill. I’m running downhill.
As always, thank you for reading.