Jumping out of my lofted bed in half-panic, I turn off the wailing alarm. The elusive peace from the silence is replaced by fatigue and dread. It’s 6am on this mid-January morning in Iowa. My school bag and duffel bag full of sweats are ready to go; all I have to do is throw on my winter coat and stumble into Dad’s car. We head to Ottumwa High School together, he to work and me to train before class. I have lofty goals for my junior-year wrestling season, and I’m fueled by the certainty that my opponents in the 130-pound weight class have a similar objective. But before I can even consider attaining mine and crushing theirs, I have to make weight.
Sitting on the locker room bench, I pull out the extra two sets of sweats. Before layering up, I put on my plastic suit. Plastics are what they sound like: pants and a long-sleeve top made out of non-breathable plastic. Sweat pours out in these.
I can drop five pounds in thirty minutes jumping rope and sprinting in plastics. My body screams for oxygen and I gasp greedily between rounds.
“ohmygodicantbreathe,” says one voice in my head.
“Don’t be soft! Suck it up. Your next opponent is doing one more lap right now,” the internalized coach inside my head responds.
These sacrifices generate toughness. And toughness, I’ve been convinced, is the principle characteristic of a champion.
Waiting to board my plane, I watch a young mom chase down a toddler while holding an infant in her hands. There’s more worry on her face than kids can produce. She hands off her children to their dad and walks away. While it’s unusually warm, she’s not wiping sweat from the corners of her eyes.
I smile. I’ve been that mom. To be clear: I haven’t reared my own children. But what I recognize in the mom is something I’ve only starting doing recently: depending on loved ones when my spirit says I can’t!
Refusing to surrender on those high school winter mornings helped me achieve the personal glory I was striving toward as a wrestler, but I’ve greatly misapplied that philosophy outside of sports. Struggling emotionally? It’ll pass. Too many responsibilities? Buckle-down and pull through. Feeling pain? Tough it out. In rare moments I’ve allowed others to sustain me, but with great stubbornness and difficulty.
Loved ones have always shown up for me, waiting for me to drop the tough guise. I never really got St. Paul’s “when I am weak, then I am strong” thing until I admitted I couldn’t do it – any of it – on my own. Self-sufficiency was, and still is, a farce.
“Mitakuye Oyasin,” Roger belts out, which prompts the doorman to rip open the sweat lodge’s canvas doors, letting in sweet, sweet oxygen. The built-up steam bellows out the openings as light rushes in. Seated with my back to the door, I turn and lie face-down, nearly sticking my head out the door to suck in as much of the cool air as possible. When I peek back at the faces around me, the look in their eyes match my thoughts: “There’s no f$%*#& way I can go on!”
Ten of us have just completed round one of inipi, a healing and purifying prayer ritual of the Lakota tradition also known as a sweat lodge. In round two, all of us take a turn expressing our reasons for being there. For family, for those in professional transition, for spiritual freedom, for loved ones plagued by the disease of addiction, for an end to racism, for peace. More reasons are reiterated and added. Our spoken intentions are harmonized with Roger’s chants. Searing steam forces me to breathe through my mouth. I sneak sniffs through my nose to take in the odor of the sweetgrass burning over the 28 red-hot stones.
I look at my companions after round two. While we’re still relieved for a brief break from the sensory overload, I no longer see the same panic in people’s eyes. Reminded of the intentions behind our sacrifice, we experience an injection of resilience and last two more rounds.
Pouring sweat. Difficulty breathing. Making a sacrifice. A bit like training in plastics, but something feels different. While we still heard that little voice inside that says I can’t!, we were comforted by the solidarity of our struggle. Much more fortifying than a voice that says don’t be soft!, our communal tenderness gave us strength. I can’t sweat when I’m severely dehydrated. I can’t give if I’m empty. True tenderness, not blind toughness, opens us to receive what our spirits need – refreshing us after an intense sweat.