Updated: Dec 18, 2021
Erik Kershner, October 22nd, 2021
Me, photo by Kenneth Moss
A mile and half from the end of a ten-mile training walk the other night, I removed my hiking sandals and hit the streets barefoot. I often do this to build up my feet because I believe it helps prevent blisters later when I’m wearing shoes. True or not, it’s my practice.
But on this particular night, I was out later than expected and found myself without a headlamp walking dimly lit city backstreets. Gravel, sticks, and acorn shells littered the asphalt. Nevertheless, I sucked it up. One foot in front of another. I just kept telling myself that every jagged acorn left that part of my foot stronger for the future.
But my god, it HURT.
And that pain brought me back to one of my all-time favorite films, Lawrence of Arabia. In particular, I was reminded of the scene in which Lieutenant Lawrence is in the map room with a few enlisted men. Lawrence, played by the impeccable Peter O’Toole, demonstrates to the soldiers (and to the film’s audience) that he is a man with a calling beyond that of mere mortals. Lawrence rolls up his sleeve and snuffs out a match with his bare fingers. One of the men, William Potter, clearly in awe of his Lieutenant, tries the same trick.
POTTER: “Ooh! It damn-well hurts!”
LAWRENCE: “Certainly it hurts.”
POTTER: “Well what’s the trick then?”
LAWRENCE: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
With this one memorable quote, the tone is set for the remainder of the 3hr 42min runtime where Lawrence crawls around the desert deprived of water and creature comforts. He endures the ordeal of crossing the supposedly uncrossable Nefu Desert, 150 miles of the Devil's Anvil in the Sinai. He even turns back against all odds to rescue a man fallen from his camel to prove that ‘nothing is written.’ Later, in a bit of Hollywoodization, Lawrence calls upon himself to execute a murderer in order to quell a tribal dispute—the very man he saved in the desert. This scene, though fictionalized, is painful to watch as we imagine the internal struggle the real-life Lawrence must have felt no matter what the real circumstances might have been. Later, Lawrence isolates and drives himself to near madness strategizing how best to take the seaport Akaba and O’Toole once again delivers mental anguish as well as any method actor before or since. Before the end of the film, Lawrence watches both his young guides die, battles the life-sucking force of the desert, constantly arbitrates disputes among Arab tribes, and is tortured by the Turkish army. But always through Lawrence's mental, emotional, and physical torment, we’re implicitly asked to remember that opening scene:
“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
This mantra goes unspoken for the duration of the film, but is otherwise written across Peter O’Toole’s face as his character bears intense hardships beyond what most people will ever experience.
Now, it may sound trite to compare T.E. Lawrence’s exploits in World War I's Middle Eastern campaign with Erik Kershner walking on acorns in the dark. But we don’t all live the exceptional lives of “WAR HEROES.” Hear me out, though.
Once upon a time, I lived a different life from the one I'm living in Missouri today.
Nest Ridge. Photo by Kenneth Moss
Off and on for sixteen years, I lived in Alaska where I hiked, climbed, camped, biked, and ran… I ran in the city with sane people, and I ran in the mountains with the other kind.
Like all adventure-seekers in the Last Frontier, I took my lumps: blisters, bruises, fractured ankles, broken helmets, thrashed bikes, and a few dozen stitches. In one summer I had x-rays taken on my skull, neck, and spine three times after near-catestrophic mountain bike accidents. Even when rocks weren’t gouging away at my flesh, the punishment I put my body through climbing mountains or racing bikes was often excruciating. But having been a fan of Lawrence of Arabia since I was a teenager, and having seen the film literally dozens of times, I was intimately familiar with the film’s most famous one-liner. I adopted it as my own. So when I was out there huffing and puffing my way to the summit, or grinding out 40-mile hikes through the backcountry, or jockeying for race position on my mountain bike, or running the hilliest marathon ever, I told myself over and over:
“The trick, Erik Kershner, is not minding that it hurts.”
Kenai River Marathon, Photo by Roz Kirklie
Sometimes it worked, sometimes, it did not. But I learned that when I’m out there putting everything I have into the world, it hurts. It hurts a lot sometimes. Athletes often talk about digging down deep after they’ve given what they think is their 100% max effort for that proverbial 10% extra. We’ve heard it so much, that ‘giving 110%’ is probably one of the Top 5 clichés of all time.
The unnamed Navy SEAL in Jesse Itzler’s book Living with a SEAL has a more meaningful way of expressing this maxim. He says, “When you think you’re done, you’re only at forty percent of what your body is capable of doing. That’s the just the limit that we put on ourselves.” That might sound like a load of BS, but if you ever hit a wall at mile 13 of a marathon and still managed to finish, or if your legs turned to jelly halfway up a mountain and still managed to summit and return safely to your car, or if you ever faced down finals week at any university, you have first-hand understanding that we can do more than we think we can.
Buy this highly readable book here.
We are all capable of so much more than we think. One of the most important life lessons I learned (the hard way) is that if I don’t quit when everything hurts, if I push through the mental barriers (the ones I erected for myself in the first place) I will surprise myself every time—and the rewards are phenomenal. They don’t call it ‘mountain top experience’ for nothing.
And so, what’s the point am I trying to make?
In the second act of Lawrence of Arabia, Dryden, one of General Allenby’s advisors, sums up completely the inevitable outcome of when a person decides that they don’t mind the pain:
ALLENBY: “What do you think, Dryden?”
DRYDEN: “Before he did it, Sir, I would’ve said it couldn’t be done.”
I’ve told myself a thousand times I can’t walk across America, despite mounds of evidence that it is indeed humanly possible. I tell myself I’m too old. I’m too fat. I don't have what it takes... But every year, new books, documentaries, and YouTube channels are founded with this very adventure at their core. Crossing America! This is something people do.
All this is to say that while none of my life’s adventures have exactly prepared me for a walk across America, I’ve not been numb to the lessons my very real adventures have taught me. The reward for bearing physical pain and mental/emotional anguish in pursuit of a specific goal is often achieving that goal.
And despite all the pain and discomfort endured along the way, it’s almost never my body holding me back, it’s my brain: the narrative of negativity that lives rent-free in my spirit. To revise that narrative, to assure myself that I’m capable of exceptional things, to not mind that it hurts… that’s always given me the most satisfying mountaintop experiences.
Rainbow Peak. Photo by Chris Klatt
Dominating the inevitable mind games and thinking my way out of my physical limitations is THE TRICK that will help me walk across America.
One of them, anyway!
A Version of this blog can be watched on YouTube.