I’ve just started watching Royal Marines Commando School on catch-up TV: a documentary on Channel 4, following a group of guys as they undertake the toughest military-training programme in the world.
I’m only a couple of episodes in, but I’ve started to realise that what is captivating about it isn’t the actual end game: becoming a Royal Marine. It’s watching humans forcing themselves to go through an extraordinary experience to see if they can make themselves into better people.
Whether it’s because they know they’re a bit prone to laziness, or feel the need to accelerate their journey from boy to man, or just want to provide a better life for their families, each guy has their own personal reasons for joining the training course. And these reasons have much more to do with setting themselves a personal challenge than actually becoming a fighting machine.
After watching a couple of episodes, I started to think about how we set ourselves challenges in life, and met a friend who’d read my blog post about choosing not to have a baby (see: Ping Pong). She admitted that one of the reasons she’d had one was to experience something beyond being herself. She’d had a fairly stable, happy upbringing and could see herself just cruising on through to pensionhood just remaining in stasis as her original self. Having a baby has brought such a huge personal challenge into her life that she is permanently altered. But for the good.
There are the challenges we set ourselves and the ones that challenge us – the ones that are beyond our control. My early life was marked with the trials of parental decline and death. My father died when I was 10 and although my mother lived until she was 71, she had a slow decline with dementia, and died in my early 30s. There is absolutely no doubt that these events have had a huge and profound effect on my life, and the lives of my family, but they’re not all bad.
One on hand, they have given me a level of fearlessness that means I know I can handle huge upheaval and change, such as leaving a marriage at the age of 43… I’m still scared when these things loom up at me (thankfully not often) but I always know in my head and heart that everything will be ok.
It was, and it is.
On the other hand, I don’t need to prove I can face a big challenge, which is possibly one of the many reasons I’ve chosen not to procreate, but I still set myself fairly sizeable tasks to overcome, such as leaving a perfectly good job (at Liberty in the ’90s) to move to Brighton to do an MA.
I was on my own in a new town, crying into my pillow at night, but eventually I found my feet, and my first job in publishing (the MA went by the wayside). I still look back on that time with immense pride – that one leap into the unknown was a game-changer in so many ways.
Liberty had given me a part-time job in their store in Brighton (sadly no longer there) and when I decided to leave the MA, they supported me with more work. I remember not being able to afford public transport, and walking to and from the shop along the seafront during that winter. I loved it!
I got myself on a business-skills course and researched local publishing jobs in the big business directory in Brighton Library. Yes, an actual directory in a library. I walked into Wayland Books, off the snowy streets of Hove and met MD Steve White-Thompson, in his stockinged feet. He gave me what would be now called an internship on the spot and that was it. I was in and on my way.
I’m now beginning to wonder if my life isn’t some massive commando obstacle course that I’ve set myself. There are the bits when I’m forcing myself to crawl through mud, pull myself up to the top of the rope, or fling myself over a ridiculously high wall. I look at the guys in Commando School doing that and think, “Why on earth would you put yourself through that?!”
But actually, I do. All the time.
And so do my friends.
Sometimes I have to remind myself to ‘be nice to Lisa’ because I think I’m quite hard on her. I think she always wants to be perfect at everything and has to be told that it doesn’t have to be like that all the time (oh god, I just referred to myself in the third person – had to happen at some point…)
Whether it’s publishing a big brand, trying to look glamorous at all times, or going on the coolest holiday to the perfect hotel, I set my targets high, and only end up exhausting myself.
On holidays of yore, I used to march my ex-husband around all the sights listed in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to a place just so I could tick them all off and feel happy that I’d achieved something. And guess what? The best bits of the holiday were always that last day where there was nothing left to see and we could just relax. Funnily enough, that’s what I do on holiday now: see a few things but mainly relax. (And I bet he does too.)
Sometimes I tell my friends to go easier on themselves because I can see them doing it too. The best house! The best holiday! The best job! Best, best, BEST! Even writing that makes me feel exhausted.
So while I’m watching Commando School and actually shouting at the screen, encouraging the would-be soldiers to get to the top of that rope or run that extra mile, part of me wants to say, “Mate, just sit down in the mud for a minute. Take a moment. Regroup. It’ll be fine.”
Because you can.
And it will be.