The Invisible Bear on My Back

A metaphor for hidden struggles.

When I was in track and field, I made the strange choice to run the 400 m. I thought I would be good at it because I had enjoyed running it in my P.E. class’s track and field unit, but I was wrong. The 400 is perfectly conducive to suffering; too short to be a long distance run, too long to be a sprint — yet, somehow, everyone is practically sprinting the whole time anyway.

The first time I ran the event, I ran out of stamina by 300 m and significantly slowed my pace in the last 100 m, as though my body had suddenly gained the weight of a Costco bag of rice, right then and there. One of my coaches approached me afterward and said I had good form, but not enough stamina.

“The bear got your back,” he joked. “That’s what we say when you suddenly slow down at the end like that.”

Years later, I use this metaphor to describe something completely different: the struggles that weigh you down that only you can see. The difficulty getting up in the morning. Self doubt. The way your inner voice insults you. The way you give a fuck about things that you know don’t actually matter.

Everyone has some kind of invisible bear on their back. Sometimes it’s light and you practically forget that it’s there. Other times it’s unbearably (haha) heavy. Always, it’s invisible. You look around and see that nobody else has a bear on their back, but you cannot imagine what kind of weight people are carrying that they do not tell you about. And you can’t help but think:

“If only people could see that I am carrying this heavy bear on my back and didn’t think I was crazy when I tell them that there is an invisible bear on my back.”

And this bear, it just won’t let go! Its paws hug your neck, suffocating you. It clings to you for dear life. Sometimes it swears at you for being an idiot or judges your every move (it’s a mean bear). Think of how fast you could run if only you could get this stupid bear off your back.

But maybe it wasn’t that I needed to get the bear off my back. Maybe I just needed to learn to carry the bear to the finish line.

“It sounds like you want to give up,” he said.

He was right. I wanted to give up, but giving up has never been a choice. My only choice was to keep going and to keep playing, knowing that I had not tried every last move yet. One of these moves has got to work, or I’ll die eventually. Either way, I can’t stay in the same painful place forever.

It’s not like I asked this bear to climb onto my back, but it’s there, so I’ll have to make the best of it.

  • I can’t control the fact that there’s a bear
  • I can’t control the fact that the race is rigged
  • I can’t even get the bear to fuck off

I’ll have to carry the bear to the finish line and grow stronger.

Maybe I’ll get used to the weight of the bear, until one day, it’ll be so easy to carry that I’ll forget the bear is even there. Or maybe I’ll grow so strong from carrying the bear that I’ll finally be able to tear the bear’s paws from around my neck like velcro. In any case, I don’t know how to get the bear off right now. I’ll just have to carry it to the finish line or I’ll never finish the race.

That’s what I tell myself sometimes when my inner voice tells me I’m not enough. If I can run the race with the bear on my back, imagine how much faster I’ll be able to run once the bear is no longer there. I don’t even need to wait for the bear to fuck off in order to start the race.

“I will either learn to get this bear off my back or I will fucking carry it to the finish line.”