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Letting go is what we do when the acrobatics that we’ve been performing to protect our carefully constructed self identities are no longer working. Like many people, I have experienced my own kind of emotional reckoning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Lots of other cyclists I know are emerging physically much stronger, because their antidote to confusion and grief is to ride more. My solution, rather, has been to pull back from the sport that has defined much of my self-identity. When the things I am saying and doing no longer align, when those past protective ego tools stop working, when what I long tried to out-ride became too fast and strong, it’s been time to orient my adventure inward.
I’m often moved by how people take leaps of faith, personally reset, shed old selves, transform and create new momentum in the face of crises. All real transformation is spiritual. This is true of changing our bodies, landing a new career, recovering from physical and emotional injury, making art, redefining a relationship or even becoming a better athlete. Personal change is a demanding journey of the adventurous, curious heart.
We start it as one version of ourselves. Along the way, we drop the heavy fragments of our old self-identity that have grown too burdensome to carry and make space for newer versions of ourselves. Our urge to change can come from a nagging sense that a thing just feels off or from a place of unignorable disrepair. A place that simply cannot be run, hidden or ridden away from. It is a murkiness that must be gone through, one that has to be felt to be fully experienced, so we may emerge into the reset version of who we are supposed to be next.
The universe has a way of sending us the guides we need for these journeys. One of mine came in a musical form: U2’s “Achtung Baby,” an album I hadn’t listened to in a long while. Truthfully, I felt I had consciously outgrown the band’s music many years ago. But we get the messages we need when we need them and how we’re supposed to hear them. In my case, it was this now 30-year-old album, which, at the time, was its own kind of critical self-reinvention.
Throughout the 1980s, U2 had become the biggest band in the world. Its anthemic songs rallied fans around epic global themes: famine, AIDS, apartheid, injustice, war. By the end of the ’80s, U2 had driven itself into a musical cul-de-sac of American triumphalism. “The Joshua Tree” was the band’s celebration of American music, but with “Rattle & Hum” they had seemingly dubbed themselves its mythic savior. From the outside, those cul-de-sacs may appear attractive and safe, but they can be perpetually self-reaffirming circles with only one way in and one way out. By their very nature, they are dead ends that can’t be outgrown. U2 had become “those kinds of Rock Stars.” Anyone who has struggled to maintain a deep internal secret knows that the myths we tell ourselves can become too bloated to carry.
“I’m ready for the shuffle Ready for the deal Ready to let go of the steering wheel.”
— “Zoo Station” (opening track of U2’s “Achtung Baby”)
“Achtung Baby” reflected a foundational transformation of self for U2. The band intentionally let go of its long-cultivated ego, dropped its heavy baggage and began creating an entirely new version of itself. It’s no coincidence they did some of their work in Berlin. With the fall of the Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990, the Cold War had ended. For those of us who grew up faking refuge under our desks during mock nuclear air raid drills, this was an exhilarating and disorienting shift in our perception of the global order. Germany had spent 45 years separated by a concrete wall, hostile armies and oppositional ideologies. Two divided selves with a common history—but living a bizarre parallel existence—were now becoming whole again with an uncertain future direction. Just as the country existentially asked itself “who are we and what will we be?” so too was U2.
“I can’t let you go And I must be an acrobat To talk like this and act like that”.
— “Acrobat” (from U2’s “Achtung Baby”)
When “Achtung Baby” was released in November 1991, the world saw a dramatic departure from the U2 it had known. The vocals, guitars and rhythm section felt organically familiar, but the band’s look and sound were changed. It somehow felt more “Euro.” Sonically, the tones had turned more industrial, pulsing and dance-like, reflecting the emerging club culture. Bono’s lyrics became more intimate, personal and internal. Thematically less about “us versus the world,” these songs explored the damage we inflict on ourselves and one another. They are journeys through a deeply inner landscape. When I close my eyes and listen to “Achtung Baby,” I picture a man talking with the fading ghosts of his past selves. Their power to actively haunt is waning, but their presence remains…albeit with more wholeness, gentleness and clarity.
Life’s road is always in transition and transformation. It’s one of our few guaranteed constants. The lesson from “Achtung Baby” for me? It matters how we choose to navigate those things within that are asking for change and growth. We can stay the course, ignoring a looming reality and effectively keep riding away from it. We can try to pedal around it. Or, we can take a deep breath, summon our bravery, get curious and choose to ride through it. Fitter, fuller, recovered versions of ourselves await us on the other side. Over this past year, I’ve renegotiated the contract with my own ghosts; and my relationship with the bike is returning. I ride less these days than I once did, and that’s just fine. Sometimes, my ghosts even ride along… as gentle partners rather than critical competitors.