I’ve been going back and forth between posting this here, or posting it on my running blog. I’ve recently started running again, after years of being overweight, and out-of-shape, and still experiencing pain from running injuries that happened years ago.
It has been frustrating to say the least, not so much because I can’t run as well as I remember being able to, but because I have to force myself not to run too much, too soon. Most of my running injuries happened because I ran when I wanted, as far as I wanted, as fast as I wanted, not resting or recovering, and ignoring the ever-increasing pain. Ultimately, the result wasn’t a better runner, but someone who couldn’t even walk without pain.
What has been running (ha!) through my head, as I struggle both with returning to running, and with problems in my personal life, is this blog post from Calah Alexander.
Go ahead, read it. I’ll wait (and elevate my shins for a few minutes).
Calah tells a story that would have been that, in my formative years, would have been unwelcome, to say the least. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but every single religion/sect/denomination has its own version of the Pharisees, the people who value the rules themselves over the people the rules are supposed to help. Since I was a “good kid,” and my temperament generally bent toward obeying the rules anyway, I was always fairly strict about things like that. I had a hard time understanding that anyone could ever have that much trouble obeying a simple rule.
And then, I grew up. I found myself in a situation where, despite my best efforts, the rules were causing more harm than good. One flaw in focusing on the rules is the expectation that if you always follow them, then good things will happen; and when that fails, you’re at a loss.
It took a major paradigm shift for me to realize that continuing to follow the rules was destroying me emotionally, psychologically, and relationally. I suddenly learned that following the rules is easy: just do what they say! Don’t think about the consequences, or take your own health and safety into account! That’s BAAAAAAAD!!!!
And yet, there are the people who continue to tell me to follow the rules, because “they’re there for a reason! God knows what’s best for us! [Insert name of saint] was in this same situation, and she stuck it out, and got canonized and converted [number of zillions] of people! Redemptive suffering! Christian witness! Holiness! Sainthood! Pleasing God!”
And these people are right … to an extent.
Time for the metaphor!
In competitive racing, there is a small group of people called “elites.” While thousands can run a particular marathon, for example, there is a small handful that actually competes to win. Through a combination of good genes, training, hard work, professional assistance, and sheer force of will, elites can run faster, farther and longer than most other people.
So my question was: why is the spiritual race we run different from a physical race?
In an ideal world, we all have similar capabilities: virtually everybody could potentially run a race, and everybody has the potential to be a saint. But it is well understood that not everyone can leap off the couch one morning and spontaneously run twenty miles, and it seems like some people don’t realize that the same principle applies, spiritually.
Often, in the lives of the saints, we see that their heroic virtue was preceded by years of spiritual training, practice, endurance, and assistance and examples from others. (Have you ever noticed how much more likely someone is to become a saint if someone else in their immediate family was one?) In the same way, elite runners spend years reaching the point where they can run faster than everyone else.
And it’s not like “elite/saints” and “normal people” are the only two categories: there’s also the category of “severely wounded, out-of-shape people who have never even heard of running a race / being holy.”
How fair is it to require broken, weak people to suddenly perform at the standards of a world-class athlete? Actually, let’s not even talk about fairness, let’s talk about reality!
If you told a middle-aged, overweight, never-exercised-before-in-his-life diabetic that he needed to run to be healthier, but the only options you gave him were to 1) go run a marathon RIGHT NOW or 2) don’t even try, which one do you think he’ll be capable of doing? Not which one does he WANT to do, or is even MOTIVATED to do, but actually, physically capable of doing? No matter how much we may want to be the best, and perform to a higher standard, we have to take into account our current condition: the farther we are away from where we want to be, the slower we have to take it at first. Doing too much, too soon is infamous for causing even more injury and damage than the person had in the first place.
After a certain amount of damage, ANY running is harmful to the body: in order to be able to run in the future, one have to STOP completely, now. Completely giving up is not the answer: lazing around, doing nothing but watching TV, living off of junk food. But sometimes one has to take a step way, way back, and completely re-evaluate, looking not at what one wants to do, but what one is capable of right now, in this body, at this moment. It means one may not run for a while, maybe years. It means looking at other forms of exercise to keep one’s body in condition while it heals. It means thinking outside the box: not giving up the ultimate dream, but taking a detour until one is capable of again pursuing it.
In my personal case, I know the “right thing” to do, I know what the saints did, and I know what has the most potential to make me holy. But all of that is moot if I am so wounded that I cannot do those things. Continuing to live with my husband may be the “right thing” according to someone’s interpretation of a rule. But if I am still living in fear of him, not only am I not capable of behaving in a saintly manner to him, but also I am continuing to sustain damage that will just make it harder and harder every day. I can’t heal if I stay in the situation that causes the wounds.
Notice that I’m not saying, “Because I was hurt in the past, I’m going to give up the whole thing! Stop being moral, stop going to Mass, start living a degenerate life, etc!” I actually tried that in the past, because that’s what my moral training had led me to believe: that if I couldn’t be perfect, then there was no point in doing any of it. (Seriously, that is literally what I thought: that there was no difference between being a serial killer and not praying every day. Not a good place to be.)
Life is messy, especially with all that sin and gunk floating around. Blindly following the rules, and judging others based solely on that, is easy. What is hard is looking at real people, in real situations, with real issues, problems, wounds, weaknesses and strengths.
Giving up, because you reason that you’ll never be able to meet the standard anyway, is easy. Baby steps, slowing down, acknowledging that you’re weak and broken, is hard.