December 4, 2013
There was turmoil in high school. A few things happened in my family that I will not share here, not today, not this season. The stories that I had formed about reality, about God, and about who I was were popped like balloons due to these tragedies. They had to be reformed into new shapes and fresh stories, and that was good. It was something we might call grace.
What happened in those years I was not equipped to deal with since I was just a child. I didn’t know how to cope with disasters. No one was showing me how to find my way through the dark wood. So I put on weight. I was always a big kid, but after my 10th grade year things began to get away from me. I gained and gained and stopped all exercise. It was a mess. I had worked my way into a life where I avoided most adventures that required anything of a physical self. I ceased to believe that I had what it took- what it to To Be. To Thrive.
This went on for years and years. I wrote the other day about my grandfather and how after his death there just wasn’t anything like him again. This is true, but there were men in my life. I believe now, in retrospect, that there was provision in some of these men, I just mostly did not have the lens to see them with properly.
When I was 20 I went out to Colorado for a week at this amazing camp with a bunch of teenagers. I was like a counselor with Young Life. The entire week I had all kinds of anxiety because of my size and the fear that I lacked the ability to complete certain aspects of the camp.
We climbed up to the side of a rock face in the hanging valley of Mount Princeton at about 10,000 ft above sea level. There were posts built into the final ascent where we could grab to hoist ourselves to find the perch where we would slip into the gear that allowed us to rappel from a 100 ft shear rock face. I would climb, if possible, and then I would tie a rope around my waist, bend my knees, launch, and fall to my death.
But first I had to make this last climb. I really didn’t believe it was possible, but my boss and friend, Joel Nichols, gave me a hand.
Mind you, this was in 2002. It was awhile ago.
I made the final bit to what felt like the roof of the world and I remember Joel looking right into my eyes and saying with the utmost sincerity:
You are stronger than you think you are.
I promptly forgot these words. I rappelled and was safe but in the final analysis, I just want to say that health insurance is a good idea.
A few days later was the big hike up to the top of a 13,000 ft mountain. I just didn’t believe I had it in me. But you know, this is one of those things in life, right? You start to walk, one foot in front of the other and then, before you know it, we’re seeing the summit. You’re starting to believe. Hours go by and you realize you’re in the back of the pack. But it doesn’t matter. You just keep moving.
Before you know it you’re making that last scramble for the top where your friends are chanting your name. You rest and look out at the best view you could ever imagine. Rocks that sit at the top of the world. Crystal lakes of water that sit above tree line. Narnia-esque. Heaven-like. Mother Nature in full splendor.
Then something sinks into yourself and you’re not aware of anything besides how beautiful it all is and how you don’t come close to deserving it. Tears form around your eyes. You descend back into the world, into life, into the old problems and struggles and failures.
10 years go by. I graduate from college. I move off to Europe… twice. I grow a beard. I get my heartbroken a few times. I act like a jerk many more times. I learn to drink my coffee black.
Then one day, a year ago, I wake up at some absurdly pre-dawn hour on Thanksgiving morning to meet my friends to go down to the baseball stadium so that we can get in line and run a half marathon. 13.1 miles. I had been running for a few years, but never more than 6 miles, and that happened exactly one time. I didn’t run at all for the month leading up. I drank a good bit of wine the night before the race. I’m in trouble.
We take off. So much excitement. So many people. That morning sun is just blazing through the cold late November sky. You think about how far there is to go and then you make yourself stop thinking. You plug this idea into your brain: “I run now. This is what I do. There is no end to this. Just accept it. This is what you do now. You run. You run forever.”
Accept this new reality and move those feet. One foot in front of the other.
I ran that entire race. By the end I had cramps in both of my feet that ran up my legs to my hips. I am quite confident that I was the slowest person in the entire Atlanta Half Marathon to actually run the whole time. There were senior citizens who were walking past me. I am not making this up. An elderly woman came up behind me towards the end and remarked something about a great inner strength I must possess. It was sweet, but its not actually reassuring at that point. You get this feeling like people know you aren’t supposed to be there.
Do you know what it was that came flooding into my mind on that run? What I spoke to myself over and over again with each step?
You are stronger than you think.
You are stronger than you think.
Grit is not something you know, it is something you discover.
Thank you, Joel, for speaking those words so long ago. You told me I had something that I couldn’t believe, but I have always found it each time- just when the moment of requirement presented itself. What a gift you gave me, my friend.
*Thank you to Leah Hamilton for the word suggestion.
For Advent 2013 the idea is to write 25 essays- one for each day, using a single word as the launching point. These are not edited or polished, save for a brief proofread before publishing. Neither going for style nor grace, just fun and thought and the joy of whatever might come out. Many thanks to all of the good people who submitted suggestions.