There Is No Substitute for Life

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I was walking out of Wal-Mart yesterday, where I seldom shop. Seeing people in pursuit of goods at the lowest possible prices made me think. Reflecting on my shopping experience, I thought about how we often substitute material things for the love and meaning: food, mood-altering and mind-altering substances, video games, entertainment, casual sex, and so much more. In economics, we talk of opportunity cost. The cost of substituting real life for alternatives is nothing less than life itself.

My nature is always to find the good in any situation, to see what possibilities for better exist. Therefore I spent a large part of the last couple of days considering my own blessed state, for which I am humble and grateful. I ponder how and why things turned out as they did for me. I believe it boils down to two fundamental beliefs:

  1. We can usually improve our lot in life through hard work and adhering to the principles of love, faith, and gratitude. There is no guarantee that these things will ensure a happy and meaningful existence. They are, however, better than any other approach to life.
  2. We can choose to live with integrity and dignity. The words that come out of our mouths, the actions we take, and where we spend our time is what determines the tenor of our lives.

We have a saying in our running community: “Finishing last” is better than “Did not finish”, and “Did not finish” is better than “Did not start”. Similarly, no matter how we finish our lives, we are better off to choose actually living instead of existing.

The other day, my friends Martin, Sarah, and I ran along a trail, a treat on a weekday morning. I was lagging a little behind their pace. When we got to the turnaround point, I looked up and they were scaling a steep hill, unusually green with grass for late December. As they smiled at me from the top of the hill, I did my best to run up against the full weight of gravity. At the top, I could see why they were smiling: a lake awaited me.

To have run with my heart pounding, friends ahead pulling me along, only to reach a magical destination, one which I didn’t know existed, was altogether wonderful.

I have become very good at being with people who are living full, rich lives. Just as Martin and Sarah did on the trail, these others pull me along, usually symbolically and sometimes literally.

My desire for growth and challenge borders on the obsessive. It feels like a matter of life and death, and perhaps it is more than anyone could imagine. Struggle is the way of growth.

My brother died yesterday morning, December 23rd, 2017. We hadn’t been close for many years. In a upbringing which was dominated by substance abuse, his life repeated the pattern of our parents, as he died an alcoholic, homeless in his last years, and without many friends. This news was related to me by my cousin. It was in this context that I reflected on our tendency to accept substitutes for real life.

I wish my brother had been able to find and subscribe to and believe in the ability we have to determine our lives. To return thanks for the life I’ve been given, I keep gratitude always in my heart. Until my last day, I won’t accept any substitute for life.

Your Mind Is a Fortress

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At the risk of sounding recursive, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about thinking. Although it’s difficult to determine the exact number, scientists estimate we have between 12,000 and 70,000 thoughts each day. We experience the present, the here and now, in 3-second chunks. Everything except these three seconds is the past or the future. During these thoughts, our brain forms pathways. What’s more, different pathways will form as we think about different things. The evolving science of neuroplasticity shows that parts of our brain “light up” in response to different stimuli.

But enough of this science! What I’ve concerned myself with lately is how we use our 3-second windows of thought during the day. I noticed, for example, that when I pay attention to politics (which I consciously try not to do, but the flesh is weak), I felt this combination of adrenaline and toxicity that I know represents something ugly in me. I try to find the best antidotes I can — friends, good music, and good books — and that helps.

However difficult it may be, we have a choice in the pathways we want to form in our brain. We can try new and difficult things and get our minds in shape. Through this, we’ll continue to grow. Folks have cited a figure of 10,000 hours as being what it takes to master a subject. But just because you don’t want to commit to 10,000 hours doesn’t mean you can’t learn something new today and this month. Like with an addiction, it may not be easy to take yourself away from what is easy and what draws you in.

Start with something small. Learn a new word, or read a challenging article, or listen to a piece of classical music. I have a hunch that as you step out, you will be rewarded. Whatever you do, avoid the negative. (Don’t worry, if you avoid it you’ll still get your share.) As Kenneth Graebner wrote, “The choices of each moment are the building blocks that form us to be who we are.” Your mind is a fortress; be careful about what you choose to let in.

How your goals affect the quality of your life

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On most mornings, I repeat to myself the words of John Wooden: “Make each day your masterpiece.” Some days seem closer to bringing this about than others. But, I don’t know that it is ever possible to live every minute to my highest standards, simply because being human means that I won’t be perfect.

At some level, we probably all make compromises with ourselves. If perfection is the only acceptable outcome, we will be disappointed, driven crazy, or both.

On the other hand, we will not know how close we come to achieving our goals unless those goals are formed. I am goal-oriented, perhaps even too much so, but I am careful about dictating to others how they should live. In fact, for parts of our lives, it’s essential that we just be rather than do.

Still, there is great value in actually articulating what we want to do with our lives:

1. Having goals helps us prioritize our time. If we have multiple competing activities that we want to do, our goals can help us decide what we should do right now.

2. Our goals shine a light when we are in the dark. Sometimes we are sad, and our goals remind us why we started a difficult task in the first place.

3. Finally, our goals affirm that we are worthy human beings. When we form goals, we are essentially stating that we are capable of achieving good and important things.

Even though I would like for everyone to know what they are aiming for, not everyone is ready to set goals. Sometimes not having formed your goals is a sign that you are still working things out in your life, which is a process that takes time and cannot be rushed.

For those who are thinking about goals, here are some tips to create or revisit your goals:

1. Consider your life holistically. You might have work or relationship goals. I would encourage you to think even more broadly. I organize my goals into the four areas of my life — spiritual, physical, intellectual, and social.

2. In many parts of your life (like your employment), you are encouraged to have S.M.A.R.T. goals — Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon or Attainable, Realistic/Reasonable, and Time-based. If you want to do this with your life goals, it will likely serve you well. Know, however, that these goals are for you. It’s important that you know when and if you are achieving your goals, but they do not necessarily have to conform to the format of those from the workplace.

3. Don’t think too small. I recently went back and looked at some goals from a few years ago. I was amazed and how small they seemed. This is your life — aim for greatness

4. The goal is an end, but getting there is a journey. And, in the end, the journey is life. For example, you might have a goal to get another degree. When the degree is done, your life will not end. What happens to you on the way to getting the degree is far more important than the moment when you receive a diploma. The “future you” might need the degree, but the world needs your knowledge, which the degree represents.

If you put some consideration in your aim, you might be surprised at what you can hit You have one precious life — one chance to spend your days on earth. You should put at least as much planning into your life as you do for your vacation. Your goals can be part of that plan.

Honor the Moment

I started taking barre classes (specifically, Pure Barre) the day after my last marathon. Some good friends, also runners, were dedicated and I knew it would be good for me and different.

Now I go to class 4–5 days each week. The classes follow a usual format, and when we begin, we are doing our warm-up while looking in the mirror. As it turns out, this helps me with my practice of this exercise. Each morning, I tell myself three things: 1) You will not always be able to do this, so savor the opportunity; 2) Many people have made this moment possible, so honor them and this moment by doing your best; 3) This class is not inexpensive. You owe it to yourself to get your money’s worth.

Whether we always feel it or not, this one moment is special. It holds all the potential to make or break our life.

I have always felt it’s the accidents and unplanned events that wake us up from going through the motions. I remember once when a priest at our church stumbled as he prepared for communion and perhaps this helped us have a better sense of what we were doing. Another time Meb Keflezighi fell as he completed the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trails and he used the occasion to do a few push-ups which gave everyone a smile. And there’s a reason why videos of things that go wrong at a wedding go viral.

Meb at the finish of the 2016 Olympic Trials

We really shouldn’t need mishaps to make us appreciate this moment, but we are certainly human and it seems that taking things for granted is part of our humanity. I work at a company known for its lavish benefits, a small one of which is free M&Ms. When something happens and the M&Ms aren’t present, there are complaints. It is pitiful that these complaints occur but not inconsistent with the way of the world.

We would all benefit from rituals designed to help us remember to be mindful of the gift of this present moment. There are elaborate mindfulness exercises, valuable no doubt, but things need not be this complicated.

We can develop our own cues (like my morning view into the mirror at the beginning of Pure Barre) which prompt us to honor the moment. Maybe you stay quiet on the first part of your morning commute. Maybe you come to associate a physical action like brushing your teeth with bringing mindfulness. Or maybe you take your time to eat a snack each day and use that as an opportunity to remember where you are and what you’re doing.

While mindfulness for its own sake is worthwhile, mindfulness for the sake of gratitude makes the practice even more valuable. You will never have this moment again. Honor it for the gift it is.

My friends are my heroes

“ Imitate people you look up to until you can look up to yourself.” Alexi Pappas

When I was in high school, like a lot of young teens I looked up to older guys. Without realizing it, I became a little annoying as I tagged along. One day, a friend let me know he didn’t want me inviting myself everywhere. He did this in front of one of my oldest and most faithful friends, so I was a little embarrassed.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, he actually did me quite the favor. That moment, which occurred in class during 10th grade, actually represented a change of mind for me. I realized that no matter how much I looked up to someone else, I should never forget myself. And I never did.

This is not to say for one second that I stopped having heroes. In fact, I surround myself with heroes as much as I possibly can.

The heroes of my youth were often professional athletes or recording artists. In those days, we didn’t really know about any foibles, and when we found out, we were crestfallen.

These days, I can see the challenges my friends have and it doesn’t lessen my admiration. I know that they may be disappointed in their careers or squabble with their relatives or have bad habits.

With that said, what makes a hero? It’s someone who tries to maintain a positive attitude when things are not perfect. Someone who says “This is where I’m going and I’m going to take you with me.” Someone who does the same work when no one is looking as when others are around.

I freely imitate my friends because I know it will make me a better person. I imitate the way Blaire prioritizes joy. I imitate Susan’s compassion and desire to include everyone. I imitate the way Sarah combines strength and love. I imitate Jamie’s desire to make a difference in the world. I imitate Robin’s nurturing spirit. My friends are a team of superheroes who spring into action when the world needs a lift.

When properly done, living is not about dependence or independence, but rather interdependence. We become heroes to each other, bringing our gifts in exchange for theirs.

Leaving Your Legacy

Sometimes we confront our mortality. It may come when we suspect we’re seriously ill. Or maybe when there’s an accident that scares us. Or perhaps when we hear of the death of someone close to us.

At times like this, we may contemplate our legacy. In thinking about what we want to leave behind, perhaps it’s most instructive to see what others have given us, things that affect our lives today. In that case, here are some things which I would also love to leave behind:

The sense that I have nothing more important to do with my time than create a memory with someone.

A love which overlooks another’s faults and instead sees the person he or she could become.

A faith demonstrated by a reliance on the Author of that faith.

A refusal to abide someone denigrating their own worth.

An example of how hard work and a goal can make the difference.

An unyielding belief in a child, such that the child then believes in herself.

A joy for life which brings others in.

A sense of humor to lighten the load of this sometimes dark world.

A truth spoken in love.

A willingness to do unconventional things if it will brighten a life.

A friend recently shared a song with me called “Legacy” which says, “How will they remember me? Did I choose to love? Did I point to You enough? To make a mark on things I want to leave an offering, a child of mercy and grace.”

Another person shared with me today the influence a friend and mentor, now deceased, had had on her. We will be remembered long after we have any control over how others will remember us. If you want a say in your legacy, today is the day to give your offering to others.

The Walk to School: A Daily Sacrament of Love

One of my favorite parts of the day is when I’m leaving my neighborhood in the morning. I see Moms (and sometimes Dads) walking their children to our local elementary school. The children have their small, colorful backpacks on, the parents are often carrying a cup of coffee, and not infrequently do I see the child with a skip or jump, belying the enthusiasm of youth.

Our society places great emphasis on the rites of passage associated with young people: graduations, college matriculation, weddings, and so on. Indeed, weddings can sometimes cost more than a college education.

I would like however, for us to pause and honor this special, important ritual of the morning walk to school. There is so much there: the child is learning at a phenomenal rate, socially, intellectually, and emotionally. The parent is allowed to hold the child’s hand in a way that will not be the case in just a few short years. The walk to school enables a transition from the morning activities that are so much a part of home life, like snuggles, breakfast, and encouragement, and the structured world of school. There’s also a transition from loving parents to (hopefully) loving teachers.

Then there is the parents’ perspective. This walk is the period between being depended upon by a small human being to being depended upon by grown human beings. For many, this transition must represent quite the disconnect. And it summons forth the best effort a parent can bring.

I suspect that we sometimes fail to honor this moment of the daily walk to school because to recognize it for what it is might bring forth more emotion than we can reasonably handle. It is hard to carry on with your heart stuck in your throat.

In the Christian church, there is the notion of a sacrament. A sacrament is “a visible symbol of the reality of God, as well as a means by which God enacts his grace…Sacraments signify God’s grace in a way that is outwardly observable to the participant.”

For me, driving to work each day, I see grace in way the small hand is held by the parent, in the special conversations, and in the courage it takes to go from the security of a family to the wonder of the world. I see grace enacted in an outwardly observable way.

C.S Lewis once wrote, “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the world in letters too large for some to see.” Perhaps, in the same way, the morning transition from home to school, is the retelling of love in small letters every day.

The Relay: Life at a high level

Sometimes I step back in amusement and wonder that after more than four decades of running, how can I still get so excited about the adventures we take. Just as I would study the hands on the clock during 6th period at Jackson Junior High, anticipating recess, I often find myself laying out my workout clothes and checking the time before a rendez-vous with my friends for our next race. Aren’t I supposed to be thinking about more grown-up things than a footrace?

Yet this was the case yesterday in anticipating of a 20K relay, the Occoneechee Speedway Relay. This was a special event in which my partner, Susan, and I would alternate running around a one-kilometer track for a total of 20 laps. Our team name was Raz, in honor of our favorite Chocolate Raspberry Muffin at Bean Traders. And as if that weren’t enough fun, we would be joined by my wife Robin and our friend Cathy (Ma Taz), Sarah and Mike (The Cobblestone Clippers), and Jamie and Kevin (the WokeNeeChee Buddy Brigade). There were probably a dozen other friends in the field of 62 teams.

But let’s not get lost in the details. Here are the important facts: Some of us were trying to run very fast and win. Some wanted to focus on doing the race together. And all of us wanted to honor the event with a respectable effort.

Relays are truly a gift from God, as far as I’m concerned. They give you added incentive to do your best, while building deeper camaraderie and friendship.

I’ve written before about the transcendental experience of the relay race and yesterday’s event lived up to my expectations. This one was made all the more special because it is run on a old dirt race track, a track where Richard Petty won the last race in 1968.

And now picture this: The defending co-ed champion, the Cobblestone Clippers, Sarah and Mike, beating last year’s time by more than three minutes.

Picture this: My wife and I alternating laps with Cathy and Susan, with whom we’ve trained for years and done so many races.

And picture this: Our friends Jamie and Kevin, in their Flash-themed outfits, kicking up mud as they gave it their all.

Days like these cannot be measured by any conventional means. They can only be measured in the knowledge that all the money in the world could not purchase anything better.

I’m a copycat

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A very young friend (seven years old) of ours announced that she is now a vegetarian. She was quick to add, “But it’s not because Alegria is doing it!”

When I was young, we would go through all kinds of contorsions to avoid being labelled as a copycat. If your friend had an NFL jacket and you wanted one, you’d have to figure out the proper angle so you would have your own reasoning for getting such a jacket yourself.

I have no such problems these days. If I see someone doing something worthwhile and admirable, I will do exactly the same and will not hesitate to tell the world why I’m doing it.

I will copy my friend Blaire’s empathy.

I will copy my friend Aaron’s generosity.

I will copy my friend Sarah’s whole-heartedness.

I will copy my wife Robin’s compassion for the less fortunate.

And I will copy my friend Susan’s inclusiveness.

Even in superficial things, I emulate my friends. I’ll wear the same hoodie, watch the same TV shows, and read the same books. If it’s true that we become like the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time, then I’m all in.

We owe it to ourselves and the world to be exactly who we were meant to be, but we are a tapestry of everyone who has touched our lives.

I am my elementary school guidance counselor who told me, “I believe you make your own fate.”

I am my college work supervisor who demonstrated her concern by making sure I had what I needed during semester breaks.

I am my neighbor who often invited me to eat dinner with her family.

We are imbued with a unique soul, which then is influenced by our environment — nature and nurture. Adopting the virtues of the best people around us makes us like the best people. For that reason, I will be a copycat until the end.

Pain lies along the path to success

The first week of football practice in high school, I became somewhat notorious for throwing up in the middle of drills. This turn-of-events wasn’t lost on me, and eventually I learned not to eat in the hours before practice. Still, for the next few years, in the hot North Carolina summer, I would throw myself into drills and sprints to the point where I would experience “dry heaves”, basically retching and feeling terrible. My coach would say, “Don’t die out here! If you’re going to die, go inside first!”

There was a perverse bit of pride in knowing I could push myself so hard. In fact, I remember Coach Gero once told someone who was suffering a similar experience, “Get back in line! Mullis threw up and he got back in line!”

At some point, every serious athlete will need to decide what kind of relationship she or he wants to have with pain. This is especially true of endurance athletes, but is also true for those who must practice in adverse weather or who must do physical tasks over and over. And it almost goes without saying that martial artists and other physical combatants will need to figure out how much pain to tolerate (although in this latter case, pain isn’t something you want to invite in, but rather something you must endure as part of the sport).

Some of the most-watched videos of endurance races are those when someone is collapsing or otherwise not able to move forward toward the end of the race. These are hard for me to watch.

In shorter races, though, I am inspired to see how people can push themselves. (I can watch these because there’s not much serious health risk for a well-trained athlete running relatively short and middle distances.)

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Steve Prefontaine was notorious for his ability to push himself to the limits. He once said, “ A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.” This was a man who understood the relationship between performance and pain. There aren’t many videos of his races, but most of them show him in an all-out effort until the end. My favorite of his races is the noted 1972 Olympic 5000M, in which he came in fourth. He led, then dropped to fifth, then led, the dropped back, and then made a final bid on the last lap before breaking down. It was clear than his limit wasn’t pain, as is the case for most of us, but just his physical ability. (It’s important to note that no one under 25 had ever won the gold medal in the Olympic 5K, and had Pre’s life not be cut short, he might have come back in 1976 to medal.)

Steve Prefontaine via Wikipedia

But I need not look to celebrity and elite runners for inspiration. I have many friends who I’ve seen lay it all out for the sake of knowing they did their best. Last summer, our training group did an informal relay where there was nothing but team pride at stake. My friend Sarah, in particular, ran all out in every event ranging from 400M to 1600M, setting multiple personal bests in the process. It’s something I’ll never forget, and it’s the kind of thing we can draw on when we are deciding how much pain to endure.

And that’s the thing about pain in endurance sports. It’s a decision each person makes, a calculation of how close she or he wants to come to reaching full potential versus how much pain to endure. Alexi Pappas has written eloquently about her relationship with pain: “All pain takes its time. Some hurt grows old and dies, but other times it lingers like the glop of hot-cocoa powder stuck to the bottom of the mug. No matter what variety of pain I am confronted with, I have a choice about how I interact with it and how it will affect me. All marshmallows, when squeezed, can reinflate eventually.”

It’s remarkable that in order to feel most alive, you have to push yourself to the point where you feel dead. It’s a decision you need to make over and over to reach your full potential.