Becoming More Than

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

After investing a whole lot of time listening to the testimonies in the Impeachment Hearings for many days last week, this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in what might just be the antithesis of all that is happening between political parties in our nation’s capitol and between citizens of goodwill all around our country. I finally watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, a poignant documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the long running children’s television show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Spending an hour and a half basking in the goodness of this man who was a kind of empathetic, imaginary friend in my early childhood, was nothing short of rejuvenating. Exposing myself to the light and love emanating from his soul was like coming home to a warm, cozy fire after being vulnerable to the elements on a raw and stinging cold winter’s day. Fred’s way in this world was the perfect antidote to counter the toxic affects of hatred, mistrust and disdain for truth.

Though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he believed that it was far more important to live what you believe rather than just talk about it. I find this to be a refreshing stance in our world where the noise of words can sometimes become unbearable. In a sea of children’s programming, he stood out as counter cultural, at times even espousing the use of silence on his television program. For example, on one episode he set a timer for a minute and kept quiet so that he could teach children just how long this increment of time is. Though he filmed decades before our daily lives became inseparably intertwined with reliance upon advanced technology, the wisdom he shared is as needed now as it ever was. Silence, stillness, reflection, contemplation; these are all powerful tools in a well balanced life as we stand at the threshold of the new decade just ahead.

About fifteen minutes into the documentary, I hit pause and ran to grab my journal and favorite pen. Woven into the narrative were some nuggets of profound, yet simple truth I wanted to record for more thorough digestion at a later time. They were spoken by Fred in various clips of interviews throughout the years and collectively are a treasure trove of inspiration for such a time as this. The one that struck me most deeply was this:

I think that those who would try to make you feel less than who you are-I think that’s the greatest evil.”

Fred Rogers

The greatest evil? I’ve been kicking that around in my head all day, applying Fred’s assessment to various events in our world that trigger my fiery Irish temper. And yep, at the end of the day it most definitely resonates with me. It seems that at the core of every crime against humanity this type of attitude exists. When persons are treated as less than, when human beings are denied the sense of dignity and good endowed to them by their Creator, this indeed is evil. And sadly we are witnesses to it every day, even hearing it from what once might have been considered unlikely sources of such harmful and nefarious conduct. We see it executed through lies spoken, through accusations tweeted, through callous generalizations propagated on social media, all serving to dehumanize the “other”. Slowly but surely there seems to an erosion of civility happening. It is stripping the sense of sacred presence found in humanity and devaluing individuals and groups of persons through the use of one word descriptors such as “animals”, “enemies”, “invaders”, “lowlifes”, “dogs”.

In complete contrast, Fred Rogers lived his life lifting up the marginalized, reverencing those who were seen as less than, putting a spotlight on their inherent beauty and uniqueness. He took on the controversial issues of the times in which he lived and over and over raised up persons who were commonly misunderstood, discriminated against and treated unfairly. He opened our eyes to see that these incredible human beings are more than anyone ever let them be. Mister Rogers imparted to all people a sense of dignity and respect, even to those who would go on to create parodies of his show. Though he may not have appreciated their humor, he never disparaged them as persons.

This perhaps is the aspect of Fred Roger’s life that challenges me the most. He personified Jesus’ discourse in the Gospel of Matthew: But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What Jesus inherently knew and was addressing with this discourse is that there exists a great temptation to imitate the very behaviors I detest in my enemy, under the auspices of being righteous. When I give into this temptation, I myself become less than who I am, not because of another’s treatment of me, but by the way I choose to stoop below the dignity of who I was created to become. When instead I successfully resist devaluing my enemies through the use of one word descriptors, and choose to act with intentional love towards them, the cycle of hatred can be reversed.

No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are all called to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation. Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and love to your neighbor and yourself.”

Fred Rogers

As time marches forward toward the Winter Solstice and shorter days grow darker, I invite you to join me as I attempt to take up a virtual residence in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. It is a place where our daily words and actions can become a source of rejuvenation for others. It is a neighborhood where the light and love emanating from our souls can serve to melt misunderstandings found in the space between us. It is an environment where all people can be recognized as inherently good and treated with a sense of dignity and respect, even when they are considered to be enemies. There in Mister Roger’s neighborhood we can collectively become more than; together we can become repairers of a broken world.

Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.