They are educated in ways I hope to attain one day–a degree in physics (physics!), a degree in finance, and possibly degrees in business administration. They’re well traveled, and they’re much older than I am.
But neither of them know how to coat pharmaceuticals, so they’re stuck with me. I know coating, at least. I know it quite well.
Calculus = Smart?
I’ve always desired to be the smartest one in the room. When I was a preteen my Dad told me how much he’d struggled with trigonometry in school. I resolved to master it. In high school I did, indeed, become competent in low-level trigonometry and pushed myself to study the highest maths I could.
I can’t tell you how much time and tears I expended on the subject. Why? Because Calculus = smart. I studied advanced physics. Why? Physics = smart.
All the while, I was destined to be a… writer. Woe is me. If only I’d thought classic literature, poetry and writing classes were the thing for smart people to do!
Recreational IQ Testing
I’ve also been known to take online IQ tests for the fun of it. I’ve been told they only count if they’re administered by a professional, but I still like to be reassured that my IQ is just a little higher than the average Jane’s. I may in fact be ‘gifted’.
Never mind how many derelict genius’s there are out there.
I don’t know why intelligence matters so much to me. I don’t know why I have to be “smart”. Logically, I believe that IQ helps, but hard work trumps talent every time. In fact, I have this coworker who I’m certain has a high IQ and is technically “smarter” than I am. But I outwork him every day, and soon I’m going to pass him. I don’t believe in saying “Oh, I’m just not smart.”
So why the heck do I have to be a genius?
The Book has a Silver Lining
You can’t choose your IQ, but fortunately there are no limits on the knowledge you may absorb. So since I’m never smart enough, I keep on reading. Oh yeah, I love to read, but mostly I’m outrunning my idiot status. Must know more! Must read classic novels. Must read books on leadership. Must read books on history. Must read Plato.
I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to sit in a waiting room, reading Plato while everyone else is reading tabloids. If that doesn’t swell my head, I don’t know what will.
If only they gave PhD’s to people who read enough books.
Nevertheless, I am now a professor of pharmaceutical coating. I’ve always wanted to be a professor of something. I asked MY coach if she feels like an idiot the whole time she is coaching trainees.
The dictionary says that the word ‘slump’ originates from a word meaning ‘to fall into a bog.’ That’s wonderfully accurate. The kind of slumps I’m thinking of are quicksand-ish things that suck you down and render you, the high-performance machine, into a tire-spinning mess.
They’re kind of dangerous if not diagnosed. So here is how to know if you’ve fallen into a bog… and possibly my own tongue-in-cheek confession.
If You Refuse to Eat Your Veggies…
If you usually get your five to seven servings, but now you call those green flakes in your bag of sour cream ‘n onion good enough. If you call the ketchup on your fries and the lettuce on your burger a salad.
You may be in a slump.
If You’re Watching Way Too Much TV…
If when you’re gunning for a goal you don’t give a rip about when Castle and Becket are getting married, but now it seems like a good reason to stay on the couch. If you’re surfing YouTube at random–for hours. If the kids who run the video store don’t need to ask for your phone number to process the rental, ’cause they know it already.
You may be in in a slump.
If You Hate Everyone…
If you’re usually Mr. Nice Guy, but now the world is full of idiots. If even your Mom can’t get a smile out of you. If you can’t stand to have someone breathing beside you because the noise drives you wild.
You may be in a slump.
If You Can’t Stand to be in the Same Room as Yourself…
If your internal dialogue consists of constant rants, diatribes, and arguments with yourself. If you can’t muster the will to say no to yourself anymore. If it’s Saturday and you’ve ticked nothing off your to-do list and you feel like a fat, lazy slob.
You’re not as bad as you think you are.
Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself “I am worthwhile,” because you are. Your worth isn’t based on what you do. You are a human, a unique soul, a special gift. You are the image-bearer of God. You might be going through a slump right now. You may be full out depressed, and I’m sorry. I wish I could make it better.
But you aren’t a waste of space.
I’ve watched so much TV, YouTube, and movies this week. I ate two whole bags of chips this week (and I profess to eat low-sugar, low-carb). I slacked off of blogging and tweeting. I avoided my novel manuscript. I was a grumpy bear to my coworkers and my family and ranted a great deal more than is seemly. I’m sure I’ve been annoying as heck. About the only things I did right were going running and showing up in church on Sunday morning.
But the clock is at three minutes past midnight. It’s Tuesday morning, and I have twenty-four hours to try again.
“Risk comes in all shapes and colors: bankruptcy, heartbreak, failure. The alternative is a world without risk, without color, without knowing if you could have made that business work, if she would have truly loved you, if you would have finished that race or project or garden or painting or triathlon or… whatever. If, in other words, is risk’s purgatory. I know I don’t want to spend any time there.” Georges St. Pierre
Don’t we all have these ‘ifs’ buried deep in our memories?
I have a business I tried to start. I know I didn’t give it my best. I was too afraid. Every now and again I pull it from my memory vault, polish it up, and wonder could I have made it work? Did I blow my only shot?
In The Magician’s Nephew, the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, Polly and Digory come across a bell with this inscription:
“Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.”
“What if” is the purgatory of risk, as St. Pierre said. If we, because of a lack of courage, take the easy road, we get to live with nothing but ‘ifs’ for the rest of our lives. We live in a vaguely comfortable world without danger, but we become “cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat” (Theodore Roosevelt).
It breaks my heart to see so many ‘cold and timid souls’ among my peers. They’re too scared to commit to a relationship. They’re scared to quit their job and go to school. They’re scared to move out of their parent’s place.
Because what IF it doesn’t work out?
What if it does?
No joke: the world is a big scary place. I’ve got to acknowledge that not all risks are worth taking. The Georges St. Pierre quote comes after an explanation of his calculated risk. In Narnia, Polly and Digory awake a wicked witch when they strike inscripted bell. In other words, I’m not advocating ‘YOLO’ (though a little of that spontaneous spirit is a good thing for homebodies like me).
I’m reminding myself that fear is inevitable, but I need to look past the fear, or the complacency, or the discomfort, and make a calculated choice. Then, when ‘if’ comes calling, I can at least say “it wasn’t worth it” not, “I should have tried.”
It may be as small as engaging your new coworker in conversation, even if his accent is difficult to understand. That’s my adventure this week.
Summer is over. Manitoba’s autumn is the equivalent of winter in the coastal and southern areas–brain-freezing winds, thick frost, and gun-metal grey skies.
But it was a good summer. I’ve been reflecting on this past summer and I’ve been so grateful for the great things that have happened this summer. Here are the highlights.
Losing 30+ Pounds
This began in March, when I was introduced to the book Trim Healthy Mama. The book advocates a low-glycemic, superfood approach to eating, which I have embraced. This led to…
Running my First 5K
And my second, third and fourth. I began the Couch to 5K program in mid-June, and ran my first race on August 17th, about nine weeks later. Since the completion of the program, I have slowly been increasing my distance and speed.
Road Trip with Jess
In the first week of July, my sister and I packed up my little car and booted off to Minneapolis for a week of shopping, touring, and sister-time. Neither of us had shopped at the Mall of America. So we spent two eight-hour days shopping! After that we were sick of the place, and toured a historic mansion, attended a Independence Day celebration at Fort Snelling, and drank a LOT of coffee.
Publishing my First Novel
After a marathon of editing, and formatting, We are the Livingwas released as an E-book in August, and a print edition was released in September. My friends and family, who didn’t have to format and edit it, were much more excited than I. :)
It’s a post-zombie-apocalypse-lovestory mishmash, and a beautiful story of hope in bleak places. I hope it will be a stepping stone to greater things. I sure learned a lot from it.
A New Church
Leaving the church of my childhood was like leaving home and family. Now I am safely ensconced in a new church in town. It is slowly becoming home. I became a member of the choir two weeks ago, and now I feel like I have a family within the church family at large.
So what will the winter hold? For starters, I’m going to learn how to run on a treadmill. I have no interest in running in -40 weather, so the treadmill will need to be my best friend. I’ve never used one, so this might be funny for everyone else.
I have plans to complete National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) by writing the first book in a series, which I plan to debut late next year. In the meantime, I am editing a sci-fi novel, for release in the spring.
And you know, I’m kind of looking forward to Christmas. Too soon?
This week I took my second sick day of the year, and the third of my lifetime. Yes, I consider myself to be indestructible, and when I do get sick I go to work anyway.
Last Saturday I woke up with burning lungs, like the feeling you get after you’ve inhaled caustic cleaner (been there, done that). “No!” I said, “I can’t be sick. I have a 5K.” Cue browsing articles on ‘should you run while sick,’ of which there was no unanimous conclusion. So, I said ‘to heck with it,’ went to the drugstore and bought the highest-powered lozenges I could find. Back in the car, I popped one in my mouth.
My tongue went numb.
“What the heck is in these things?” I flipped over the box. Hmm, Benzocaine. Isn’t that what they use to freeze your mouth at the dentist?
Well, you don’t need to feel your tongue to run. So off I went to the race.
I almost burned out in the last mile. My lungs hurt so bad, and I had to force my oxygen-deprived muscles to keep firing. My time was lackluster, but I made it.
Monday, I went running again. Tuesday I was still sick, and on Wednesday I was dragging myself around work like a zombie. I decided to call it a day and go to the walk-in clinic. Chest X-rays and EKG’s and blood work couldn’t tell the doctor what was wrong with me. “You have a virus,” he said.
I could have told myself that. At least I wasn’t dying. I’d already been imagining the end of my running ‘career’ because I had scarring of the lungs, or a hole in my heart, or something (just making up stuff, here).
So this week has been one of extra sleep, extra writing, and extra Harry Potter watching. After much self-lecturing, I’ve decided I’m sick. No speed-work midweek. No long run on the weekend. I’m getting antsy. Based on the way my chest feels right now, I might collapse midway. But it’s autumn in Manitoba, and that means six months of winter are almost here, and if I don’t enjoy the snow-free roads now, I won’t get to!
I’m the person who skips through the ‘preachy’ sections, searching for the part where the romance and adventure begins again. I’m the person who sighs heavily when the beleaguered protagonist falls to his knees. I’m the one who rants on demand about how I can’t stand God’s Not Dead. But why?
In Separating the Pulpit from the Novelist’s Pen, I talked about the notion that novels and movies must contain sermons and ‘lessons’. I’ve often felt guilty for not relating to these parts. I DO believe those sermons, right? I do believe that God isn’t dead, and that faith is rational. Heck, I’m a homeschooled, choir singing, Sunday School teaching Christian nice girl.
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing stories with curses, clones, clandestine romance, gladiator-like fighters and zombies. I toy with profanity, and dance in the grey areas between darkness and light. True, wisdom often dictates that I go back and censor myself, but eventually I had to decide that there isn’t something wrong with me. I was just called to something different.
I am convinced that each artist must fulfill the role that only they can fill–be it in the genre of Christian fiction, or in the mainstream genres. And mainstream is where I belong.
The Box Opened and I Jumped Out
I expect that Christian fiction, as an industry, was developed to provide a clean alternative to mainstream book genres. This is certainly needed, because what passes as a ‘romance’ novel these days is more like soft-core pornography in written form. Even genres that are not pegged as romantic contain a lot of this material. Furthermore, the cynicism and nihilism present there might be useful to provoke thought, but as a regular diet it is not beneficial. Essentially, the mainstream lacks truth.
However, in our efforts to provide an acceptable alternative, I feel we have created a sanitary little ghetto that we dare not poke our heads out of. We keep to the basic basic plot of mission, failure, wise sermon, repentance, miraculous victory and positive resolution. We recoil at the mention of sex, wash the blood out of our violence, and skirt wide around vulgar language.
That’s not wrong, but I don’t like it.
In the genre of speculative fiction, writing becomes even more tricky. Draw in clones, immortal characters, or magic and theology is no longer straightforward. Christian authors begin day-long debates over if clones can have souls, if magic can be attributed to the Holy Spirit, or if granting characters immortality is unbiblical.
“But immortal people don’t even exist!” I say, “Suspend the theology for a second.”
So I guess you could say I left the genre to get out of the box. I want to honour God, make no mistake, but I need the artistic freedom to tell a story without having to check off the boxes or screen it through a certain size of filter. As I said in the first part of The Misunderstood Power of Christian Art, censorship should come from wisdom or conviction–not out of fear of what people will say. To tell a story I have to go places that are uncomfortable. I make no apologies for that. Sometimes one must look past the surface actions and words, and look at the ideas and feelings being imparted, and the questions that may be raised.
The Mainstream Isn’t in the Christian Aisle
The clean offerings of the Christian genre are an excellent alternative for Christians, but are they effective in outreach? Are mainstream readers buying Christian books? Some are, perhaps, but for the most part ‘religious stuff’ is unintelligible to them, and ‘Christian’ isn’t a keyword they are searching for.
Christians have their books, their truth. Who will tell the truth to unbelievers? I want to.
So many blogs are spreading gossip, spewing vitriol and cynicism. I want mine to be positive, speaking hope about personal change and good relationships. The shelves are full of books that glorify violence, sex, self-indulgence and manipulation. I want mine to be about purpose, integrity in adversity, hope and sacrificial love.
I want to tell the truth in a world of lies.
The First Seed
I see my role as preparatory. My generation neither knows, nor respects the Bible. Their gospel is tolerance, and ‘awareness’ is their salvation. If I quote chapter and verse, I might as well be quoting Dickens.
But do they have a purpose to life? Are they fulfilled? Does their life have a foundation? I once asked a coworker, about my age and an atheist, what he based his life on. He had no idea. I don’t think he’d considered this.
That is precisely the kind of question I’d like to raise. I want to be the salter of the oats, so to speak. Or at very least, provide a good story that is full of good principles, not lies.
In the past, authors reached the world through a publishing company. But in this age of the independent author (indie), the writer engages and markets through social media. The reader might stumble across my book, but just as likely they will meet me first. I may start a conversation with them on Twitter. They may read my blog. I may have met them on Facebook and connected over a shared interest. Writing is increasingly ‘missional’ that way. I go to them.
Therefore, what I DO is just as important as what I say. Make no mistake. I cannot sit in my basement (as if a third floor apartment could have a basement… but I digress) and write. I have to genuinely care about people, wade into the stream of social media, notice, encourage, speak out. I can’t claim to be good at this, but the potential in it is breathtaking.
To Conclude the Series
Christian art is a nebulous thing, if my wobbly definition can be trusted. But though it’s hard to pin down, we cannot fear it. It is the primary medium by which my generation absorbs information. Who better than Christian artists to reach them–especially the young artists. They understand the technology, the language, the cultural references. They are the ‘indigenous missionaries’ of North America. They shouldn’t be minimized, or forced to conform. Rather, empower them to produce the best music, film and literature they can–full of grace and truth. And encourage them to take it to as many people as they can.
Christians are obsessed with truth, and rightfully so. We bear our statements of faith with pride. We have the knowledge. We have the proof. But do we have the medium?
Tim Downs said:
“In the last forty years both the quantity and quality of conservative Christian scholarship have exploded. Evangelicals today are able to marshal more impressive, scholarly information on behalf of our position than ever before. We now have, by anyone’s standards, world-class philosophers, theologians, and scientists on our side. It’s no exaggeration to say that evangelical Christians have experienced a literal renaissance in our science.
Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding renaissance in our art. We have more to say to our culture than ever before, and less ability to say it in a persuasive and compelling way. We are enamoured with our content and cannot understand why the world isn’t fascinated with our latest proofs and evidences.”
In a generation brainwashed by film, television and music, carried along by the jet stream of social media, the Christian art industry has yet to catch up. Music and film has increased in quantity and quality, yet the mainstream hears about it only if it is controversial.
We shove our artists to the front, put the Bible in their hands, and say “Preach!” But what if a sermon isn’t what we need?
Preaching: The Only Messenger?
There is a point in many Christian novels where the main character reaches his lowest point. They have expended their resources. Their mission or relationship has failed.
Cue the entry of a wise friend who opens the Bible, quotes verses, and shows them what they need is a Saviour. And you just know that when the protagonist falls to his knees in prayer, victory is around the corner.
Or say a movie is made about a farmer. He’s not a Christian, and this is readily demonstrated by his workaholicism and regular drinking binges. One summer, the corn crop he is counting on is ravaged by a hail storm. The farmer throws everything into replanting while there is still time. But this is thwarted by persistent rain. His financial future is bleak, but worse, his wife leaves him because of his drunkenness.
If you have seen three or four Christian movies, you can predict the end. The farmer will hit bottom, and while wandering in a hammered state, ready to end his life, a Christian will rescue him and clean him up. The Christian will tell him that he needs Jesus, and the farmer will fall to his knees.
His crop will be saved, and his wife will return. He may, in fact, become an evangelist.
Rarely does a movie or novel break this mould.
The Power of the Covert
Every novelist knows the adage “show, don’t tell.” Telling, or explaining, is considered weak writing and rather insulting to the intelligence of the reader. Sermonizing is precisely this: telling.
I saw a powerful example of ‘showing’ recently.
In the movie Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron, a low-brow cowboy with HIV who begins smuggling illegal medication to treat AIDs. His foil is Rayon a transgender man, now woman, who is dying of aids. Rayon is played by Jared Leto, who is by all accounts, a heterosexual man.
The empathy and passion Leto put into the role is evident, even from the short clips I watched. Rayon is no cardboard cut-out. She is a feisty dreamer, but also a deeply hurting person who just wants love. You can see it in her eyes. Though I am uncomfortable with her lifestyle, I cannot look away. I have to say, “this is a person, and I kind of like them.” (I cannot recommend that movie, by the way. I decided against watching it because of graphic content).
At no point does an actor turn to the screen and say, “Accept this person! You are a bigot if you do not accept this person!” Neither do they say, “This is a good lifestyle!” I accept Rayon because I cannot deny her personhood anymore. I empathize.
Create empathy within the heart of the viewer, and you have won the greatest part of the battle.
Catch and Release
I also see that if the art is not used as a carrier for preaching, it is often used as bait. For example, a prominent evangelist often uses free concerts with Christian rock bands to draw people to their crusades. Likewise, Christian movies are often marketed as ‘witnessing tools’. Does this work? I don’t know.
But there is a level of dishonesty about it. It says, “We are like you. We like what you like. Come, try our music,” and then slams the audience with an altar call.
In fact, sermonizing such as the ‘basic movie and novel plot’, can also be inherently dishonest. It wants the reader to believe so badly, that it makes ‘pie-crust’ promises, easily broken. Will the farmer’s wife come back the day after he believes? Probably not. He may win her back after months of trying, with the wisdom and strength of God. But faith isn’t the magic bullet we sell it as.
Let the Artists Be!
I feel like our preachers and theologians have convinced artists that their work is useless if not didactic. Sort of a ‘why can’t you be like us?’ But if we believe in the priesthood of all believers, we must value the artist as much as the preacher and not force one to conform to the mould of the other.
Dorothy Sayers said:
When you find a man who is a Christian praising God by the excellence of his work – do not distract him and take him away from his proper vocation to address religious meetings and open church bazaars. Let him serve God in the way to which God has called him. If you take him away from that, he will exhaust himself in an alien technique and lose his capacity to do his dedicated work.
It is time to let artists be. Let them do what only they can truly understand. And when they have served in obedience to the work, and to God, the message within their art may be greater than any sermon you could insert.
Read Part 1: Defining Christian art, and the artist’s mandate, here.
I’ve talked about my disgust for the movie God’s Not Dead, and how I discarded Christian music. After I released We are the Living, I had a couple of good conversations with people simply because it wasn’t a “Christian book”, or at least, I wasn’t sure their junior high kids should read it.
I feel the concept of Christian art has been misunderstood, and, as it is a subject I am passionate about, I thought it was time to discuss my philosophy of faith and art with you over the course of the next few posts.
In the field of imparting ideas, the piano and paintbrush are more powerful than the pulpit. Not to put down preaching. It is wonderful. But art has power to cross boundaries that sermons cannot, and that is why it is important that we as Christians understand it. A preface: while informed by Scripture and Christian artists and thinkers, this is my humble opinion. No doubt it will evolve as I do.
Can Christian Art be Defined?
Art is loosely defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary as:
The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Works produced by human creative skill and imagination.
Creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.
No explicit mention of film, literature or music is mentioned, but I expect there is little doubt that these are part of the arts.
But what is Christian art? This is much more slippery–like a wet football, in fact. Here is the definition I’m going to work with: Christian art is that which is produced by a Christian, in obedience to, and to the glory of God.
But what glorifies God? That is where things become more difficult.
What is the Call of the Christian Artist?
Madeleine L’Engle said, “The artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me.'” If God calls his child to art, the art becomes his or her duty.
But the manifestation of that art is their unique calling. Some will be called to hip-hop, like my friend Malcolm. Others will write speculative fiction, like me. And some will write Amish romances (which I neither understand nor enjoy, but others love), some will do acrylic paintings, and some will dance. Some will write to a strictly Christian audience, and some will write to a mainstream audience. Each field needs Christians who are obedient to the works God has prepared in advance for them (Ephesians 2:10).
Art is the work of the artist, and as Dorothy Sayers said, “Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
My Philosophy of Christian Art
I believe Christian artist must be these three things:
Excellent. The Christian must perform or create their art to the best of their ability. Where they lack, they must practise, research, and submit to mentorship by more accomplished artists. There is no half-heartedness here. There is no ‘I won’t memorize my lines for the church play’. There is no ‘I’m not getting paid’. It is your best, or nothing.
Courageous. When you are inspired to a work, the decision to do or not to do must be based on conviction and wisdom, not fear or selfish ambition. I believe this applies, especially, to censorship. Censorship is sometimes necessary, but it should not be because you are afraid to not conform, or because you want people to like you. Rather, it is because you think you’ve transgressed beyond God’s laws, or good sense. The truth is NOT always sweet to the ears. Just because it is scary does not mean it is wrong.
Truthful. Christian art cannot fall victim to denial, self-indulgent fantasy, or a lack of integrity. This is not to say that it cannot be ‘fictional’. I’ve often said that just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not true. Simply, Christian art must not engage in deceit, nor try to make the receiver believe an untruth.
The Apostle Paul said in Ephesians 5:1, “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (ESV). What an excellent description of our mandate as artists!
When we are obedient to the work, we produce what is good, right and true, and we expose darkness. This takes courage, for sometimes the darkness we expose resides within us, and we wrestle with our selfish desires as we create. But out of this courage comes work that can probe where no scholarly literature or sermon can go. That is the nature of art–to bypass the well-guarded gates of the mind, and go straight to the soul.
Which means that art can be very dangerous as well.
In the next post I will discuss why I departed from the genre of Christian fiction, and where Christian art may go awry.
Dorothy Sayers, Why Work? Read this excellent essay on the sacredness of work here.
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water. A rambling but inspiring account of her philosophy of Christian art. I really enjoyed her perspective.
I’m a short, stocky, beginner runner. Full disclosure here. I make my runs sound epic, but they’re only as epic as a nine minute plus miler can make them. I am a competitive, stubborn son of a gun who knows just enough to make me dangerous. Dangerous to myself, that is.
I learned this the hard way on Saturday.
It was technically my third 5K, but the previous one, with the dubious title of ‘Electric Donkey’ was fun but not timed. I was determined to prove myself this time around, and show myself what I could really do. I visualized shaving a minute and fifteen seconds off my previous time. Simple enough. I’d been working on my speed and stamina. 5K was now a short run for me.
But practice and theory can only go so far. After warm up I was amped and ready to go but everyone else was milling around by the registration tables and quibbling about where the inflatable finish line was supposed to be. Time dragged on, and forty-five minutes after I’d been told the race was to start, we lined up. I was a bundle of nerves by that time. The air horn blared, and I bolted.
I was out of breath in minutes. I thought it was nerves. I’d settle in and find a rhythm. But five minutes passed, then ten, and I was still struggling. I know now it was because I was pushing myself far too fast, but I had nothing to gauge my pace by. As we ran past a race marshal, I faintly heard her over my music: “Halfway there.”
That was when I knew I was in trouble.
In the final mile, my legs were so heavy I could only keep them moving by force of will. My chest was ready to burst, and I was angry. I ripped my headphones out of my ears and choked back tears. It didn’t matter. I was finishing, damn it. These legs wouldn’t stop.
I saw the finish line and the clock. The time was still under my goal time. I tried to kick into a sprint, but all I could muster was a laboured trot. I made it, just five seconds over my goal. My sister told me, after the fact, that I looked pretty bad. She has pictures to prove it–me, with my head back at an awkward angle as I stumble toward the line.
With Grandpa after the race.
I’m so embarrassed, but mostly I’m scared now. I have another race next weekend. What if I crash and burn at that one too?
Despite my pep-talks, research, and strategizing, my training run this afternoon was no better. I was so angry and discouraged as I walked home afterward. I had to force myself to quit beating myself up. I had a bad day. No, I had two bad days. Live and learn, right? I’m not good enough to be this mad. But I am.
I have this term that I learned way back. I call it ‘the wall’, or sometimes ‘the pain threshold’. It means that point in which the mental or physical pain reaches a level that can no longer be ignored, and you have to decide to gut it out or quit. In running, mental and physical seem to converge to create a perfect storm of torture. And that’s just at my pitiful 3-5 mile distance. I can’t imagine what 26 miles must be like.
This is the moment where your strength has failed you, and you dig in deep to see if you have something to keep you going. This is where you win over yourself, or you become a has-been, a failed New Years resolution, a lost dream. This is where you get to decide between “I tried to do that once” and “I did it.”
I guess I’m standing at the wall, now.
It’s a good thing I dropped cash on that 5K next weekend. I’m too cheap to quit today, and too dang stubborn. I might not do a personal best on Saturday, but I need to race again. If nothing else to get over this fear and prove that this is just a speedbump, and greater things are yet to come.
Does anyone ask you the questions you desperately want to answer?
People ask me all kinds of things, but rarely am I asked about what really matters to me. These are the things I want to talk about, and truly be listened to. In the presence of my friends and family I talk about them, unasked. But I feel that they don’t want to hear about it.
Do you feel this way too?
I want to be asked.
I want to be asked “What have you been doing at work lately?”
Silly, right? People ask “how is work?” all the time. But that’s the sort of question you’re required to answer ‘fine’ to, or ‘busy’. Maybe they’d accept a long answer, but I get the distinct feeling that if I went on a five minute rant about the product I was coating that week, and what went wrong, and about how I nailed that one coat to the exact percentage, their eyes would glaze over.
I want to be asked “How were your runs this week?”
I’d love you forever if you’d listen to me talk about running Abe’s Hill for the first time, and my 5k on the weekend–and then ask “then what happened?” like you mean it.
I want to be asked “What are you reading these days?”
Plato–The Republic, and Lord of the Rings. Ask me about Plato, and why I’d even pick it up. Ask me about what I’m learning from those books. Gosh, look at the size of the three-in-one volume of Lord of the Rings. Doesn’t it just beg to start a conversation?
Ask me about my writing projects and don’t look too shocked when my eyes light up and I expound on clones, and the archetypal city, and the righteous poor, and the adventures of some ‘made up’ character.
The problem is…
The problem is that I don’t ask the right questions either. If I were observant, and not all wrapped up in myself like I tend to be, I might know the right questions to ask YOU. The questions that make your face light up like a Christmas tree. The ones you can deliver a spontaneous fifteen minute lecture on.
I stumbled across one of these questions by accident, this summer. I’d had difficulty connecting with a coworker, a gentleman from Bangladesh, until one day I asked him “Are you following the FIFA World Cup?”
Yes! Yes he was. He was following Argentina. He’d followed Messi since the soccer star was a much younger man. He (my coworker) had actually played soccer in college. And off we went–because college led to discussions about our families, and once you start talking about your families you have lots to go on.
I began checking the World Cup stats every morning so I’d have something to say to him when we passed in the hall.
Doubtless, asking a good question won’t always have the same success. But I’ll warrant that if I’d regularly pose purposeful questions, I’d often stumble on good answers, perhaps even on a new friend. But this won’t happen if I’m not looking, using Sherlock Holmes powers of observation to discover what makes people tick.
I’m not good at that, I admit. But I realize now that I can’t make people take a genuine interest in me. All I can do is provide that loving courtesy to others, because I truly believe that to listen is to grant deep respect and honour to another. We need to be listened to. It is psychological oxygen, to borrow from Dale Carnegie.
What to ask?
So tell me. What do you want to be asked? What is that thing, buried deep in your chest, that you NEED to talk about?