Friday, February 24, 2012

Sometimes, Surviving is a Triumph

The last time I was in England--ten years ago--my oldest brother Christopher and I ran the London Marathon together. Ever since I was in eighth grade, Chris and I would run together: 3.5 miles each time out. The first time Chris brought me along on one of these 3.5 mile runs, I had never gone more than a mile.

What ensued: gasping, lunging, yelling, dizziness, curmudgeon-esque thoughts about life and everything within the entitiy of life, falling-down, thirst, and--eventually--triumph.

Arriving back home after that first 3.5 mile run, triumph didn't see me standing tall, swiftly running with a smile across my face and hope etched on my eyes.


Rather, triumph heard me yelling, "Triumph, you damn difficult, despicable, deploarable, detestable, deceiving demon you!"

(When I get mad, I resort to run-on barrages of language in alliteration. When very mad, assonance, consonance, and anthropomorphism join the party in full force. When very, very mad, I pretend that I am Denzel Washington, and I sternly look the anger-inducing-thing in the face and say with gusto and confidence, It hurts! It hurts! MAKE IT STOP!)

But after that first 3.5 mile run, Chris continued to challenge me to come along, and something inside my soul lunged at the chance.

So I kept going with him. It was my last year of middle school--and up to that point, I'd been chasing girls with various notes saying how much I loved said girls and asking friends to deliver said notes to said girls in the hopes that said girls would return a note my way with a message somewhat akin to what I had written: I want to go out with you.

I'd also been shoplifting.

A lot.

Comic books, baseball cards, anything I could get my hands on.

So when Chris began asking me to run with him, something inside me leapt like the dog that bit my inner thigh when I was in the fourth-grade (ferociously, and with not shred of forethought).

As Chris and I began to run together, my view began to widen. As a deaf man, Chris had battled more than I could imagine, and as he shared his experiences and his philosophy and his faith in God with me, I felt as though someone had just told me that all of the canned corn I had eaten in my entire life wasn't actually the real thing.


There was something called corn-on-the-cob, and on this entity, the little kernels of corn actually stuck to a very long ear (but not like an ear with a flabby, floppy bottom-part that tempts you constantly with Flap me, Dude! Come on, just flap me one time!).

Chris was welcoming me into a life where corn-on-the-cob eating was not only a reality, but it was a great joy. Something bigger, something wider, something more essentially awesome than shoplifting or chasing after girls with a note that held less poetic truth than a Coca-Cola advertisement.

(How dare you change the color of Santa.)

Right about this time--eighth grade--I also began to listen to speeches by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. on cassette tapes. I'd hear these powerful words about changing the status quo, about fighting a bigger, broader, wider fight than I had ever imagined existed.

There was something more dangerous than shoplifting.

There was something more meaningful than going out.

Homi Bhaba, the postcolonial theorist, once said that when we 'other' people, we cast them as distinct, different from us; and this makes it easier to categorize them, oppress them, treat them as less than human. When we stop othering the people we meet and hear about, we start seeing how they are us and we are them, and it radically changes the way we see not only them, but ourselves.

Jesus said it like this: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

And because of the runs with Chris, the speeches by Malcolm and Martin, and this amazing teacher and savior named Jesus Christ, everything inside of me started to shift.

The very definition of Triumph in my life corroded like old iron (which may cause blood poisoning and, whenever piercing the skin, requires a tetanus-shot booster and I hate needles and am terrified of them though I did give blood once while my loving wife stood by and sympathized with me as I felt as though I were hiking Everest.)

I hate old, rusty iron.

And so I began to ditch my Old Triumph, whose definition went something like this: Get what you want. Look out for yourself. Maker it happen. Cross the finish line with a smile, even if it means hurting others or bending love.

But New Triumph started speaking into my ear, saying stuff like, Dude, Love doesn't bend. It's like new iron that will never, ever, ever get rusty. NT, once we were on nicknameable terms, also started to show me that when you're living for what really matters (when you're seeing how you ARE the other, and the other IS you, when you're trying to love your neighbor as yourself, when you keep running even though everything hurts and all you want to do is quit--or take a short-cut on love--) life has a way of getting both easier and harder.

Easier, because you feel this sense of humility, and you start to look at everyone else with this in your mind: You can teach me a lot. You start to see people this way--even kids. Even little kids. Even babies. And old people. And middle-aged people. You look at people and you want to hear their stories, because you know--as John Donne claimed--that the bell is tolling for them and for you. You look at people and you want to hear their stories because you believe it's crucial you do, and you want to honor people for the lives they are living, the battles they're fighting.

(I love what C.S. Lewis once quipped about humility: when you meet a truly humble person, chances are you won't walk away from them thinking, Dude, that guy was like SO totally humble! No, chances are you'll walk away thinking, That guy was really, really interested in my life. [my paraphrase of Lewis, of course; Lewis said pretty much the same thing, though with more beautiful language.])

Life is easier, too, because the expectations change. It's no longer about accomplishment; instead, it's about interaction, relationships, intersections.

But life gets harder, I think, when we trade in Old Triumph for New Triumph. Because NT doesn't promise a lot. NT doesn't promise that you're going to be rich. Doesn't promise loads of success. Doesn't promise an absence of suffering, pain, frustration, and definitely doesn't promise getting what you want all the time.

What New Triumph does promise, I think, is one thing: that you're going to be able to keep going. That you're going to have a deep energy that gets refilled like a bottomless cup of coffee at a great local diner. Just when you think you're finished, spent, despairing, here come the waitress or waiter, steaming pot of coffee in her / his hand, smile on her / his face, asking, Refill?

To which we respond by throwing ourselves on the floor with gratitude and exhaustion.

I love what Psalm 38 of the Old Testament says. Verse ten is pretty much where we end up--all of us--at some point, or at a lot of points: "My heart is pounding within me, my strength is gone, the brightness has left my eyes."

But then, five verses later, the psalmist makes this wildly bold and basically ridiculous claim: "But I will trust in the LORD, and I know that the Lord my God will answer me."

Pretty insane to claim that even though all circumstance and every outward fact points towards collapse, despair, and loss, the writer says, Hey, I'm still trusting. I'm still holding onto my faith. Because I believe that God is going to answer.


I think it's because this writer can see the waitress / waiter rounding the corner, coming out from behind the counter, pot of coffee hoisted high.



The ability to run a few more paces, write a few more words, work another day, kiss your wife's or son's forehead and say, Everything is going to work out fine.

But this kind of thinking and living is New Triumph thinking. It's not going in for the big kill, and it's not playing the lottery, praying on luck. Instead, it's banking on love.

When Chris and I lined up with twenty-odd-thousand other people to run the London Marathon ten years ago, we were smiling. We were happy. We were carefree and sure of ourselves and excited.

By mile 15, I was begging Christ to quit. Stop. We'd done enough.

By mile 17, Chris was begging me to quit. Stop. We'd done enough.

By mile 23, a guy running while carrying a full-size canoe on his shoulder passed us, saying, "Keep going, guys," at which point we felt immeasurably tiny and also partially-in-the-mood-of-yelling-at-the-guy: Hey, try carrying TWO canoes, why don't you pal!?

By mile 25, we were crying, wondering if we'd still be conscious and if not, would somebody please carry us across the finish line because, hey, come on, we'd already run 25 miles.

By mile 26.2, we held hands, ran like two 95-year-old grandmothers across the finish line, and then collapsed on the nearest patch of grass we could find.

It took us about five hours.

We didn't set any records; we couldn't claim any kind of glory--except the glory of averted-spewing--and we couldn't stand.

But it was triumph. It was that New Triumph, where we realized, in some small way, that it's not about the times in which we finish our respective races, nor is it about comparisons to others and how fast or slow they're running. (My brother-in-law, Paul Gant, once shared this beautiful pearl of wisdom with me, that he had read somewhere: Comparison if the thief of joy. Holy-crap-life-changing-idea.)

At the London Marathon, New Triumph was about one thing: not giving up. Not stopping. Not saying, Forget it!

And that kind of victory sometimes gets a C or even a C- or even a D (or, even though it pains me to write this as a teacher, yes: even a D-).

It sometimes finishes a marathon in five hours. Or six hours. Or two days.

It sometimes dances around in a circle in the living room while "Come on, Eileen" blares and the people dancing wonder how the money will come in to make rent or buy a new pair of shoes or another jar of instant coffee.

But New Triumph says, essentially: keep going.  It says: sometimes, surviving is a triumph.