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The downhill optimist

The road rises to challenge me, not to meet me.

My pace slows, my lungs burn, and I’m taught yet another lesson.

As I’ve said before, for the longest time I have been in awe of runners who choose to run trails instead of roads – hills instead of flats. Running is tough enough as it is, no?

Recently, in an attempt to become a better runner, I’ve embraced running more elevation.

These hills have humbled me in the most cutting way and have made me realize the trap of the downhill optimist.

Oregon Ridge Park, MD

When preparing for the Boston marathon, I told my friend Conrad that I was not a good hill runner. I remember how he said (in the nicest of ways) that my statement wasn’t even really viable. Basically if you’re in shape – meaning you’ve trained on hills and put in the time – you’ll be able to run the hills. Until I gave legitimate hill training a shot, how would I know if I was a good hill runner? It reminded me of the scene in Man on Fire where Denzel Washington teaches Dakota Fanning,

There’s no such thing as tough just – trained or untrained

He also spoke to me about the importance of mindset and that I can change how I speak to myself and begin affirming and viewing myself as a strong hill runner.

Yesterday on the hills in Patapsco, I was nearly brought to my knees on what is far from an impossible hill. A few minutes later, on the downhill, I was loving life.

The same story forty minutes later at the end of the run going up a hill familiar to many runners (again, not the most difficult hill in MD, but a major challenge) – Gun rd.

As I jogged the final meters, thinking back over my run, I wasn’t ashamed of how slow I ran up the hills and how fast I ran down them. I was really disappointed with my mentality.

Up the hills all I was doing was surviving, down the hills all the sudden I was a competitor again.

Truth is, so much of my experience in life can be reflected in this way of proceeding. It’s too easy to go negative, too easy to relent and to start shuffling when times are tough. At times I’ve piled on myself – doubting, shaming – all just because things weren’t going my way.

I know the downhill will be waiting for me and it’ll be time to fly, and it’s easy on the bright side but the true test is what happens in the midst of the pain, in the dark.

The next time I race will be purposely on the hills and in the heat at the Annapolis ten miler. I won’t be going for a fast time, but I do have a new focus for the race and for life in general – when the prayer says “may the road rise to meet you” I don’t think it’s so life will just be easy. I think it’s so that we can learn about ourselves on this road, the ups and the downs. So now I’m telling myself, don’t be a downhill optimist.

in plain sight

Idling at a familiar intersection, my unwelcome glance was met with a foreign gesture – two raised hands.

I think we’ve all been there, someone is talking and a few minutes in, eyes start to wander and whether it’s the game being on over someone’s shoulder, or the cell phone buzzing, the message it sends isn’t positive. Often times I have chalked it up to being easily distracted, but that’s a cop-out.

When playing my favorite video game my eyes don’t leave the screen, sometimes for ten minutes at a time, so I’m fully capable of paying attention. The difference I have come to realize is that I pay attention completely to what I find important.

Last week I saw Lady Bird for the first time and was struck by this exchange:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

Paying attention is not simply making eye contact, but that’s certainly part of it. It’s about spending time, listening – intentional engagement. Now, you might be reading this thinking, yeah okay, knew that, and? Well, this post is not only about the power of focusing on what’s important, but also the dangers of wandering eyes.

street art in Rome

When passing a musician performing in New York, Penn Station, I was struck by how many people had stopped to listen. It turned out that this particular performer was Lee England Jr., who was called the Michael Jordan of the violin, by Michael Jordan. Someone in the crowd, after walking up to put a couple dollars in his violin case, turned to me and said – “If you’re going to stand here and watch, you should probably give him something.” Luckily I had a few dollars in my pocket and was able to contribute. Now, it turns out that Lee England Jr. wasn’t playing for the money, but for the community and the love of music. Regardless, his melodies and the words of my fellow listener resonated with me on the train ride home.

If you’re going to stand here and watch, you should probably give him something.

Unpacking that statement with the most positive interpretation led me to a helpful insight – if I’m going to benefit from someone sharing their gifts, I should attempt to communicate my appreciation.

Unpacking this statement with a cautionary interpretation also led me to a helpful insight – if I’m going to stop and stare, just in curiosity, and not communicate appreciation, it might simply just be rude and maybe I should just move on and stay focused on what I’m doing.

The two raised hands belonged to a man eating a sandwich outside of Burger King. I should have just kept my eyes on the road, except I didn’t and my eyes lingered long enough to make him gesture his disapproval.

Chalk it up to being easily distracted is the easy thing to do, the more difficult option is to be cognizant of where and if I’m paying my attention, and if it’s welcomed.

Just because someone is in public, doesn’t mean they’re on display.

navel-gazing < stargazing

Wait, what? (pulls out phone)

When reading the New York Times, this is common practice for me.

It happened tonight when reading an opinion piece. The term navel-gazing stopped me in my tracks. I’m ashamed to say, despite hours of flashcards prepping for the SAT’s, english classes and a robust humanities curriculum in college, I have never seen that word before. Maybe Netflix and Instagram have rotted my brain, but I am pretty sure I was today years old when I learned the meaning of navel-gazing.

Context clues revealed it to have a negative connotation and when googled, navel-gazinguseless or excessive self-contemplation

This new information challenged me.

Is my reflection and writing a form of navel-gazing, or does it have real meaning and value? This led me down a rabbit hole of self-investigation.

My preference for gazing is that of the stars.

Stargazing humbles me.

It inspires wonder and leaves me in awe.

As a child, I thought heaven was somewhere in the Milky Way, so when I looked up, I was a witness to the divine.

As an adult, I’ve realized I can witness heaven in the eyes of a loved one, the random act of kindness, or even the thoughtful critique.

In a digital world that tempts us to look into our devices, the last thing we need is navel-gazing.

Sometimes ideas hold us down; they become heavy anchors that hold the bark of identity fixated in shallow, dead water.

John O’Donohue

Excessive self-contemplation can be harmful because it can cement damaging ideas, and more importantly, it distracts us from focusing on what’s really important. It reminds me of when the angel appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James in Matthew 28.

…suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 

There they were, two faithful disciples faithfully searching, and an angel invites them to raise their eyes to their savior, reminding them there is more to life than what we can see and more life in what we do see.

Sometimes the answers aren’t on the inside, they’re lost and found in the night, and if we have hope, even in broad daylight.

nursery rhymes and reasons

We learned to play together.

We learned to get along with others.

We learned to paint.

We learned to put our things away.

We learned to work with clay.

We learned to sit and pay attention.

We learned to do things for ourselves.

How quickly I forgot.

My mother was an educator for most of her career and is the reason I still have the diploma pictured above. Molding young minds – mostly through play – she would patiently correct, teach and support the youth, like working with clay.

Caring, sharing, being kind, being helpful – these were the traits of a contributing member of the class. Cleaning up was praised, and focus was rewarded with experiences of wonder and laughter.

In the words of Anthony de Mello, we’ve all been programmed. Our experiences and interactions have shaped us, for better or worse. Over time, we have become deeply entrenched in our beliefs about the world, and often surround ourselves with people who affirm us. We think we have things figured out, and only are occasionally surprised by new ideas or happenings.

Something I’ve noticed recently is our tendency to ask about the future over the present.

The single being asked about meeting someone.

The dating asked about getting engaged.

The engaged asked about getting married.

The married about getting a house.

The homeowners about having kids.

You get where this is going, because it’s natural. I find myself doing it too. It wasn’t until recently when I was in a conversation with a friend, talking about education, when I realized the error in my programming.

I had developed a tendency to measure my worth by accomplishments or how I was progressing professionally and socially when compared with others. In the song Loosie, Thebe Kgositsile reflects,

Found a reason to live, doubt can be in abyss
Keep fallacies off your lips

Sometimes we forget the power of the words we say to others and ourselves.

When we convince ourselves we’re not doing enough, it can draw us down further.

Many commencement speeches mention the importance of taking risks and learning from failure. This is a positive trend, we’re moving away from the prosperity gospel optimism and embracing a world that requires grit. However, something that needs to be clarified is how we define failure.

To me, here are a few things that should not be defined as failure.

Being single.

Getting divorced.

Not owning a home.

Being an addict.

Not having kids.

Not having a lot of money.

You get where this is going, because it’s natural. I find myself doing it too. It wasn’t until recently when I was in a conversation with a friend, talking about education, when I realized my error in programming.

Real success is what is listed on the pre-school diploma that hangs in the hallway of my apartment.

It’s a reminder of how my response to a life that seems to be so complex, should be very simple.

Play, help and care for others, express myself, be conscious of my impact, learn how to be malleable yet strong, stop and listen, not have to rely on someone else to fix my problems.

In many ways, everything I need to know, I’ve already learned.

the case against cynicism

Timely breezes on evening walks, caps of graduates taking flight, a favorite pair of sunglasses making their debut – reasons to smile abound.

I live in a world full of narcissists.

Much of my adult life was dominated by this belief. In recent years, I’ve made amendments.

I live in a world full of narcissists, and I am one of them.

Now, through a lot of prayerful consideration, reading and listening, I’ve changed my tune.

Recently while scrolling through LinkedIn, I saw what seemed like the hundredth post of a graduate sharing how excited they were about finishing their respective degree. These posts are often filled with gratitude and responded to with words of support and admiration. I wasn’t the most positive about them until I saw one from a student who shared they are the first person of color to earn a specific honor he received upon completion of his PhD. I was profoundly moved by his honest reflection and unbridled joy.

What if, all this time, I’ve simply been a cynic?

Social media is now part of how we communicate. We post, we share, we support and at times, we hate.

Cynicism is a disease. It diminishes, erodes and dismisses. It’s not honorable, nor should it be accepted as the way of the intellectual.

Now, narcissism is alive and well but the way to combat it isn’t cynicism, it’s authenticity.

Next time I see someone post about celebrating a degree I’m going to reach out to them and ask them to lunch so I can hear all about their journey, not critique it from the sidelines.

I live in a world, full of people just trying to make something out of this life, and I am one of them.

Reasons to smile abound.

Finding no escape.

Geometric proofs taught me about failure.

Up until encountering them, I had certainly failed before.

Failed to dunk.

Failed to learn a legitimate skateboard trick.

You know, things like that.

However, the freshness of this type of failure was that success was more of a mirage and less of a clear impossibility.

When riding skateboards it was obvious that in order to get better, I needed to ride more hours and take more risks. I simply didn’t do these things, so it wasn’t a surprise when I wiped out.

When writing proofs in Geometry class, no matter how much I studied and how much extra help I attended, the correct answers evaded me like sand between my fingers.

A few months ago I felt this feeling all over again when in an Escape Room in D.C.

Having experienced one before, I was confident of my critical thinking skills and even found myself sizing up the other people in the room before we began. I had visions of being the Rosetta Stone, the one calling out clear directions, the one untying the Gordian Knot.

Instead, I found myself right back in sophomore year – frustrated, dejected, defeated.

Just to be clear, I’ve failed countless times, but these two seemed to fit together perfectly.

For most of my life I’ve looked at solutions as the aha moment, when statements and reasons are clear and acceptable, when the door finally opens.

I love, but have always struggled with Matthew 7:7-8,

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Sure, problems can be solved, doors can be opened, it might just take a while I guess. Whether it’s in this life is not for me to know, and I’m okay with that.

I’m comfortable knowing there are those out there with superior intellects, more money, or exotic opportunities. Comfortable because it’s true, the only false belief is me thinking I have a handle on things.

The reality is, there’s no way out.

Now, instead of searching for proof or a way out, I’m getting more and more comfortable with being right here.

Our society is obsessed with the next best_________

thing

person

job

opportunity.

If I’ve put in the effort, there is nothing wrong with problems remaining unsolved.

My life is not something to be figured out.

My life is not something to be escaped.

Out of the way

The paradox that has dominated my recent thoughts:

To occupy more space, get out of the way.

The dirty table had yet to be cleared, which was to be expected on a busy afternoon in Boston. This didn’t stop a group from claiming the territory in their name, jumping others on the list that was being curated by the maître d’ who initially missed the land grab.

Eventually the group was politely asked to move (a request that was not well received) and not only wait for the table to be cleaned, but for it to be their turn. The rightful group had been quietly and calmly biding their time and was eventually rewarded and served with attention and gratitude for their small, but far from insignificant signal of respect – listening, following directions, and getting out of the way.

Now, you might be reading this and like my first reaction, come to the defense of the group that was in the wrong or even say, “what’s the big deal?” Well, to provide further context: It was a restaurant. It was busy. The maître d’ had left her post for no more than one minute to help seat another table and the group did not wait, did not even pause to consider the other people clearly waiting to be seated. Instead, they saw an opportunity, a table, clearly dirty but empty, and pounced.

If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, there is little worse than someone who makes it a point to occupy space.

When I use the word space in this context, my intention is for it to represent a concept, one with a positive and negative interpretation. In this type of space, I’m not just speaking of physical space but also attention, time, and effort that takes away from oneself or others.

Examples being: asking for tables to be pushed together when they clearly should not be, speaking very loudly in a big group and being overly disruptive of other groups, making demands of the kitchen that aren’t reasonable and the list goes on, very simply – unnecessary special treatment and accommodations.

This next part is where this turns from a rant to a reflection.

The other night I attended Reflecting on Experiences of Racism in the Catholic Church – A Listening Session. It was an evening filled with prayer and reflection, which included unforgettable storytelling, particularly from Deacon Seigfried Presberry who has dedicated his life towards serving others through prison ministry and countless hours in his home parish. He shared about how he has experienced rejection for being a black catholic deacon. His story was one of perseverance and relentless compassion. Ultimately he was able to minister to a man who, in their first interaction, met him with words of hate. Despite this initial rejection, they went on to build a relationship and Deacon Presberry even presided at his funeral.

Listening to Deacon Presberry speak about not being welcomed and not feeling worthy, challenged me to reflect on my behaviors, how I’ve taken or not taken steps to be welcoming, to invite others into space – personal or shared. Personal being my experience, shared being a group experience i.e. my faith community, circle of friends.

The Deacon was pushed to the brink, he even thought about quitting his ministry – leaving what he loved, all of the sacred spaces in which he was a part of – the pain was that severe. What brought him back to earth was turning to God, focusing on Him and getting out of the way. Through his constant humble service, he modeled what it meant to be saintly, what it truly meant to be a disciple. Even if he never got the validation from the man who initially hurt him, even if there was no conversion of heart, I know he would have continued his ministry recognizing that the scope of his work was so much greater than he could imagine. The problem with this story is that it does not need to be this way. Racism does not need to be accepted as an inevitable part of our way of proceeding, as just another painful reality that needs to be overcome in order to fully live.

His reflection made me think about all the times I’ve sat down at the proverbial dirty table, not thinking about how I might be occupying space in a way that burdened others, even in small ways. It’s nice to think that I’ll always wait in line, get out of the way, be cognizant of people and my surroundings, but it is not a guarantee.

My privilege tempts me to occupy space, the wrong space. I’m aware of that and am currently concerning myself with making room. More space for God, love, positivity, truth and growth.

Beyond this, doing my part to see, value, and celebrate each person I meet, making it clear that they are welcome.

Maybe my paradox needs an addendum:

To occupy more space (in heaven) get out of the way.