IF YOU CONSIDER LIFE as a marathon, you find it’s a pretty adequate metaphor. When you run a marathon, like life, you start out with that exuberant excitement. During those first steps, the cameras are flashing, bells are ringing, and people are clapping. You dart around your competition with an uncanny elasticity. You move fast, sometimes too fast. Your excitement to be in the race overtakes you. Then you start to slow down. You recognize the course unfolding in front of you. You begin to settle into a rhythm. These are the moments before your joints begin to ache and the mind begins to scream out in pain and until, ultimately, your body shuts down and finishing the race becomes less an enterprise in leisure and more a struggle of survival.
There is something long distance runners experience. It’s been called a “runner’s high.” It is a brief time when your body and brain quiet, you become almost numb to your body’s call to quit; you can mentally relax, physically silence your discomfort, and enjoy the race.
Racing toward the middle years of life is much like this moment of a marathon. You start to settle into a rhythm. For many, it’s a time where you start a family, buy a home, and become more active in your community because you feel more a part of it. You begin to contemplate things (like retirement savings and health benefits) that just a few years ago seemed the domain of an alien generation. Unlike your younger self, you begin to see your mistakes before you make them, much as a runner might consider the pavement in front of him before he connects his well-traveled sneaker with it. You begin offering counsel to others and wonder where this insight you’ve only recently exhibited was accrued. There is no need to wonder, of course. This recently discovered knowledge was gathered slowly and strenuously on the road, alongside disappearing shoe tread, tightening breaths, quickening heartbeats, falling beads of sweat, and aching knees and hamstrings.
The advice of an older man to one younger tends to fall on ears that are, if not completely deaf, walled off by a force of ignorance, of insolence. This is, of course, to be expected. It is the right of the young to be wiseacre as it is the right of a toddler to pick herself up after she has fallen on her behind. One can only be humbled through experience. One cannot truly appreciate a mountain until one has effectively conquered its zenith or been chased away from its zenith by a hungry grizzly bear. A perfectly crafted marathon training plan is useless until one laces up her sneakers. The sad irony of life is that we are unable to fully appreciate life’s infinite gifts until the gifts cease to function.
So, we must forgive the young when they do not heed the warning of the father, “stay in touch with him; he will help you one day,” or that of the uncle, “enjoy every moment of college; it goes by so quickly.” We must forgive the young, because we were once young too. Our headphones once too blared out the music of invincibility, before this music was interrupted by the cold, hard facts of life.
When one nears this moment, he begins upon reflection. He looks back toward the miles behind him, the pavement he has traveled, and he considers the road he has taken. He wonders if his direction was precise, if his navigation was correct. He looks about and suddenly realizes the path he is currently piloting is far from the one he had intended to voyage. Did he get turned around? Was his compass malfunctioning? Because he traveled down this particular road, what did he miss, what spectacular views were waiting for him that were wasted, unseen? One must wonder if the decisions, dotting the road like mile marker signs, were chosen correct. One must inevitably tally the total cost of the mistakes made in the journey toward the present.
When one sits down and reflects on his time inside his body, the countless heartbeats pattering away inside his chest, he recalls many things. There are some truths that are revealed when one turns on the projector, opens the reel can, and observes the film of existence.
He begins to understand that making his bed in the morning isn’t about a tidy bedroom, it is about accomplishing something, however small, to start the day.
He learns that the greatest treasure in this world isn’t a shiny diamond, a golden nugget, a crisp greenback, it is the heart of a woman. He has learned, through bitter experience, that one cannot allow such treasure to woefully disappear into a fading corner or fall through careless fingers and shatter on the hard earth.
He understands now that, with enough force, every hard obstacle can be broken. Yet, he has also learned, from bitter experience, that the pain is appreciatively dulled when force is exerted by a sledgehammer and not a forehead.
He sees the value in slowing down, in a conversation, in an intimate connection. He sees not mere beauty in the warm smile of a child, majesty in a bright orange sunset, wonder in the falling stars, awe in mountaintop view, he also sees the face of God.
He still has the ambition that he did a decade ago, but he understands now that there are things that are not in his control, that no matter the effort put forward, no matter the grit and will he labors, the outcome will be ultimately decided by an influence greater than himself.
He places increasing value on the hour, on the days that fly by at supersonic speeds. He has kissed his mother for the final time, and yet he gets to continually see her spirit in her growing granddaughters.
He still shutters when he recalls life at its most sour, those moments in which he could have made a better decision, took a greater risk, seized an opportunity or said no to another. Although the memory of these moments still bring him searing displeasure, he has learned to offer himself grace.
He does not hold his possessions as tightly as he once did. He has learned that one will be remembered not for what he took but for what he gave.
On his nightstand no longer rests the sports magazines of his childhood, those filled with uniformed athletes, nor the men’s magazines of his adolescence, those filled with uniformed pinups. Instead, resting there now is a thick book, its pages filled with wisdom he still struggles daily to grasp. Those words, written in black and often in red, he is still learning to trust those heavenly words. They mean more to him now, much more to him now, than they did when he was a child. For when he was young, he knew everything and did not need those words. Today he is old, and he needs those words, because he now knows far less than he once thought he knew.