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Things My Morning Run Teaches Me About Life (Part One)

There is this incredible picture of me from about the third grade where I am finishing a lap in my school’s Walk/Run for Charity event. My shoulders are hunched in exhaustion, both arms hang limp at my side, and my tongue is literally hanging out of my panting mouth as I pull as much air as possible into my screaming lungs.

This picture was taken around lap 2 or 3.

The photo aptly sums up my general feelings toward all things related to exercise and particularly the beast that is running. At least, until recently. In the past two weeks, I’ve started back at a practice I’ve been (very inconsistently) attempting over the past five years or so. This time however I feel like I have turned a corner in my attitude towards running, and my chilly morning runs have, in turn, begun to teach me lessons dealing with issues beyond personal fitness. Hopefully, even if your attitude towards running is much more like third-grade Emily than my current appreciation for it, the lessons I’m learning will be applicable to you as well.

 

Lesson One: I can do more than I think I can.

Part of the reason I have hated running for most of my life, even in the times when I’ve tried to do it several times a week, is because I believed I would never be good at it. I have friends who can run a mile in six minutes (cough, cough, Zachary Adam, cough, cough), and other friends who ran competitively in high school. However, I tended to clock out after about 90 seconds of that awkward jog-walking that makes me feel like I must look to the world like an old man with debilitating arthritis. Then, a few weeks ago, something miraculous happened. I pushed through. I discovered that I could in fact keep going beyond that 90 second marker that I had set as a limit for myself, and my legs would not fall off, nor would I die from exertion.

Zach has constantly reminded me during my efforts at getting into shape, “The mind quits before the body.” I think sometimes, the mind quits before the heart, too. We convince ourselves that this task, this career, this goal is too difficult or too lofty, that we’ve maxed out, but there is so much more potential in us waiting on a bit more effort, a bit more perseverance, a bit more will to push through. For the Christian, too, this has another level in that we often limit what God wants to do in and through us because we think we’ve reached the end of our limits for growth, and we forget the extent of the Holy Spirit’s power to both strengthen and redeem.

Lesson Two: Pain can be a sign of growth.

I will not lie to you and tell you that just because I can now jog for 15 or so minutes at a time means my runs have become some sort of careless, pain-free, tiptoe through the tulips experience. False. My legs are normally very angry with me for most of my runs, and my toes do this weird achy thing for the rest of the morning. I will say that I no longer cough uncontrollably for hours after I run like I did when I first started back at running. This shows that sometimes the pain is a sign of better things to come. My lungs and heart are stronger now, better able to deal with longer stretches of exercise, and my legs are strengthening, too.

Sometimes the winnowing periods of life hurt. We experience emotional, spiritual, and psychological growing pains right along with the aching of sore, worked muscles. While sometimes pain is a sign that something is wrong, it can also be a reminder that we are getting better, stronger, and more mature.

Lesson Three: Beauty and positive thinking make difficult things more bearable.

I run a really beautiful route in the mornings that takes me along the River Cam and gives me a lovely view of several of the college backs. There’s this one point in my run where the trees clear and I get this incredible glimpse of King’s College chapel with the sun behind it. It lifts the soul. I also listen to some great music while I run to keep me in good spirits – normally it ends up being some fast-paced showtunes or Disney music, because, really, what else do you people expect of me? But when I listen to the lyrics of The Greatest Showman’s “This Is Me” or Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” and push myself to believe that I can finish the run I started, when I let myself soak in the beauty that is Cambridge, and when I focus on feelings of gratitude that God has brought me to this place, I find it easier to focus on cresting that next hill rather than on the fatigue in my legs.

I’m going to try not to get too counselor-y here, but gratitude and positive self-talk can have huge effects on our mental health. When I encourage myself to push through the end of my run rather than telling myself to quit because I don’t have it in me, I find myself so much more capable of things I never dreamed possible (like easily running a ten-minute mile last Friday! What??). And then, because I see that I can do more than previously thought, I end up with more self-confidence and am more likely to try other difficult things that will enable me to grow further.

 

This series is not to pressure my readers into starting your mornings with a run like I do, although if you feel empowered to do so and want to talk through the stresses and successes of such a practice with me, that is wonderful! However, I do encourage each of you to find a hard thing to do and set out trying to do it. If a girl who has hated running with a passion since elementary school can take it up and enjoy it, you can tackle a difficult task, too. And who knows? Maybe you’ll learn some lessons of your own.

 

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Earning My Keep

“Stop trying to earn your keep.”

Tears flooded my eyes as my brain digested that statement, straight from the lips of my slightly disgruntled, trying-to-comfort-a-crying-wife-but-not-fully-knowing-why-she’s-crying-this-time husband. This. This spoke to every single one of my relationships and the anxiety I was currently feeling about all of them.

I have a confession to make. If I’m not careful, I could spend 95% of my days in a crumpled heap on the floor, letting all the mean thoughts I think about myself fill my head until I can’t remember what’s real and what’s just a big ol’ failure. However, thanks to wonderful, supportive people in my life, better thought systems, some fun things I learned in counseling in undergrad, and then just the grace and mercy of God, I live and function and only crumple into that heap on really bad days, such as the one I was having when this aforementioned conversation took place.

When Zach said this statement, it was one of those proverbial “aha” moments for me. I often feel a need, perhaps not so irrationally, to earn my keep in relationships: in my relationship with my husband, with my parents and family, with my friends, and most often, perhaps even most tragically, with the Lord.

I’m currently reading through the book of Deuteronomy as part of my Bible reading plan. In it, Moses constantly draws the children of Israel’s attention to the fact that they are smaller and weaker than the opponents they will face on the other side of the Jordan, but that this is by design. He goes further in chapter 9, saying, “It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land” and “from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you arrived at this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.” Not only were the Hebrews to remember that they were smaller in number than their opponents, but to remember that there was nothing about their own righteousness or religious efforts that commended them to this task. Rather, God chose them in spite of these things to accomplish His purposes and to bring Himself glory.

I think too often we believe that we have been chosen by life, God, or others because of some innate goodness within, some sort of characteristic or strength that commends us to the tasks that lay ahead. This sort of thinking led me to feeling the need to earn my keep and to a hyper-defensive posture in my conversations with others, where harmless comments could quickly be turned into direct attacks on my own capabilities.

But it’s not my own righteousness or good qualities that led me to be blessed with as good of a husband as I have in Zachary Adam, to end up in as beautiful a place as Cambridge, to have wonderful friends and family members, or in any way to be called a child of God. Instead of focusing on attempting vainly to earn my keep or trying to impress every single person in my life, I can relish the blessings I have been given and serve each of those relationships with the joy that comes from seeing the grace in them. I can be truthful about areas in which I fail or struggle, but those failures don’t have to lead to some sort of frenzied, let’s-make-up-for-all-my-problems-by-baking-a-cake kind of attempts for perfection or even perceived perfection.

The truth is, I could never earn my keep. But thanks be to God, His mercy says I don’t have to.

New Year, Same Me

During the month of January, the general public seems to become better people (or at least individuals who think they’re better people). Many people make resolutions. Some prefer to use the word “goals”. Others choose a word or attribute to make their own and on which to reflect in the following year. Gym memberships sky rocket. Social media has picture after picture of individuals in their workout gear with the caption, “New year, new me”.

But what if that’s a lie?

To figure out if I am a different person this year, I have to examine the person I was last year. 2017 was characterized by change. Zach finished one Master’s degree, started another. We moved out of our first home and into a flat on another continent. I learned how to meal plan, and then how to do it with a tiny kitchen (for more on that adventure, see What Not Having a Stove Taught Me About Myself). In April, I said goodbye to the first of my grandparents to pass away. In November, I came home again. In December, Zach followed. We both continued schoolwork. We cried, and laughed, and walked A LOT. We said goodbye to one church family and were welcomed into another. And through it all we grew as a couple and as individuals.

But does that mean I’m a completely different person in 2018 than 2017?

If my struggles with consistently working out this January are any indicator, the answer is no.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have goals for myself for this new year. I want to blog more often. I want to drink more water, exercise regularly, and be a more organized individual (I’m looking at you, bullet journal). I want to be serious and devoted in my daily Bible reading in a way that I lacked in 2017. I want to be a better listener, both to others and to the Lord. I want to spend my time wisely and productively.

In all these goals, however, I have to continually remind myself that change doesn’t occur overnight, not even on New Year’s Eve. I will not wake up one day and stop loving chocolate chip cookies or Dr. Pepper. Habits and personality traits take time to form and exhibit consistently. So maybe I am the same person as I was in 2017. But I’m also constantly becoming someone better.

What Not Having a Stove Taught Me About Myself

Autumn is upon us here in Cambridge. There’s a noticeable chill in the air, the trees are turning the most gorgeous colors, and – my personal favorite part – there’s a satisfying crunch that accompanies each step on the leaf-covered pavement. Being welcomed into our Cambridge life by cooler temperatures and the lovely hues of my favorite season has been such a blessing to me. And I’m enough of a lover of metaphor to appreciate how this change in seasons compares to the changes Zach and I are facing.

About a week and a half ago we were finally allowed to move into our new flat at Magdalene College. This was equal parts exciting and anxiety-inducing, because while we were ready to have a space to call our own, we had no idea what the space would look like! The college had no pictures of the interior of the flat, so we were walking through the door completely blind. And, it’s not awful. It’s very small by American standards, but we were prepared for that. I’m fairly positive our curtains were made from the same fabric as one of my Mom’s go-to 90s dresses, but those can be replaced. What hurt so personally for me was the state of the kitchen. Zach could reach out and touch both sides of the room, there was no oven, and only electric eyes (or what they call induction hobs) by way of a stove.

And I panicked. I am no Pioneer Woman or Paula Dean. My poor husband had to talk me down from a few pseudo-panic attacks the first few weeks of marriage because I was so terrified I would burn the house down or poison him with my lack of culinary abilities. And I had only just begun to really feel confident in the recipes I consistently cooked, even feeling less nervous when it came time to branch out and try new ideas. But I had a stove then!

This new change was not welcome in my mind and heart. But it has revealed to me quite a bit about myself in recent days. I seem to have been equating my culinary skills with my status as a “good wife”. If I ruined a meal, that reflected poorly on my ability to be a proper spouse to my husband. And this is just. not. true. Because I have ruined meals. And forgotten to make the bed, or pick up the dry cleaning. Even today, as I did our weekly grocery trip, I forgot the very first item on our list – bread. But this does not mean I am a bad wife. It means I am an imperfect one. It means I’m human. And that is 100% okay. Because my husband is human, too.

Standards are good. Personal growth is always needed. But when we equate our self-worth with some skill or unattainable, self-imposed standard, we will always feel unworthy. But the beautiful thing about Christian marriage is that, as it reflects Christ’s relationship with us, it is full of grace and truth. The truth that neither I nor my husband am perfect, and the grace to love one another through those imperfections, spurring each other on in good works.

The second thing not having a proper stove revealed to me was that I am a selfish, near-sighted individual. As we prayed over the first home-cooked meal I prepared via induction hob, Zach asked God to give us grateful hearts for even this place and this situation, and to help us be mindful of so many others who were not so fortunate. This prayer shook me. I have friends on my newsfeed and news stories constantly in front of me that should remind me how insignificant my adjusting issues are in the grand scheme of things. But to me, on that night, they had seemed to be the biggest problem in the world.

I was graciously reminded by my husband that this change would not be the end of the world for us, nor should it grant me license to wallow in self-pity. For I have much to be thankful for. We all do. And may we all seek grateful hearts and opened eyes to the blessings we have received from God. May we allow His goodness and grace to move us to help others whose current situations involve a lot more difficulty than the lack of a conventional stove.