Sunday, May 12, 2013

Living in the "Now Footstep"

A few years ago, a friend gave me a book of collected talks and essays by Fulton J. Sheen, called From the Angel's Blackboard.  At the time, I knew nothing about Sheen or his work.  Out of respect for my friend -- and so I'd be able to honestly respond in the event that he ever asked me how I liked the book -- I picked it up, and the very first piece struck me so much that I've continued to reflect on it ever since.  In this essay, Sheen (technically the Venerable and Most Reverend Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, but let's go with "Sheen" for the sake of brevity) offers reflections on the issue of anxiety.  I've found his reflections to be helpful in life in general, and particularly in my running.

Sheen comments that of all God's creatures, we humans are the only ones who have an understanding of time, an understanding which can lead to worry and anxiety.  Whereas other animals can feel fear and pain, we are the only creatures who feel persistent anxieties, due to the fact that we can anticipate the future and reflect on the past.  Instead of just thinking, "Ouch, that hurts," we have a tendency to think, "Ouch, that hurts -- What if this pain persists?  What if it keeps hurting, and even gets worse? Will I have this pain for the rest of my life? What does this mean for my vacation plans next week?"  Our understanding of the concept of past time can also lead to worries; in the case of emotional suffering, for instance, we might feel regret, thinking, "I really should have handled that situation differently.  I could have prevented all this heartache." 

We know the Bible tells us repeatedly to be not afraid or anxious (Matthew 6:25-34 is just one example), but that's easier said than done. How do we go about shedding our anxieties? Sheen's message is that, by entrusting our past and future totally to God and simply living in the "now moment," we can live a life without worry.  Because, generally, the "now moment" is okay.  In this "now moment," I'm fine.  I'm not in pain, I'm at a comfortable temperature, and I'm even experiencing a nice sense of productivity as I sit on my couch typing this.  I might feel a tendency to worry about whether I'll have time to get all my work done on Monday, or whether I ought to have said something different to a friend yesterday, but that's all in the future or the past.  It's out of my hands anyway, so I can give all that up to God; I can trust my past to His Divine Mercy (thank God!) and I can trust my future to His Divine Providence (again, thank God!) and just live in the now moment, offering praise and thanksgiving for every now moment.  Every time I reflect on Sheen's ideas, I feel the weight of anxiety lifted from my shoulders, as I'm reminded that I really don't need to worry -- over anything!

So how does this translate to running?  I'll use my most recent race as an example.  Around mile 8 I was hopping over a creek when I slipped on a wet rock.  I came down hard, landing on my knees and chin.  My running buddy would tell you that's no surprise.  I'm a faller.  In fact, the bigger story would be if I ran a trail and didn't fall.  But right away I knew there was something wrong with my left knee.  It really hurt to bend or straighten it.  I have never DNF'd ("did not finish"), and I wasn't about to then, so I massaged it for a few seconds and then began running again.  For the next 18 miles or so, I ran in pain.  The only thing that kept me going was focusing on the "now" footstep.  I asked Bishop Sheen to intercede on my behalf -- not that God would quell the pain, but that God would help me live in the "now" footstep, offering Him praise and thanksgiving for every footstep He was allowing me to take.  That kept me from wasting energy worrying about the past -- that if only I had been more careful going over that darn creek, I wouldn't be feeling this pain -- or worrying about the future -- that maybe I wouldn't be able to finish the race, and maybe this would affect my future running, if I had really damaged my knee.  Somehow through these prayers, I was able to finish, and even do pretty well. 

I should note that I'm not a physician, and it's likely that a doctor would advise against running through persistent pain.  I should also note that I'm not a trained theologian, so you can take my reflections as you will.  All I can say is that for me, Bishop Sheen's words are a big help in running the race of life -- which is definitely an ultramarathon.  And as ultra-runners say, "If the bone's not showin', just keep goin."  

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