As I write this I’m sitting in the office at church trying to recover from participating as the swim leg of a Half Triathlon Relay Team in Kerrville, Texas over the weekend with two of my best friends and fraternity brothers from Texas Tech (git yer guns up!). While the accomplishment pales in comparison to others who completed the full Half Tri on their own, we felt proud to have completed it since this was our first attempt. And the reality is that these events are not about competing with others, but with oneself. The real contest I faced was with my own body, mind and emotions. Deciding to enter was the first struggle, and I almost said no because I was so intimidated. Once I’d committed, I still watched the “final drop date with full refund” to decide whether to follow through. At first I didn’t want to let my friends down, and then I didn’t want to let myself down. By the end of my training season I actively wanted to get up early and go work out (which is really weird and unfamiliar territory for me).
This process has prompted a wide range of reflection and insight. The first thing to note is that I didn’t want to make this journey. At best I “wanted to want to do it.” I did it not for myself but for my friends – because I believe in them and their dreams and they had a dream that we would do this together. They believed in me and in us even if I couldn’t. I didn’t know if I could succeed, and was pretty sure I didn’t want to work that hard to find out. But I went for it out of love for them.
And it was really hard. Training required sacrifice of sleep, other recreation, and even some family time. I was scared to swim a long distance in open water. (“What lurks in the murky darkness?” and “What if I cramp up, run out of breath, or God forbid have a heart attack out in open water?”) But I realize that going toward some things that scare us is really healthy and good. If I didn’t succeed, I would still be better and stronger for having made the journey. Failing to finish would not have let my friends down – failing to try would have let them and me down.
When race day arrived, I had butterflies. Was I ready? Could I do it? I mostly resisted the temptation to compare myself to the other athletes, most of whom looked like they had not been in the same room with carbohydrates in years – me, not so much. I realized that I had trained hard, and eaten well, and prepared mentally, and that I was ready.
Upon entering the water, I felt strong and confident. Within 300 yards that evaporated, and I began to panic. I couldn’t find my rhythm or pace. My swimming form was all off but I could not figure out how to correct it. I could not manage to swim straight, instead zigzagging across the course. I doubted I could finish or even make it half the distance. I was going to let everyone down. But not yet. I would swim as hard and far as I could, even if it didn’t look pretty like all the experienced competitors around me. As Dory says in Finding Nemo “Just keep swimming…” So I did.
Another 300 yards along I began to regain my
confidence, to find my stride. I actually finished the race with reserve energy knowing I could have kept going. Throughout this six month process I have discovered that actively choosing to do something difficult, for the sake of others, has transformed me in body, mind and spirit. I’ve become someone who looks forward to working out and feels acute loss when I don’t get to do it. I’m physically healthier than I’ve been since I was in high school. And I find myself asking, “OK, what’s the next challenge? Where do we go from here?”
This same process unfolds for us as individuals and communities and churches when we choose discipline and challenge over the easy path, when we choose to sacrifice now for benefits later, when we choose the needs of the community over our own fear and doubt. As we look toward the future, let us embrace the struggle to become our better selves and cast off the shell of false self that holds us captive. So much of what holds us back from excellence and flourishing is unnecessary limitation imposed from within as a coping mechanism we developed to face life’s difficulties. The time has come to stop coping and start thriving.
Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it in abundance!”