It has been odd but good: over the last month or so, when I have been jogging through town, people have spontaneously decided to join me. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was moving so slowly, they liked the idea of winning an easy race. Or maybe I looked so winded and in pain, they thought I might need them to call 911. I don’t know why they joined me, but I am glad they did.
I was running on Hilliard, just past the Orange Peel, and a young man carrying a backpack jogged with me for about five minutes. I couldn’t understand very well what he was saying to me as we went up and down the Hilliard hills, but he said something about being in training for the army and something about not being in very good shape. When he decided to drop back to walking, he thanked me for the company.
I was running up Market Street, near the Thomas Wolfe House, and an older man I know from the streets called-out, “Hey, Rev, let me run with you.” I said, “Come on.” He had on heavy shoes, and he seemed to have had a liquid breakfast and lunch, but he ran with me for a couple of blocks. We talked briefly about how getting older, with all its aches and pains, is better only than the alternative. We mostly laughed at ourselves.
Then, this past Thursday evening, as I was coming down College Street, I passed a young man and a little boy, father and son, who were walking. The boy was 4 or 5 years old. He was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, a leather-like jacket, and tennis shoes that lit-up with each step he took. As I passed them, the boy started running, too. It stunned his dad, who started jogging along behind us, and it surprised me. His dad said, “He’s just so excited to run; I hope you don’t mind.” I told him I thought it was one of the best things that had happened to me that day. I matched my pace to the little boy’s who would run like crazy for a while and then slow down almost to a walk. I told him how fast he was and how cool his shoes were. As with my older friend on Market Street, more than anything else, we just laughed. I’m not even exactly sure what we laughed about what, other than how weird but wonderful it was, that three people who didn’t know each other at all managed to play for a few minutes.
I’ve been surprised how much those runners have been on my mind. That young man with difficult speech, reporting to the army: What will happen to him? Will he make it through basic training? If he does, what kind of role will the army give him? I’m guessing, from the quick impressions I got, that there won’t be a lot of options for him. Will he, before long, be doing grunt work of some kind in harm’s way in Afghanistan? Did he enlist because he wanted to or because it was his last chance, a kind of forced choice? Do his parents know he’s enlisted? What are they feeling?
And, my friend from the streets is someone I have been seeing around town for some years now. I don’t know a lot about him, but I know he’s a Vietnam vet who saw bitter action in Cambodia, and that he was never the same after he came back home. I don’t think much is going to change for him; I am not even sure how much he believes things can or should change. I know that he sometimes drinks too much to forget for a while his days in the killing fields and to numb the shock he still feels over how those days changed him.
When the air turns cold and the wind howls through downtown, I will be worried about him and the other homeless men and women who will scramble to stay warm. I wonder what it feels like to spend most of everyday trying to figure out how to get enough of whatever it is they think they need.
And, what about that little boy and his young father? What will their futures be like? I don’t know, but I hope and pray that, whatever happens, whatever success they enjoy an d failure they endure, they will always feel free to break into a run and to laugh for no reason at all with a complete stranger. The pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson said that the one gift all children should have is “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” I hope that little boy will keep his sense of wonder. I know he won’t always wear light-up shoes, but I hope he will always know that he shines and the world is radiant. Such wonder belongs, though we lose track of it, to all God’s children—all of us.
In my every-day life—hurrying in and out of stores and restaurants, hustling from one meeting to the next, rushing from one event to another, and scrambling to get tasks crossed-off my to-do list—I run past people. I miss their stories, their hurts and hopes, their disappointments and dreams. I miss chances to cry and to laugh, to listen and to talk, to know and be known, to help and be helped, to love and be loved. I’m busy and preoccupied, so I miss a lot. I especially miss opportunities to experience Jesus, to offer and receive him, in encounters with the people I run by.
How much of my hurrying—how much of yours?—is driven by confusion about the purpose of life and by a distorted understanding of what it means to be successful?