I started a habit of running regularly in early 2018 to improve my focus and discipline, and it has been one of the great discoveries of my life, but it has been a struggle to begin and maintain. I knew I needed accountability for this experiment to work, so I decided to use my Facebook feed as a way to motivate me to keep my habit going.
Over time, as expected, my running improved. I was getting faster and running longer. I had been able to keep my commitment and sustain my habit for a year! Then I hit a wall.
I was still running but I felt like I was getting worse. I was struggling more than usual to keep the doubt and defeatist voices away. I felt like I was slogging through mud, getting slower and more exhausted. What was happening?
I turned to my community on Facebook and had one of those rare "grateful-for-Facebook" moments because I got some great encouragement and insight. One interaction let to a real-life conversation with my friend Jon who has coached Olympic cyclists (What?! I can have cool friends too! ) through similar seasons of frustration. He reminded me of something that is universal, something I know intimately and talk about all the time but which I constantly resist. He told me that the ability to perform and sustain is directly connected to your ability to rest and recover. Recovery is especially essential when you are trying to achieve something big.
Also, as it is with anything true, my problem was not really about running. Running itself is not even about running; it's about prayer; it's about the internal conflict of chaos and order; it's about the conversation between my ego and The Christ Consciousness! It was just the same story in a new costume.
The thing is, I knew that I was in the season of Lent which for the last several years has been marked by some serious shifts and transitions. If an existential crisis was going to come, this was the season for it. At the risk of sounding too churchy, my problem goes back to how I “sinned.” Settle down, Let me explain. In essence, my sin was the sin of not listening. (how much of what we call "sin" is simply not listening to the deep wisdom around us?) I was following the letter of the law, and I was experiencing the life that brought. For a time it helped me to listen to God and myself. Then, unconsciously, I stopped listening and trusted in the routine. I exerted twice as much energy for the same results and still... I still felt empty and alone. God was gone... or I was gone ( I don't really know which, and it doesn't matter to me.)
Jon told me that this often happens with the athletes he trains (regardless of the level). They don't give enough time to recover. They don't have idle time. Everything in their life is designed to be productive and growing. They are driven by the thrill of achievement and the fear of death. If they stop will they ever be able to catch up? What if I stop forever? What will happen to me? If there is no measurable way to see growth a panic sets in and the counter-narratives become stronger.
"you're too old."
"You're not smart enough."
"You're too late."
"You've made too many mistakes."
The suffering grows in relation to the desperate effort that is used to achieve the goal . Once the training is stopped entirely for an extended period of time, and there is nothing "productive" done, a transformation is discovered when the athletes return to their training. It doesn't come back the way they left it. It's new. Different. Stronger.
Psychologists have also discovered this truth from a different angle. Many studies show that when people ignore their, doubts, fears, grief and anger, it always comes out in destructive ways. Either it operates like malware underneath everything, invisibly siphoning off valuable energy and resources, or it sneaks up and crashes the system in a burnout ( like it does with me ). Often the best solution is to give a limited space to all the negative emotions, plan for them and engage with them. Stop fighting them and surrender to them for a time.
This is the purpose of Lent. It creates a boundary around the essential rhythm of desolation in our spiritual life. Surrendering at times to moments of doubt, disillusion and grief can allow us to rest stop let everything fall apart without judgement. Of course, our desolation is never meant to go on without limit. Eventually, it will meet the irresistible force of Resurrection. In Resurrection, all that is permanent is transformed, and that which is temporary is left to merge with the raw decomposing chaos. Death and Resurrection is an immutable law; they will happen with or without us; the only thing we can affect is our experience of them. Do we participate in this divine flow or resist it?
I noticed this morning how this happens every year for me, at least for the last four years since I first discovered Atheism for Lent, around February 14th, God dies again for me. All of the once life-giving habits, practices, beliefs, and doctrines leave me... or I leave them ( I don't really know which, and it doesn't matter. ) Then, sometime around Easter, I rediscover God in a fresh new way. But the Jesus that returns is always a little different than the one who died. It's like he's standing there in the garden by the tomb saying, "Don't hold on to me. Things are different now. I'm making all things new."
I'm back to running again. I wake up at the same time and put on the same shoes and do it but it's new for me again. I'm new.
I've also rediscovered The Lord's Prayer in a new way. Back in February my nine-year-old wanted to be the only person in our family who was Catholic. She wanted to be like the nuns she knew, Sister Stella Sabina and Sister Mary Clarence (yeah... we watched Sister Act... she loved it.) we bought some prayer beads for her in Santa Fe, and every night before bed, we say the words and every night they are new because I'm new.