On Becoming, or “Run, Barry, Run!”

“What you’ve become is wonderful, a miracle even, but it won’t make bad things stop happening to you. Even The Flash can’t outrun the tragedies the universe is going to keep sending your way. You have to accept that, and then you can truly run free.”

I’ll just straight out claim my geek cred. and admit to being a Flash fan, really a fan of most things Geek. That said, aside from “with great power comes great responsibility” (aka “to whom much is given, much is required“), I try not to get too much of my wisdom for life from superhero TV shows, but when I heard the quote above while watching The Flash, I was struck by it. Without getting too much into the details of the show, in the scene Barry/The Flash is talking to a representation of his long dead mother. I suppose I in particular was struck by this because my own mother is long dead. That may be where the similarities end, however. Barry/The Flash loves his mom and was forever changed by her untimely death when he was a child. My mother, on the other hand, abused me and her death when I was in my early 20’s has yet to have that sort of impact on me. I’ve always said it’s almost as if I never had a mom; so when she died it was simply more of the same, the continuation of a through line. Still, I know there’s a deep part of me that oddly yearns for her to be proud of me, which again I’m sure is why the scene above (if you watch the whole thing) is so powerful.

Obviously, I’m not a superhero speedster, but running has repeatedly changed my life, and by the grace of God and with the help of some key people along the way, I’ve overcome some arguably long odds. I wouldn’t say that I’ve become something wonderful (I know too many who might say just the opposite), but I would say that for all my faults and failings whatever meager “success” I’ve achieved is near miraculous given my upbringing in a mobile home in Texas as the son of an abusive mother and devoted, but co-dependent and largely unavailable father.

There’s much to be said about that abusive upbringing in my mother’s home, but I’ve said a lot of that elsewhere. From that shaky foundation, though, enough has happened to fill several other lifetimes. Here’s some of it:

  • To the extent that I survived growing up in my mother’s home and proved resilient in the midst of it, much of it had to do with the love and support I received from a family I was connected to through school, and that of my youngest but much older half sibling, Lee. Shortly after I left home around the age of 18, Lee disappeared and was missing for the next three+ years.
  • While in college, I spent a summer in Philly doing a program that was then known as Kingdomworks (it’s now called Mission Year) during which, I always say, I “was able to build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.”
  • In the year after doing Kingdomworks, I met and married Kirsten and we left college and the Boston area to start a life in Philly where I worked at Pizza Hut for $7.60/hour and she went to nursing school. Thanks be to God, we’re looking forward to our 20th anniversary in little more than a month.
  • While still in Philly the first time and in the midst of nursing school for Kirsten, I paid less than $100 to a company I saw I think a TV ad for, and they found Lee in Michigan. I reached out to her, and she was reunited and slowly reintegrated into our very dysfunctional family system.
  • Just after Kirsten finished nursing school we moved to MN to be near her family of origin as her dad quickly died of brain cancer. The day after he died, my mom in TX died. Their funerals in two different states bookended a weekend.
  • By the grace of God and via my own circuitous path I finished my Bachelor’s degree in MN finally through a degree completion program for working adults and started seminary. In the meantime I quit my last foodservice management job and went into social service, vowing to only pursue “meaningful” work from that point forward.
  • While in seminary, I participated in a weeklong leadership training in Chicago during which I discovered that that “bridge” I had built “between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world” could be traveled in both directions as the suffering in the world led me to become newly aware of my own brokenness. I quit the MDiv program I had been pursuing and graduated with an MA instead.
  • We moved back to Philly to be part of Circle of Hope again, the faith community we had discovered in our first stint there that did so much to form my imagination about what Christian community could look like. While there, we lived “in community” in a house with others that we were trying to live “intentionally” with as we pursued a common dream for “life together.” Samuel’s exceptionally premature birth occurred in the midst of all that. His birth was very disruptive, but in a good way. It laid bare all the dysfunction and brokenness that was at the heart of all those good relationships we were trying to build, and we were confronted with a choice. We could do the personal and relational hard work that growth required in that moment, regroup, and Lord willing see the community we were building in that home and as a part of the larger church and in Philly itself be strengthened and reinvigorated as a result; or we could retreat/escape and nurse our wounds someplace else, delaying the pain of that growth we needed to endure and thereby delaying our growth too. For good or ill, we chose the latter.
  • So we moved to NEOH and bought a house while we still could just before the market tanked.
  • Homeownership forces a measure of stability that in some cases isn’t available otherwise. Following our move to OH, we had a measure of that, for a time. After a painful job search there, I found something that I was able to settle into and experience some success at for some time (in educational administration, working with mostly low income Special Education students/families), for which I was grateful.
  • Four years into our time in OH, however, we found ourselves abruptly moving to TX to be present for my dad’s cancer death. His cancer death was much slower than my father-in-law’s had been, however, as it was over 15 months after we got there that he finally passed. In the meantime I pursued and received teacher certification and spent a very painful year in a charter school there. There’s a lot to be said about it and much that was beyond my control, but I was not successful in the classroom…or, arguably, out of it. Dad’s death did not go as predicted (do they ever, I suppose?) and again there’s much more to be said about this, but somewhere along the way I became a villain to my all much older half siblings. I suppose that’s what I set myself up for when I swooped in to “rescue” them all. They all- all three much older half siblings, plus my same age niece and her teenage twin sons, and my Dad- all seven of them were living when we first got down to TX in the by then ramshackle, roach infested trailer I grew up in. I couldn’t stomach that being where my Dad was consigned to die; so we worked to find them other/better housing. However big or small my role was in all that, I pushed for it, and Kirsten and I paid to help make it happen. When my dad’s slow death finally progressed to the point where hospice was advisable, I pushed for and helped make that happen too. My half siblings accused me of trying to kill him.
  • Thus, once Dad died, we moved back to OH and the home we had been renting (at a loss) while we were gone. This may or may not have been another “escape” from an opportunity to learn a painful lesson and grow as a result. In this case, that’s less clear to me. Either way, we came back to OH with a life changing gift, our second son, Nathan. Whatever brought us there and whatever trauma contributed to our exit, we were in the right place at the right time with the right doctor to help us through a second, high risk pregnancy, and we thank God every day for our little Texan. Nathan was born about two months after Dad died. I describe them as “ships passing in the night.”
  • Back in OH, we returned each of us to the jobs we had left and the house we still owned, and resumed relationships with the few, but very, very good friends we had there. Within a couple of years, though, there was new turmoil for me at work. I was twice encouraged to apply for a promotion, including for one position that was allegedly created for me, and both times I was not selected. I wound up with a new boss and the job I did have became much more demanding, so much so that I couldn’t keep up anymore. Eventually, I found myself in an untenable position and had to leave. I tried to leave gracefully, but failed at that too and found myself on the receiving end of some revelatory character assaults on my way out. It took several months to find another job, which came with a roughly $17,000 pay cut.
  • In the meantime, we had found a new, just starting faith community in NEOH that was rich with much promise. The “manifesto” that was the core of its website and, we hoped, its vision, is still one of the best things I’ve ever read and one of the best visions I hoped to be a part of aspiring to. I’ve written elsewhere about this too, but as a community that church did not live up to its own vision, and as a participant and contributor, neither did I. The church faced a crisis that I need not get into, but much like the crisis my family and I faced in the wake of Samuel’s birth before we left Philly and Circle of Hope, this crisis served to lay bare the dysfunction and brokenness that was at the core of many of the relationships within the church. I think in this case I made an effort to do some of the hard work that growth required in the moment, but I did it poorly, and as before, it didn’t end well…and as before, another cross country move was in the offing.
  • During the relatively brief time we were part of that faith community, however, several significant things happened. We tried our hand again at an “intentional community” of sorts. Wanting to make good use/be good stewards of the small but “bigger on the inside” home we owned, we invited a young couple to come live with us in an effort to help them with their finances, among other things. They wound up living with us for only about four months, and their exit was part of the dysfunction and brokenness I alluded to above, part of which was related to our offer later on to have someone else move in too.
  • That “someone else” was a young teacher friend we made through that faith community whose mother was quickly dying of cancer, an experience we were all too familiar with. We worked hard to support her, sacrificially so even, but few in the larger community could understand this and our motives were no doubt mixed as they inevitably must be always be “this side of Heaven,” perhaps driven as much by the need to make sense and find meaning in our own parent deaths as by our still genuine desire to love and support our friend through hers. After her mom died, the couple that had been living with us moved out, and our friend moved in. It wasn’t all that long, though, before the larger faith community we all were part of experienced that “crisis” I alluded to above and began to unravel around us, again exposing the dysfunction and brokenness that much work was required to move beyond. As I said, I made a halting attempt at some of that work, but I did not do it well, and it was not well received…and again I was faced with no small measure of revelatory character assaults on our way out.
  • Consequently, after 9+ years of homeownership in OH (including that sojourn in TX), we struggled mightily to sell our house there at a significant loss and moved to MN. This was motivated as much by all of the above, I’m sure, as it was by the reality that Kirsten’s mom was in declining health and it was time to be present to her and Kirsten’s family of origin here as they all faced what was next for her mom.

Looking at that laundry list of life events above, I’m struck by the fact that if anything is “miraculous” about any “success” I’ve experienced, perhaps the most miraculous thing about it is that I keep trying. I keep showing up. So much of the wounding I describe above is self-inflicted, rooted in my brokenness. Every healthy parent-child relationship is marked by the development of the child in such a way that the child’s first steps are halting and not very “successful.” The child takes a few steps, falls, and with encouragement and support, gets up to try again. Eventually the infant becomes, literally, a “toddler.” As the toddler becomes more proficient and independent as a walker, they journey further away from their parent with each successive trip, hopefully growing each time in their proficiency and independence. No doubt they still fall from time to mine, but each “failure” is a learning moment and stepping stone to growth. There is an ebb and flow to this. I see something similar in the pattern above.

Failure can be the building block for future “success,” if the learning/growth that failure presents the opportunity for is embraced. Of course, that learning/growth comes in the form of hard work, and I stubbornly resist that work far too much of the time. This is true for me no less with running than with life itself. Amidst all the life events above, I got fat, ballooning from well under 200 on my wedding day at the age of 21 to well over 250 at some point not all that long into our first stint in MN from 1998 to 2003. In 2009, hearing that the growing swine flu pandemic seemed to be disproportionately affecting obese people like me, I started running. I just did it, on a whim. I could barely shuffle around a block or so, but I kept doing it. Day after day I could go a little further, and pretty soon I was counting calories and running 5k’s. Less than a year after starting running in OH, after a run in the TX heat on my 35th birthday, I weighed in at 150 pounds and had lost at least 100 pounds. I ran more 5k’s and a 10k, but I eventually did my first half marathon in part because the weight was already starting to creep back on. I struggled through that race, the Rock’n’Roll Dallas Half Marathon in 2011, but finishing it was a huge “success” for me.

Still, again amidst all the stress of the “life” that kept happening as I described above, the weight kept creeping back on, and by Christmas of that year I weighed 217 pounds. I joined TNT then and re-dedicated myself to running, and I got back down to 170 pounds when I ran the Canton Half Marathon in 2012. I felt good for that, my second half marathon, and looking back that may have been the high point of my running “career.” Not long after that race I broke a toe, and then tore my meniscus (and later broke another toe), and thus began almost four years of not being able to run at all during which I ballooned to 262.6 pounds.

I finally underwent surgery on my meniscus last fall (a partial meniscectomy), but still didn’t feel ready or able to run pain free. What I could do was count calories, and walk, and walk I did. I got a Fitbit (and wi-fi scale) at the end of this past November, when I weighed in at that 262.6. Since then I walked about 3 miles a day as many days as I could through the past winter and spring, and exclusively through walking and daily weigh-ins while keeping  my calories as low as possible, I lost about 60 pounds. I told myself that once I got to or near about 200 pounds again, I’d try running. I started running again about mid-April, and each time I get out there I vow not to “screw it up again.” I may not do a half marathon again, but I don’t need that kind of “success” to prove myself. If I can get out there and run about 3 miles most days of the rest of my life, that will be a well-nigh miraculous success, and will have come as a result of much growth and development and much, much hard work.

Like someone in recovery, I know that I have to take it one day at a time. I know that cardiovascular health and fitness can be lost within days if it isn’t renewed by continuing to get out there every day. I speak often of love (and forgiveness) being a choice, a choice that must be made every day. A marriage of 20 years, as I hope to celebrate in about a month, isn’t made by making a choice once and then somehow “sticking with it.” It’s made by making a choice every single day. I think forgiveness can work that way too, and I know that health can, does, and should.

Each day I have to choose to watch what I eat, and I have to choose to get out there and run. I’ve lost another 10 pounds or so since I started running again (about 70 total this time around, my third time losing weight), but have a ways to go before I’m at a “normal” weight. I know too that weight loss cannot be my goal, not because it can’t be achieved (it can! I’ve done it three times!), but because it can. It’s very, very hard to maintain though, because it’s not an end in itself and isn’t even really a means to an end. It’s more of a byproduct of an end. The end is a healthy lifestyle. The end is treating my body like the “temple” that it is and being a good steward of it. The means are those hard choices I must make every single day- eating right, running, getting enough sleep, etc. Weight loss, maybe even lasting weight loss, is a byproduct of all this good, hard work.

Becoming a person who can do that will be wonderful and miraculous, and maybe even my long dead mother will be proud of me. However, part of the process is knowing that the “becoming” never stops. I’ll always be on the way, in no small part because as with The Flash, this “won’t make bad things stop happening to me.” I can’t outrun them. I have to accept this in order to run “free.” Maybe acceptance is part of the becoming too. In the meantime, “run, Barry (Robert), run.”

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