Running Through Time

4) Running Through Time

I took up running at age twelve. On a sticky summer day, I put on my tennis shoes and ran a lap around our yard. Then I ran another, and another, after which I collapsed, face down, gasping, aching, and bemoaning my existence until my father came with the lawnmower and a persuasive case for moving. I had, roughly estimated, run a quarter-mile.

The next day, I put on my shoes and did it again, this time making it one additional lap. Same the next. Eventually, my stamina outgrew our yard, so my mother drove me around an adjacent neighborhood, mapping out a three-mile course with the odometer. Somewhere between now and then, running went beyond being a hobby, and became an integral part of who I am. I’ve spent more of my waking life running than any other singular activity. Strange, because I don’t remember much of it.

Novelist and runner Haruki Murakami is often asked what he thinks about while running. “Usually,” he says, “the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves.” Because if they did, they’d know the answer: “I don’t have a clue.”

I’m the same way. While some miles are painfully, inescapably real, most of them go by without my knowing the difference. I will sometimes arrive home not knowing how I got there or what I’d been thinking about with only my watch as proof of time having passed.

“Sorry about the other day,” a neighbor recently said.

“For what?”

“You were running. I nearly ran you over.”

“Oh.”

“You jumped into the ditch.”

I had no idea.

It’s not that my mind goes blank, it just goes…. I daydream. I think back on significant memories or times. Sometimes I write. I pray. Or none of it. It’s like I’m not even there.

In one of his more famous short stories, Ted Chiang writes of numerous alien ships that appear at various locations across the earth and a linguist who is assigned the task of learning their language. She discovers that through this language they not only communicate but also foresee the future.

According to Chiang, the aliens have a different ‘mode of awareness.’ (Kurt Vonnegut wrote of similarly-inclined creatures in Slaughterhouse Five.) We, humans, experience time as sequential:

one thing happens

the next event occurs

followed, inevitably, by another

and (to quote Vonnegut) “so it goes.”

We understand our existence as the relationship between cause and effect. Chiang’s aliens, however, experience all events at once. Stories exist in their entirety; single events are like toy figurines in a grander train set. It’s the difference between focusing on the overall story, or on the moments within it, that determines how they are experienced.

I’m running up the side of a mountain. It’s raining and the rock face is slick. I lose my footing and slip, tumbling until I catch myself on a sapling.

Mile 22 of a marathon. My girlfriend is in the crowd, cheering me on. So is a man holding a cardboard sign that says “Give up, you’re never gonna make it!”

The day is sunny and deliciously cold. A dog jumps on me as I run by.

I’m running in a crowd and overtaken by a man in a full-body chicken costume. Cluck-cluck-cluck, he says as he passes.

I’m lonely, depressed, the day is grey and as I’m finishing my run, it begins to snow.

What if all these moments weren’t sequential, but were themed? What if I’m encountering God in a composite, not causative, way?

I’ve noticed that when I go for long runs, afterward I tend to be remarkably present. Although my mind may be miles and years removed during the run, I return to the now with a keener focus.

Chiang’s character had a similar result. Far from a prophet or seer predicting doomsday, she experienced time more simply. Like someone re-reading a good story, she knew the ending, knew every page, yet didn’t skip a single line. She read with more intentionality than she had before. Because it’s not the ending but the story that matters.

Running has taught me how to reflect and remember. It’s taught me the brutality of impatience. It’s taught me that generosity heals. It’s taught me that adventure isn’t always glamorous and that life is fragile and yet durable.

There was no ‘ah-ha!’ moment for any of these lessons. It’s just that one day I started running and now they are.

My story of running isn’t sequential. I started at twelve but many days, even now, I start running and find myself back there. Or elsewhere. Or nowhere.

Or there comes along a lawnmower and a persuasive case for moving.

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Faith in Hygge

3) My Faith in Hygga

I’ve always had an affinity for cold, dark winter days. While my friends bemoan the plummeting temperatures and pop vitamin-D like candy, I watch the sun descend midafternoon with contemptable glee. I light a candle, put on the kettle. I don’t even like tea! I’m just that giddy.

Life hasn’t always been so joyful. Winters in southwest Ohio -where I grew up- often felt like a cruel joke. For several childhood Christmases, temperatures jumped past 70 degrees. I sweat right through my flannel reindeer pajamas. January warm fronts prompted my sister to catch a tan on the front lawn. I could have kicked her.

My disposition isn’t entirely unique. Despite long, dark winters, Danes (and many of their Scandinavian neighbors) are some of the happiest people on the planet. The reason is hygge. Hygge is loosely defined as “a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted, and sheltered.” It is both a verb and a noun, an action and a feeling or atmosphere. Hygge sits at the core of Danish culture. It describes, as one author puts it, a way of being that “introduces humanity and warmth.”

While we were out walking on a recent blustery November’s eve, my wife turned to me, shivering, and said: “I don’t understand how you love being cold!”

“Say what? I hate being cold.”

“Then how can you possibly love winter?”

The summer after graduating from college, I worked and lived on the coast of Maine. No matter how warm the day, when the sun sets on the coast, cold air from the ocean moves ashore.

I was walking home one such evening, rather chilly without a jacket. I passed a house; lights were on in the windows, and I stopped for a moment. A lamp sat on a coffee table beside a book and a pair of glasses. I could hear talking, amicable in tone. I could smell fresh bread. Shadows fluttered along the wall from the light. It looked so very inviting, as if the home itself saying to me: “Oh! Well, do come in.” I felt a longing for something that I couldn’t quite name. I couldn’t, at the time, speak Danish (still can’t).

One of the key components to hygge is contrast. It’s the idea that there can be “a sense of distance between us and the outside world.”

When it comes to God, faith, for me, has always been a struggle. It’s hard to articulate why or what exactly I refer to when I say “doubt.” I question God’s goodness. I question God’s power, realness, and nearness. I question that God even cares. About me. (And everything else.)

Questions may be healthy, helpful even. But they are isolating. I find nihilism more convincing than cheery testimony to God’s faithfulness. My faith life often feels like standing outside on the dark street, looking in through a window. And I forgot my jacket.

But then there’s hygge, the reminder that darkness- and doubt- itself is not reality, but a contrast to the warmth and goodness of the light. The cold I feel is easily thwarted by an invitation to step into cozy peace. The light shines in the darkness, John writes, but the darkness can’t outdo it.

That’s why I love dark and frigid days, why I’ll always love summer nights on the coast of Maine. Not because I enjoy frostbite or wish to spend a Dickensian night shivering on the street. Rather, there’s some innate part of humanity that is awakened by the possibility of warmth. To truly be warm, you must be cold (“I believe! Help my unbelief!”). The coziness of faith exists when doubt is embraced as real yet powerless in the face of light. It’s that awakening, that contrast, the melody of emotion and sensation when you step inside on a freezing night, smell fire, hear laughter, and remember- all over again- the feeling of hygge.

Platitudes can’t buffer my faith any more than a single match can turn the nighttime into day. But hygge reminds me that only a small cabin with a modest fire is needed, not just to survive winter, but to downright enjoy it. It overcomes doubt and turns blizzardy nights into hope. And isn’t it a beautiful thing to embrace the darkness, not with fear or dread, but joy?

But for hygge to happen, you need darkness and sunshine, warmth and the cold.

Maybe that’s why lighting a candle in the middle of the afternoon and smiling into a black window is so uplifting. It reminds me that, no matter how long I am out there, wandering in the darkness of doubt, that there will always be a warm and inviting place for me in here.

And flannel reindeer pajamas? Those are just a perk.

My Curious Rebellion

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My brother and I once had matching police costumes. This was when we were about five and seven. An accessory to the outfits was a pair of plastic handcuffs which, when clasped around ones’ wrist, could only be undone with an accompanying key. One morning, I was sitting innocently at our kitchen table – painting pictures for orphans, as I recall- when my brother jumped me. A struggle ensued in which he managed to hook my left hand into one of the handcuffs and deftly attach the other cuff to the chair.

Well, I’m right-handed. And that hand raised to slap him… right when my mother entered the room. My brother whimpered like a puppy. I received a stern reprimand, the commandeering of all my painting materials, and a time-out confined to the chair. A moot punishment, of course, because I was handcuffed to it, a detail (among several) Mom failed to notice.

In an infamous scene from The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky records a conversation between two brothers regarding God. The first brother, Alyosha, is a novice monk. The second, Ivan, has renounced the faith.

Ivan’s objections to Christianity rest on the cruelest and most inexplicable sufferings: that of children. He tells of a child beaten, smeared with excrement, and left in an outhouse during winter. Another child is stripped naked, made to run, and set upon by a pack of hunting dogs.

Ivan believes in God. It is not God’s existence that he cannot accept. But it is the world God has created, the world that allows such atrocities. He cannot- will not- accept that the suffering of such a child might some way, somehow, be redeemed.

To this declaration, Alyosha replies, in a murmur, “That’s rebellion.”

I read this my senior year of college. I was sitting in an overstuffed chair of my apartment. Dishes piled in the sink; posters occupied an entire wall; late-autumn gray shone through our window; upstairs a door shut; a tap dripped; silence.

I’ve never seen a child tortured, never seen any great atrocities. I am not a witness to such unspeakable pain. But I can, from some of my first moments of cognitive memory, recall sensing the reality of pain of the world.

As a child, I owned a goldfish. It lived for several months, then died. The concept of death by that age made sense to me. Enough that when Dad flushed Guppy down the toilet, I was distraught. A trite example. But from that point on, I was aware of the fact that every good thing held the inverse possibility for pain.

I’m not alone. The oldest Biblical text is about a man wrestling with the question of God’s silence in the face of pain. Before anyone wrote an account of how God made the world, we were questioning the way it runs. (That’s got to be annoying.)

And I remember that moment in college so vividly because I knew, without a doubt, that I agreed with Ivan. He articulated the objection I’d always sensed. And I heard Alyosha’s judgement like he was in the room. “Rebellion.”

A child’s pain- or anyone else’s- on a linear perspective is redeemable because it has passed. The moment is (thankfully) lost. But if God is eternal, then that must mean that all points in time are accessible to God at all times. The child’s pain is in God’s purview for eternity. Which means that God’s inaction at that moment might- must– also be eternal. My primary encounter with injustice as a child resulted in a time-out. Still, I can’t believe it’s wrong to wrestle with the (albeit, abstract) reality of horrific evil.

Perhaps this is wanting to have my cake and eat it too. I want to have faith and question God. I want to object to God’s world and embrace it. A pastor recently reminded me that laments emerge from hope. Can’t we say the same for rebellion?

Maybe I can lead a curious rebellion. Maybe I can raise a hand against injustice and God, when she enters the room, will see it as such. Maybe God shares our objections. It’s a paradox. But so is the reality of a God who is all-good, all-powerful, and all-present in a world that also allows unspeakable evil.

I wasn’t a perfect child. More likely than not, my brother’s scheme was preempted by me stealing his football cards and/or dropping his toothbrush in the toilet. But my mother, upon consideration, found my indignation reasonable. Which is the hope, isn’t it? That God will not hold our own pleas for justice against us?

Perhaps we might see God joining our rebellion. If so, then maybe we can also ask her to find the key to these handcuffs.