On a gorgeous fall day, they gathered. Stretching long, long across a grassy field, a line of nervous high-school boys waited for the sound of the gun. Among them, clad in the red and black of his school, was The Cub, my youngest son.
The flag went up. En masse, they leaned in, and at the pistol’s report, they leapt. With a heartfelt shout to send him off, we wheeled around and ran for the first observation point, a break in the trees where we could see him and his teammates come by.
From one spot to the next, we followed his progress. As the race wore on, I could see that he was struggling. Now in the woods and now across the field, it was evident that his strength was fading. White faced, he crossed the finish line at last and collapsed in a heap on the grass.
It was back at the camp, sweaty pack milling around, that I learned what had happened. It came from Coach who was checking in with my son. “How are you doing? I saw you fall. You hit the ground, rolled like a cat, got back on your feet, and kept running.”
“What?” I said. “You fell?”
“Yeah. Four of us did.”
Somehow, in the crush and press of all those running bodies, there’d been a domino event. One man went down and then three more. In a sport that’s hugely mental and psychological, he was thrown off his stride that day, and he did not quite regain it.
In the intervening weeks, the little song we sang as children has been on replay in my mind. “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes. We all fall down.” I know it’s true. In the race of life, we all fall down.
Some falls are mere accidents; flukes, like the one described above. Vagaries of life in an imperfect world, things happen that we did not expect or deserve.
We lose a job when a company folds. We get sick. Someone pulls out in front of us and totals the car. In a thousand ways, life deals setbacks and reversals, and it knocks us off our stride and out of rhythm.
Not every fall, however, is accidental. After one race this season, a teammate came in with a bloody leg. He had been spiked repeatedly and deliberately by a runner from another school. It was a cheap, cruel shot, and it left real marks.
Some humans are like that. They cheat, lie, and steal to get ahead. With no love or regard for others, they throw elbows (and cleats) in an effort to gain an advantage. Self is on the throne, and they don’t care who gets hurt on their way to the finish chute. These people leave a trail of hurting souls in their wake, and they seldom, if ever, turn around to look at the damage they’ve left behind.
This is how they choose to run, and it’s messy.
The most catastrophic falls we suffer are often the ones we cause ourselves. These are the results of choices we’ve made. Some choices are reactions to the bad things that happened to us. Anger that simmers too long becomes resentment, which ferments into the toxic moonshine of bitterness. And bitterness, Scripture warns, will defile.
Unresolved pain, too, can lead us down paths we didn’t foresee. Self-soothing and numbing behaviors become full-blow addictions, and right there comes the crash. Waking up one day, we find that we’ve wandered off the course. We have lost our way, and we scarcely know how to find it.
This is self-sabotage. Having no one else to blame is a grim realization that often dawns in prison cells and pits of every shape and size. When the bottom beneath your back is solid rock, the truth becomes crystal clear, and it invites.
In that dark and lonely place, Truth cries out, “There is another way. There is more to your life than this. You can run a better race.”
Freedom only comes when we face the truth about ourselves—who we are, what we’ve done, why we’re here. Put simply, we can repent, which is “to turn from sin, to feel regret or contrition, to change one’s mind.”
In that turning and changing, there’s redemption. As we make amends to those we’ve harmed, seeking forgiveness from God, our higher power, we begin to live a different way. This is because we are now different people. Instead of living for self first, we find joy and satisfaction in living for others, walking, even running in the light of eternal, undying love.
The fall that day on the cross-country course was real. It happened. And yet my son completed the race. When he crossed the finish line, people who loved him were waiting: his family, his buddies, and a coach who truly cared. He finished, and that’s what really mattered.
To all who have fallen and have lost their way, take heart. Today I sound the clarion call of Truth, “There is another way. There is more to your life than this. You can run a better race. This need not be your end.”
No matter how painful or daunting it is, you can, like my son, get back up on your feet and rejoin the race. You may limp a bit at first, but that’s okay. There’s a finish line ahead and people who need you. As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope.
Keep running, my friend. Your race matters.
You can hear America’s small, caffeinated mom every Saturday morning on 77 WABC. There, she joins James Golden, aka Bo Snerdley, for a lively conversation with humor, encouragement, and wisdom. Top off your mug and join them.