Maybe you know the Achilles story, about his mom Thetis, who dips her son into a magic river right after he’s born in order to subvert a prophecy regarding his early demise. She held him by the ankles though, and so the magic sauce didn’t do it’s work on that part of his body, which is where an arrow hit him in battle one day and he died. Achilles: the place of vulnerability.
The Achilles story is appropriate because this tendon seems the bane of countless athletes. Anatomy for Runners tells the story of a high school cross country student who injures the Achilles, takes the summer off, feels fine, and then returns in the fall only to immediately re-injure himself there. Rest. Repeat. Rest. Repeat again, getting injured yet again, and then swear. “Why is this not healing?”
Of course, in the grand scheme of things happening in Nigeria, Santa Barbara, and Ukraine, let alone real afflictions like cancer, I hesitate to even write about the mundane heel. Still, having faced the frustration of countless setbacks with my own Achilles this past year and now, finally, feeling that I might be mended, I’ve come to see that the lessons learned by dealing with stubborn little tendon are lessons for life and all forms of leadership – parenting to presidents.
Maybe this is why the Achilles is more than a myth and tendon, it’s a metaphor having to do with the weakest link that each of us have in our lives, places of vulnerability that, if left unchecked will sideline us from our calling, our progress, our joy. How does with deal with an Achilles, whether literal or metaphorical? Here are five things that have helped strengthen mine. Applications to the rest of life are, I hope, evident.
1. Daily is best – Physical Therapists prescribe exercises. “Three sets of 20 on this one. Two sets of 10 on that.” Etc. Etc. These PT people are magical, because the exercises aren’t that difficult. You rarely sweat doing them and when you’re finished you’re not even tired. And yet this small stretches have a combined affect of restoring your body’s range of motion, strength, and balance.
But here’s the key. You need to do them! Every day. I’m probably typical in that I do them religiously as long as my symptoms are presenting, but as soon as I’m better, I have a sort of “thanks – I’ll take it from here” attitude, because the workout seems so meaningless when I’m feeling well. Two days out though, I’m well no more, as my lack of “showing up”, led to a sort of backsliding into my previous condition.
I’ve finally learned that it’s the daily showing up that makes the whole thing work, when I fell well and when I don’t. When I’m motivated, and when I’m not. This is life, of course, whether playing the cello, raising children, or leading an organization, or learning to know and love God. There are little things which, if done faithfully, will transform us and our sphere of influence – not suddenly, but slowly.
The biggest challenge is that history also tells us that human nature tends to blow off the little stuff as insignificant when we’re feeling fine. So we quit showing up for coffee with God, or for exercise, or we quit encouraging others, or quit using our gifts. They seem like little things, these elements we’ve left behind, but one day we’ll wake up trapped in our addiction, or bitterness, shame or burnout, lust or greed. It will seem to have come out of nowhere, but it didn’t – it came because we stopped doing the important little things.
Make daily habits that remind you of that you’re beloved, called, gifted, forgiven, and get on with living into that reality.
2. Slow is essential – A doctor suggested I was running too fast, and I laughed. “I’m slower than I’ve ever been” I said, and then he asked my age and what my fasted mile pace was, he said again, “you’re going too fast”. He challenged me to tie my running to a heart monitor and stay in my “zone”.
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and for the first time in a year, I’m out there running pain free. Slow. But pain free. The same doctor told me that I was young enough that if I’d stick with it, I’d still be able to get faster for another decade, said something about a tribe in Mexico where old guys run into their eighties. “But it happens by building your capacity slowly… over years. The problem with most of us is that we’re impatient.”
I’ve settled in for the long haul now, not addicted to short term results, but trying to keep the conditions right so that I can keep showing up in the outdoors and putting one foot in front of the other. After a few months of staying in this same aerobic zone, the pace is slowly getting faster, but not in some formulaic way. One day better, next time worse, then better, better, worse, worse, worse, way better – you get the picture. Thankfully I’m not competing with anyone, because I’ve come to point where the thing I care most about is staying in “the zone” believing that the rest will take care of itself.
This too has application for the rest of life. You keep showing up in your marriage, your vocational calling, your creative calling, your stewardship responsibilities of time, money, health. Some days it will feel like a disaster, and you’ll wrestle with shame. It will seem that others are flying past you, reaching new heights of parenting, romance, vocational success. Other days you’re on top of the world unstoppable. Both are temporary illusions. The truth is that if you keep showing up, really present and paying attention, and taking faithful steps towards the wholeness into which you’re invited by Christ – you’re making progress, no matter how you feel. The bad days are as important as the good.
Take away: How I feel today, and how I performed, are both far less important than the promise that I’m being transformed, “from glory to glory”, which means that little by little I’m becoming the whole in person in experience that I already am in Christ. This gives me patience and helps me relax and enjoy the ride.
3. Ego is a setback – When I started running with the hear monitor on, 97% of the other runners would pass me, making me feel old, lazy, slow. I was sorely tempted to shout, “I can go faster – much faster!” or worse, to speed up. What’s changed since those initial days is that I’m a “faster sort of slow”, but most runners still pass me. The more profound change is that I no longer care when others pass me. I’m marching to the beat of my own heart, convinced that I’m where I belong, and that the most important pace to achieve is my pace, my rhythm, my call.
Now if I could only learn that in the rest of life. It’s Paul who says that when we compare ourselves with others we’re on a fools errand, an endless wheel of pride or shame depending on whether we’re on top or bottom. Enough! When I fix my eyes on Christ and listen for his voice regarding pacing and priorities, others will seem faster, richer, more beautiful, more widely read. It’s incredibly liberating to match my pace to his and relax.
Take away: When I’m focused on my own calling, identity, and priorities, life’s full enough – and I’m content.
The heel’s mostly healed, I think, and that’s good new for my goals related to life in the Alps this summer. More important, though, have been the lessons learned about daily priorities, confident patience, and letting go of ego, because these things are healing the rest of my life too.