6AM – The alarm goes off and it needs to, even for morning people at this time of year. Autumn in northern latitudes means every day the sun sleeps in a little longer, the morning air’s a little colder, and the bed’s a little more inviting. “Why get up and suffer in the dark?” I ask myself, when I can stay wrapped in a cocoon of safety and comfort.
Embodiment is the answer. I’m old enough to know that if I don’t get up and do something with my body before the day gets on, I won’t do anything physical. I have a desk job, which means that I live most of my best hours sitting in a chair, often communicating in a virtual world with pixels, bytes, and other relatively recent inventions. An e-mail here – a facebook post there – a text message. A step up from this is reading a real book, and I’ll do some of that too, if it’s a good day. O so much of my life, though, is lived necessarily inside my head and the affect for me, and probably you too, is not good. Like fluorescent lights, the disembodied life in the realm of ideas and virtual relationships has a subtle but damaging long term affect on our lives. Wendell Berry, who still writes on a typewriter, has been declaring this for decades, like a prophet before his time. Some of us are beginning to believe he’s onto something, including Phillip Zimbardo from Stanford, and Bill Plotkin, who is spending his life helping people get out of their heads.
What helps me get out of my head is exercising, outside, in whatever weather happens to be there. It’s only by showing up consistently, darkness and light, rain and shine, that I’ll be able to learn from all the revelation God is offering me through creation. Afternoons don’t work for me. I’m spent. So I force myself out, and after coffee with God, I’m soon running the stairs at the Greenlake Aqua Theater, which is the remnant of a place where everyone from Led Zeppelin to Bob Hope performed back in the day. Now it’s just stairs, for sitting, or mostly, for crazy people who like to run up them early in the morning.
There’s nobody on the stairs this morning, but that’s unusual, because this is a great place to get your heart pumping. I always regret getting out of bed to come here and I’m always excited to run them once I arrive. My goal is to dash up them 14 times and I usually enjoy the first four of five sets. After that, suffering joins the party and I’m faced with the constant realization that I don’t need to do this. I’m alone so there’s no reputation to preserve. There’s enough suffering in the world already, so why I am inflict more by doing this? I always ponder quitting before 14. I usually make my goal. Today though, I’m flooded with inspiration, right in the midst of my suffering.
The value of the stairs, I realize, is that it’s a school of sorts, preparing me for the rest of my day and the rest of my life. “How so?” you ask. Here’s how:
1. It builds endurance. There’s little in life worth doing that doesn’t require consistent showing up, even when you don’t feel like it. Marriage is that way. So is the priceless work of developing intimacy with Jesus. So is developing whatever craft or calling belongs to you, or starting a business, or learning to ski better, or improving your communication skills, or leadership skills, or pottery skills…or any skills. If you can’t break through and keep going when you feel like quitting, you’ll get stuck halfway up the mountain or halfway in your marriage. It won’t be pretty. Every time I run stairs I want to quit. That’s a good thing because I’m not just exercising my legs and lungs, I’m exercising my will.
2. It builds capacity. God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah once when he was discouraged, and God’s word seemed harsh on the surface of things. Jeremiah was complaining about how hard life had become for he and his people, but instead of sympathy, God offers this word: “If you’ve run with the footmen, and they’ve tired you out, how will you run with the horses?” From this, I learn that I need to have not just “enough in my tank” for what I think life will throw at me, but hopefully, extra capacity, so that I’m able to serve, or give, or go the extra mile, or do what needs to be done – precisely by developing habits that create capacity. We’d all do well to ask ourselves how we’re building extra capacity – body, soul, spirit – and if we’ve no answers, we’d do well to take a step towards building some.
3. It teaches you to look for joy in the midst of pain. When the heart’s up to 170 and every breath feel inadequate, and I’m only on round 10 of 14, the best way for to me avoid the thought of quitting is to look for some beauty and soak it in. It’s always there somehow – the silhouette of a runner, a flock of geese, a heron, a falling yellow leaf, eventually the sunrise itself. I don’t know why this happens, but the beauty helps me continue because I think that at some primal level beauty is the continual reminder that life is still worth living. Our disembodied virtual worlds can only offer imitations or at best representations of real beauty. We need to get out and touch, taste, see if the transforming power of beauty is to bath our souls in life giving ways.
4. Bacon. You think I’m kidding. Consider Hebrews 11, which is the reminder that Moses endured all the suffering of his calling because he was looking “to his reward”. After the stairs, four slices, with eggs covered in sun dried tomatoes and sprinkled with Romano cheese, an orange on the side. After the hard marriage talk, or a few of them; genuine intimacy and revealing. After the hard thing, the reward. The principle extends all the way to grave, as Paul declares that the greatest reward of all is Christ himself. My friend Hans Peter, who died this summer in an accident, said once that dying will be like “a kid running home to papa after his first day of school”. Our willingness to do the right thing, even though the right thing often means delayed gratification or suffering, is the price of our transformation. The reward? Our transformation.
Why wouldn’t we?