Ten summers ago I ran a road race with my father. It wasn’t anything serious, a sleepy 5k on a sticky summer night in South Carolina. One learns quickly upon moving to the south that outdoor events, during the summer at least, are reserved for the evening, because frankly it’s too damn hot to do much of anything when the sunlight radiates it’s suffocating heat into the thick muggy mid-Carolina air.
As I nervously approached the block of runners stretching near the starting line my dad tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered to follow him. We waded through hundreds of people on our way back. I wondered where we were going, the starting line was the exact opposite way, why were we walking away from it I thought confounded by what seemed to be an obvious disadvantage we were now placing on this father and son team.
Right before the race began we reached the very back of the field, and my father quietly said something I’ll never forget, he looked forward to the sea of bodies, and back at me, and explained that he liked to start in the back so that he’d spend the race passing others instead of being passed like those that might start at the front but not be in good enough shape to keep pace. It’s the psychology of it he explained, and we were off.
A penny, if you spin it the right way, on a flat surface can turn for seconds at a time in revolutions so fast the coin itself appears blurred, tails and heads become almost one, until the coin slows enough for gravity to pull it down to one side or another. The penny can fall, in theory at least, on either side just as easily.
When a man loses his money he feels inadequate, in his DNA is the need to provide, and with no money becoming a provider all the sudden doesn’t quite sound possible. With no money a man becomes almost irrelevant to a culture set upon, run by, and worshipped for monetary measures.
When a man loses love he has no shoulder to cry on, no one to listen to his feelings, to rub his shoulders and tell him it’ll be alright, that everything will be alright. No love to hold him up when he is too weak to hold his own weight, to push him for the better, and to champion his interests and goals as if they were her own.
When a man loses his car he has no transpiration, which often means the freedom he once had is no more. When a man has no torque in front of him, no rubber beneath, no wheel to rest his hands on, his life is at a perpetual stoplight, always red, never green, at least in a city with scant public transportation.
Combine the three, no money, love, or car, add in that unforgiving Carolina summer heat, and you have all the ingredients baking toward a depression of serious proportions. You also have something else, a gift, a wondrous gift that is so special, so unbelievably amazing, it has no price that one could pay for it. Beyond the bitter taste of what you don’t have, lays a honeycomb sweet opportunity to change your life in magnitudes otherwise incomprehensible, for the better.
Running from the back of the field in that road race a decade ago was so exhilarating, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly pass anymore people as I steamed through 3.1 miles, a few more bit the dust behind me. Finishing nowhere near the top wasn’t even on my radar as my feet dashed the finish line, because I knew that I was far from last, that my time was respectable, and that my effort was worthy, simply by counting all those that ended up behind me. Psychology indeed.
The gift of starting at the back of a race, and in life, is in experiencing something from nothing. Seeing progress not in the context of a lifetime of progress, but in that of having nowhere to go but up in the moment. Instead of carrying the faults of ambitious goals gone ary, we celebrate the smallest of victories out of nothingness. A strip steak to the rich is dog food, to the poorest of the poor it is a meal reserved for only the most special of occasions.
This past summer, years after the road race, when I thought I’d surely have it all figured out, a season of despair had arrived so unexpected. Just when I thought things could not get much worse, they started to get better. The fall and winter brought so much right, so many smiles and laughs have been had, and my old Subaru has to be the best car I’ve ever owned if for nothing else that it cost $2,500 and runs like a gem. The money I make now comes from the hardest work I’ve ever done, and is the most gratifying. I do as much pro bono work as paid, and it’s totally awesome. Life these days is as sweet as the tea down here, not because everything is as good as it’s ever been, but because everything is now the way it should be. I am who I want to be, finally, and while arriving at the destination of being my true self is enormously fantastic in it’s own right, the real blood pumping, finger tingling, eye bulging excitement comes from what I, no we, can do now. The world really is my oyster, and yours too.
That penny spinning, I envision you like that, all of us actually, a motion-filled entity that can at any given time land to do good, to give unselfishly, to toss ego in the trash can, and just serve and build a better place, as it can fall on the side of self-gratification, one-upping the Joneses, and far worse deeds that arrive from our inner desires to do wrong.
When I speak to others and they share with me, maybe because I welcome openness, or maybe because of some otherworldly reason, they share their desire to do more with their life. To build a business that matters, or to give to the poor, or the church, or to students with no school supplies. Each time I hear such wishes I think of that penny, and of the race, and how if we just take a minute to walk to the back of the pack, shedding all our thoughts and perceptions of who we are, or what others think we should be, before a nightmare of a life does it for us, we are capable of so much goodness… Maybe even enough to change the world.