Friday, April 20, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

The image of endurance sports is so often one of the individual. The solo athlete, taking on the elements alone. No help, no support, no aid. One person launching into the great unknown with nothing more than the energy and muscle contained within the vessel of a single body, facing the onslaught of a world of waves and currents and hills and mountains and wind and rain and heat and cold and earth and sky and sun and moon and all the minions of the universe and heavens, arrayed in awesome splendor against one solitary soul of humanity. You, against the visage of creation.

And so we grit our teeth and grasp our tools, harden our hearts and tighten our armor, steel our bodies and lift our weapons, and we take our mission with the air of those soldiers of history who marched forward with the intent of somehow, someway, sometime finding their way into the mouth of a monstrous maelstrom. And when the clarion call was heard, they attacked, fear in hand, blood in veins, wonder in thoughts, and hope in chests, into the ultimate horror.

We hope to be like them. We think to be like them. We need to be like them. Or so we think.

We prepare our equipment with the meticulousness we imagine they had. We count our gear with the precision we believe they had. We say our prayers and gather our thoughts and eat our meals with the deliberation and care and faith we say they had. We do everything the way we know they did. Or so we think.

But something funny happens on race day.

Reality is different from expectations. Reality is different from stories. Reality is different from ideals. Reality is different from imagination or belief or mindless stories or purported knowledge. Reality is not the image of a myth. Reality is more.

Reality is where the waves and currents are larger, the hills and mountains are steeper, the wind and rain are stronger, the heat is hotter and the cold is colder, and the earth and sky and sun and moon and all the universe and all the heavens are far more than you could ever imagine...more than anyone could ever imagine. Particularly by one solitary soul of humanity. All alone. Against the full visage of creation.

And that's when we see the other people around us. That's when we see the others beside us. See their suffering. See their hurt. See their anguish and pain. See them, the same way they see us. See that we--we, not me nor I nor my nor mine, but we, us, ours--are not alone. We are not alone. We are together. We are here, facing this race, together. And only together will we all finish.

And that's when our teeth unclench and our hearts soften and our bodies melt. And that's when we let go our tools and loosen our armor and drop our weapons. That's when we stop, pause, and then turn away from the direction of the race and face one another, and we reach out our hands and look each other in the eye and offer comfort and greetings, and then say "Brother, you need some help?"

And only then do we learn what the race is all about.

When the night has come and the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me...
...If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me...
--Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, & Mike Stoller, Stand By Me

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