Tuesday, December 20, 2011

At home in my own skin

I’m a competitive person. This confession will not come as news to my family and some of my friends who I’ve annoyed on occasion by turning even simple games into contests. I’ll skip the details, but suffice to say that when it comes to Monopoly and ping-pong, I play to win.
As a runner, I compete mostly against myself. I’m past the age when I could win anything on the basis of speed, yet I continue to push myself. I’ve kept a logbook of my running for years, recording my times, distances and pace, routes and weather, and even the mileage I’ve put on my current pair of shoes (fellow runners will know why). I take pleasure in documenting these details. It helps to know where you’re headed by seeing where you’ve been. I sometimes carry a GPS to better quantify my performance, although I’ve found there is indeed a limit to the data I can process. There will be no heart rate monitor for me.
My big statistical achievement this year was logging more than 1000 miles both running and cycling. I’ve run more miles and cycled more miles in a single year before, but never have I combined the two in such quantity. I should finish with almost 1100 running miles by Dec. 31—about the driving distance from Seattle to Los Angeles, to put it in perspective.
Having thus bragged about my prowess as a runner, it’s tempting to believe that my strength is my own. Running is not a team sport nor is there a person I can blame or credit for my accomplishments (other than perhaps an indulgent wife). I follow no special running program, do no weight training, nor eat a special diet. Without having to psyche myself up, I simply lace up my running shoes five days a week—come rain or shine—and head out the door.
In this respect I am strong. It’s a gift. My heart and lungs keep pumping not because of any careful planning on my part, but only because this capacity has been granted to me. It’s because it’s a gift that I’m eager to write about it, and then to try to explain the contradiction that running is in my life.
The truth is I feel weak a lot more than I feel strong. Cancer can do that, even when I’m between episodes. I experience moments unpredictably when I’m perfectly alert and physically rested and I’ll suddenly fall into a dark little pit. The sadness and gloom I feel is fleeting, but quite real. These pits are a reminder that I’m not the master of my destiny, as much as I might struggle to be. I suspect running helps to buoy my spirits and that without it, I’d be even more inclined to dark moods. Strenuous exercise can be an emotional purgative. To say that it keeps me sane may be very close to reality.
As a Christian, I believe that God created all humanity from dust and then breathed life into us—literally the breath of life. The Genesis account has the ring of truth to me. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch-born Catholic priest, has written about God’s spirit in a way that brings added meaning to how good breathing makes for good health:
When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” We are seldom aware of our breathing. It is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it.

The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.

Trying to live without that spirit is, for me, like trying to run without breathing. I am not strong apart from Him. Without breath I faint for lack of oxygen. I also have nothing to fear in admitting my weakness, and in knowing that I learn more of God when I’m weak than when I’m strong. In one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he writes that power is perfected in weakness and that he (Paul) would rather boast about his weakness so that the power of Christ might dwell in him. That’s hard for me to grasp, but I take it on faith that Paul is right about this. In God’s topsy-turvy kingdom, we are strongest when we’re weakest and weakest when we think we’re strong. That’s a thought I rarely meditate upon, but clearly should if I’m ever foolish enough to run a marathon again.

This “weak is strong/strong is weak” contradiction also gives me some perspective on metastatic melanoma, which I’m often ready to concede is way stronger than I am. Given its epidemiology, it’s reasonable to grant melanoma its power. But as creatures breathed into by God, we are a miraculous combination of the organic and the spiritual. We have physical bodies, but we are spiritual beings that have been embodied.

While melanoma is more than just skin deep, it can’t touch me in my deepest places. The soul that God has placed within me is holy; it belongs to Him and can’t be corrupted. Considered in this light, I’m more inclined to be honest about my weakness. I don’t dismiss, deny or despise it. If in fact disease of the body is weakness in a mortal sense, I remain strong in the knowledge that it possesses no spiritual power. The fact that I have so far run melanoma to a standoff gives me hope that the flesh itself is being lent some of the power of my spirit.

To say that I’m at home in my own skin transcends irony. Given the betrayal of melanocytes that got me into this mess in the first place, there are other parts of my physical being in which I have more confidence than skin. And yet I find myself totally comfortable in the body God has given me. The unfathomable integration of body and soul that makes me me is what makes a morning run through the dewy fields much more than just exercise. It turns my dark brooding into light. It takes my competitive spirit and redeems it into something honorable. I seek to embrace my strength, but I’m learning to also embrace my weakness. Both are gifts from God, and thus they both are good.

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