What Does it Take to Change?

ShoesI’m trying to change. I’d rate my success as mediocre.

For the last decade or so I’ve been trying to become a runner. It’s a big change for me after a lifetime with the identity NOT ATHLETIC.

I played softball on my church youth group team because my dad was the coach. I watched the game from right field where I dropped my glove on the grass and made bracelets of clover.

I ran a mile in 6th grade for field day and vomited at the end.

I’ve tried several times to pick up running. I remember making a go of it in my early 30s and thinking maybe I’d run a marathon when I turned 40. I passed 40 in running shoes at a brisk walking pace.

In the last year, though, I’ve made a lot of progress. I ran steadily for a couple of months and checked off goals every week. During those glorious weeks of my athletic life, I got home from running one night and realized I ran without thinking about running. For me, that is the mountaintop. At dinner that night I told my husband about it and we lifted our glasses to toast the moment. He said he wanted to go for a run. I’d become contagious!

My husband has been a runner. When motivation wanes,I can put on my running shoes, wander around the house and ask my husband, “I should go running, right?” And he’ll say, “Yep. Go.”

Then I go. And I’m glad afterward.

If I go out and feel terrible or don’t get very far, I can come home and tell my husband. “That’s ok, right?” I’ll ask. Or “that’s normal, right?”

And he’ll say, “Yep. Normal. Good job getting out there.”
RunningSometimes a friend sees me on the road and says something later, like “I saw you out there being all exercise-y. Good for you.”

But then stuff gets in the way. I bought new, ill-fitting shoes. My knees and shins hurt. I took a couple weeks off and got new, good shoes. It took a while to get back in a groove.

I started making good progress again until the day I ran a mile and my legs went numb. My feet and ankles tingled and the numbness radiated up to my knees.

That’s a thing with me ever since I had colon cancer several years ago and the chemotherapy caused nerve damage in my feet. Usually it’s not a problem, but that day it was. I walked back home discouraged and sad.

I took a few days to recover and think about what might have caused it. It’s probably related to heat and humidity, so I waited for a cool day to try running again.

I made a plan. I put on my running shoes. I walked around the house feeling anxious about running a mile and having the same problem.

I decided I wanted to be able to run, and there’s no way that happens unless I try. I got out the door, ran for 2.5 miles, and the nerve endings in my feet were still working.

Here’s the thing: Change is HARD. Good change, chosen change, in supportive settings, is HARD.

While I run, I often rehearse a list of all the things I have going for me:

  1. I am healthy.
  2. I have resources to buy the tools I need.
  3. I have mentors – people who know how to do what I am learning to do.
  4. My family supports me.
  5. I have time.
  6. I have learned from dozens of previous attempts.
  7. I choose this.

Then sometimes I compare this to what might be happening for someone who lives in poverty. The world has a long agenda for how people who are poor ought to change: Get a job. Get a better job. Stop smoking. Save money. Go to college. Read to your kids every night.

Any one of these changes is a major accomplishment in a life with stable resources. But poverty is an environment of not-enough-resources. Let’s look back at my list and compare –

  1. I am healthy. “If you want to increase the odds of living a long and healthy life, don’t be poor,” says stress physiologist Robert Sapolsky. Poverty is an environment of chronic stress, and that is bad for health.
  2. I have resources to buy the tools I need. The definition of poverty is not enough resources. Did you notice I bought two pairs of running shoes in the course of my story? And that was inside a few months. I was annoyed with myself, but paid for the shoes without skimping somewhere else.
  3. I have mentors – people who know how to do what I am learning to do. When my husband says, “Yep, go run today,” or assures me my setbacks are normal, it smooths over dozens of tiny uncertainties. If I were a first generation college student working through four years of school without a mentor, how would I smooth those uncertainties on my own?
  4. My family supports me. If I were trying to save some money from my paycheck every month to build a rainy day fund, but other people in my family don’t have enough right now and don’t value saving, it will be hard to stay focused on that goal.
  5. I have time. Poverty is a lot of work. For example, in Lake County, where most people depend on cars, taking public transportation requires an enormous amount of time. A trip that takes 10 minutes by car can easily take an hour or more by bus.
  6. I have learned from dozens of previous attempts. Change takes practice. Every time I try and fail, I learn something. It can take a lot of trying to get to the goal.
  7. I choose this. Change is hard enough when I choose it for myself. If someone else demands it of me without my choosing and valuing it, long-term change is nearly impossible.

We probably all need more humility, kindness and patience — with ourselves and with our neighbors — when we are working to change. What opportunities do you see to build resources to support positive change — or even to make positive changes possible?

“Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person…” (1 Thessalonians 5)