One of the things I realized training for my first marathon over 10 years ago was the importance of community. I grew up in a family that…ahem, “encouraged” me to think I could do everything on my own and to not ask for help. This is not necessarily the same thing as being independent, but a shadowy cousin of it. Because of this, people have often read me as intimidating (versus shy or awkward, which is closer to the truth). This inability to ask for help also got me a C in Algebra in high school and failing out of Physics 106 in college (and derailing my pseudo-ambitions to be an astronaut). I knew I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know how to ask for help or even what I was supposed to do if I went in for help during office hours.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve begun to realize that I can’t do everything alone. And I don’t want to.
When I started training for the 2003 Chicago Marathon, I signed up with one of the Chicago Area Runners’ Association marathon training group. I only knew one person who had ever run a marathon (my most recent roommate), and I had never run a race in my life. In other words, I had no idea what I was doing. I had run for exercise since high school, but that was it. I showed up to the first group run in cotton cuz that’s what I ran in. Everyone was flabbergasted and schooled me about technical fabric. I thought it was too expensive, and it wasn’t clear to me what the point was. But I started buying a few pieces on sale, because I figured these people knew more than I did. In my defense, wicking athletic wear was nowhere near as prevalent or cheap as it is now. Back then, even most race shirts, including the Chicago Marathon’s, were made of cotton.
I ended up running most of that season with a girl Yolanda (my oldest running friend!), who said she picked me out of the group cuz I seemed the saltiest (she might not have used that word exactly, but I wasn’t the typical cute blonde 20-something). We ran that season together and the following several years until I left the city. From that first group, I began to understand the allure of running with others and what all this “community” was about. Here was a group of like-minded people who shared something with you, who’d support you, listen to you, and understood what you were talking about with little explanation.
Since that first sought-out community, I’ve looked for it in other places–professionally, socially/emotionally, and with running. Sometimes it works and clicks easily and sometimes it’s harder to find. But when it connects, it blows my mind how the group can become this amazing organism that is so much more than the sum of its parts. The friends I see the most right now are my running friends–women I spend hours with, sharing stories about our families, work, kids, spouses, hopes, etc. All while never looking them in the face (though I swear that’s the secret to why so much can be divulged on a run)! What amazes me, though, is how much the group is not just about the running but about supporting one another. In all areas of life. My running group, Best Foot Forward (BFF, cute huh?), has helped women through babies, various running-related injuries/ailments, real sickness, and all the curveballs life throws at us. And sometimes it’s not even the big stuff that will tear us down, but the everyday hardships of being a thinking, feeling being on this planet.
I recently reached out on BFF’s Facebook page to ask if anyone else had insight into emotional/energy issues around their period. I’ve been getting really low physically and emotionally, and I was thinking it was cyclical enough that it might be period-related. I thought I’d ask to see if others had this experience to investigate its likelihood. So first, this is obviously a women’s page. With almost 200 members, it’s unlikely I would throw that question out there to a mixed group. Secondly, there had already been lots of posts in the past 6 months or so about pelvic floor stuff, peeing after pregnancy, and a whole host of very intimate women-ish issues, so I didn’t feel totally random/weird about asking the group. Thirdly, the number of women I had respond to the post and in private messages surprised me. There are alot of us who struggle with various emotional issues that may or may not be related to cyclical things, and people were willing to share with me about them.
I was moved and buoyed by the sense of community. One of the things I feel is hard about the 21st century is the immense sense of isolation that can overwhelm us. As much as we are electronically connected and hooked in, we are also so much more emotionally disconnected from one another. Just look at all the cyber-bullying and social media terrorism/trolling that goes on. Yet here was a group of women, some of whom I knew personally and had run with and some who I didn’t/hadn’t, who were willing to reach out to me, offer help, and share their experience, strength, and hope.
My town was recently rocked by a very unexpected suicide. I did not know the man personally, but from what I saw/heard, he was the epitome of the description “pillar of the community.” He was involved in his church, active in local government, well-liked and well-known. As far as I can tell, no one saw it coming, including his family. All I could think about was how alone he must have felt, even though he seemed to be at the center of so many things.
The world can be an amazing, helpful, caring place if we let it be. But sometimes, we have to be willing to ask for help recognizing this.
I am an inherently introverted person–not in the sense that I can’t talk to folks and be engaged (obviously, I’m an educator so that doesn’t quite work, ha), but that I don’t get my energy from engaging with or being around alot of people all the time. Back when I was a kid (and weirder), I thought I wanted to be an astronaut or a nun, to escape from being around people all the time. I thought I didn’t need people. I realize more and more everyday that this is not true. My soul is nourished, healed, and nurtured by the relationships I seek and build around me. Whether it is my running group or my Cultivating New Voices fellows (oo-ooo!) or any of the other groups of which I am a part, I depend upon my connections and roots within these communities. John Donne was right, when he wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
I hope everyone has a community in which they have found comrades-in-arms, sisters, or kindred spirits. If not, go out and find them, because your life will be that much richer!
P.S. I’m not a regular gospel music listener, but I do like Mary Mary and their song “Can’t Give Up Now” got me through my dissertation. I still listen to it when things get rough!