Beyond Room 119

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I went to a track workout with my crew the other night. It was the first one that I’ve been able to get to, and I was a half hour late. I figured that would be fine, since track workouts are much more individually oriented than our usual group runs. Sure, we might do a mile warm up together, but once the speedwork starts, everyone breaks off into their own pace. With speedwork, I actually prefer to be by myself because it gives me the opportunity to dig down deep and find that inner strength to push. It’s important to be able to use those around us as a source of strength, but we also need to develop the ability to find that strength ourselves, for both personal use and so that we can be that strength to others in need. Because of this, I love speedwork, and so even though my schedule prevented me from doing it with the group, I’ve been doing it on my own.

This particular week, it worked out that I could actually make the group workout. By the time I arrived, the other four had already done their warm up and were halfway done with their workout (5 x 800s, for those of you who may be interested). I got started and just figured I’d wave at them when they had finished and were leaving. Eventually, I finished my warm up and moved into the 800s. Oftentimes when running, you can think about other things, but when I work on speed, I usually need to focus on each step. I think about where my energy is going, so that I can continue to push, and then push harder. As I was running my second 800, I realized something odd. The other four had finished their own speedwork by that point and should have been well on their way to finishing their cool down mile. But as I looked over, I saw one doing push ups, another working on some more speed, someone else running the stadium steps, and the last one was simply enjoying the beautiful evening.

“There’s no way they’re waiting for me…” I thought as I rounded the curve in the track. “That would keep them here another half hour or longer than they need to be. That would be absurd!” After I finished that set, I had a 60 second break between 800s to get to the heart of the matter. Two of them were nearby.

“Uh, guys?” I asked. “Did you already do your cool down?”

Sometimes, one of my favorite interviewing techniques is to begin with a question to which I already know the answer. It creates a common foundation and understanding to then tell the other person how crazy they are.

One of them answered me immediately. “Oh, no. We have a tradition that we wait until the last person is finished, and then we all do it together.” I looked at him in disbelief, my 60 seconds ticking away, and I immediately felt bad for coming so late. “You don’t have to do that!”

He looked at me in his matter-of-fact way and simply said, “We know. We want to.”

I was shaking my head as I began my next lap around the track. I was trying to focus on speed while simultaneously processing what was happening at the track, which was a bit difficult. I’ve known these folks almost a year now, and I can say with certainty that I’m a better person today than I was last year because of them. I grew so much last fall while training for a marathon, and though the intensity of my training has since slowed, the learning moments haven’t stopped.

For example, on this particular Tuesday night, four individuals delayed the rest of their night. For me. Dinner times, opportunities for relaxation, conversations with spouses, and bedtimes were voluntarily pushed back to wait for one person. Not because their training plan dictated it and not because they needed to, but because each of them wanted to.

Because they’ve recognized something important. Although the individual is indeed important, it is community that gives deeper meaning to our lives. Community exists, among other reasons, to support the individuals within it, to lift us up, and to encourage us. To show us that though we may often feel alone, we are always part of something bigger, and that something extends beyond and between us. In doing so, it reminds us that caring for another can be dependent on nothing beyond your own choice to do so; age, gender, occupation, and life situation aren’t needed to either facilitate or prevent connections.

So sure, I could have done the rest of my 800s and finished up my run that night by myself, and I would have gone home perfectly happy. But because four people sacrificed a bit of their own time to wait for me, I instead went home with a solid run – and a better understanding of what community means, and how I can try to be that for others. All in all, I’d consider that a success.


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Moments that count

A few days ago, a student left my office, closed the door behind her, and I just sat there for a moment and said a silent prayer of gratitude.

She had walked in maybe thirty or forty minutes before that, with one of the most standard questions I hear: What classes do I need to take this fall? Over the course of our time together, we went far beyond the answer to that initial question.

She shared her struggles at the first school she had attended, and the problems she had faced at our institution the previous semester. She talked about the way her path had shifted when she realized that she couldn’t achieve her dream of becoming an opera singer. She wondered aloud about any accommodations that might help her to be successful in her math course, despite her disabilities. She teared up when I mentioned taking a music class as a fine arts elective because she didn’t feel like she could face the instructors in that department after the way she handled the struggles she faced in her other music courses. We talked about what she needed to be able to transfer to her new dream school and study psychology.

At one point, she paused. She had messed up more than once, and it sounded like those around her didn’t expect much more beyond that from her. She compared herself to her brother, who seemed like he was on the traditional high school-to-college-to-success path.

“He’s doing it all right,” she said, as she looked defeated, the tears from earlier finally spilling over.

I looked at this young woman before me who had faced a number of trials, and I saw someone of determination, hope, and bruised dreams. Sitting before me was someone with a light that was just a bit dim. Someone who needed to be reminded that our light is allowed to flicker at times, but that doesn’t define us. She had forgotten the strength she had used to get to where she is now.

I looked at her, pushed the course listings, transfer requirements, and everything else away, and took a few moments to remind her of all that, and a bit more.

A few minutes later, she walked out of my office looking taller than when she had walked in. She shook my hand, held eye contact, and simply said, “Thank you. For everything.”

And in that moment, I felt like I had made a difference in someone’s life.

I love what I do. It’s wonderful to be a part of a student’s journey and help them towards their dreams. I’m blessed that I get to do this with people from all over, all ages, and all backgrounds. I don’t expect platitudes or gratitude, nor do I need them. The work in itself is its reward. This encounter, though, was a special opportunity to go beyond. To meet the student where she was, and to remind her of everything that she already had within her.

It’s a gift to be with someone when they are experiencing any trouble. When someone is vulnerable, they lay bare their fears and insecurities and trust that the other person will respect, honor, and support them. It requires trust, and a little bit of faith. And on the receiving end, to create that safe space for someone in need is a special opportunity. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it requires understanding, awareness, and most importantly, empathy.

On the base of my computer, I have a number of post-it notes with reminders and shortcuts. Above all of them is a light yellow one that says, “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter” (Marianne Williamson). It’s our privilege to remind those we encounter of their uniqueness, their beauty, and their value. As we continue to do so, we fan the flames of lights that will continue to shine on, boldly and beautifully – just as they were meant to do.