Heroes All Around Us

David, Daniel, Noah, Moses, Peter, Mary, Martha, Paul and Mary Magdelene.

Fireman, policeman, Mother Teresa, Army, Navy and Marines.

We all have our stories about heroes. Mine goes something like this:

I think I was about 8 years old. My Dad and I were sitting on the side porch waiting for my mother to get home. My mother had recently gone back to college to get a degree in accounting and it was exam season (she obviously did well enough because she ultimately graduated from Clemson University with Honors and went on to become the first female tax partner in South Carolina history). As soon as my mother opened the door, my father and I yelled in unison “what’s for dinner?!” Bad move. My mother looked at us both and made a ground shifting proclamation: “I don’t cook anymore.”

Bessie’s first week working for my parents began just a few days later. That was 35 years ago. My mother has yet to break her promise and Bessie still works for my parents. When Bessie first started, she told my parents that she didn’t know how to cook, but she could clean. She was dead wrong on both counts.  Bessie’s meals are legendary — not necessarily healthy, but definitely legendary. Her cleaning? Not so much. But every day when I came home from school, there was an incredible meal waiting. I usually ate the first evening meal as soon as I walked in the door at 3:00 pm and then a second meal with the family around 6:00 pm.

Bessie raised three boys of her own so not much surprised her. My friend Laurens and I used to spend a fair amount of time in the creek near my house catching salamanders and crayfish. We kept them in the sink and the bathtub most of the time until we discovered how fun it was to freeze salamanders and crayfish and that they could magically be brought back to life if thawed just the right way. Bessie never seemed to mind us taking up room in her freezer.

Bessie lived over on the west side of town with her husband, Otis, and her two sons. I didn’t know Otis all that well but I remember several things. I know he never had a steady job. The word was that Otis was disabled and couldn’t work, but I never saw him limp or anything. I know that Otis often asked to borrow money from my parents but he was not real good about paying it back. And I remember that Otis died suddenly while I was still in high school.

The occasion of Otis’s death sticks with me not because his death was a big deal, but because of a little twist in the Bessie story that later became part of her legend. Otis apparently died of a heart attack in the middle of the night. Despite the fact that my father was an Emergency Room physician and Otis had gone to that very Emergency Room for treatment, Bessie didn’t call my parents that night to see if she could get special treatment for Otis. In fact, my parents didn’t know anything about Otis’ death at all. Until that next day. Bessie got to our house every morning at 9:00 am. Let me repeat that. Bessie got to our house EVERY MORNING at 9:00 am. Never 8:50 and never at 9:01. Bessie arrived at precisely the same time every morning. Except the morning after Otis died. That morning she got to work around 10:00 am. When 9:00 am came and went with no Bessie, my parents started to worry. When 9:30 passed, they were near a panic. Finally Bessie walked in the door. She apologized profusely for being late and then told my parents that she had to handle a few details that morning because her husband had died just hours before. Incredible.

Other than arriving to work about 45 minutes late that morning, I don’t know that Bessie has ever been late to work another single day — and that includes up to this very day. And in 35 years of employment, Bessie has NEVER missed a single days work. Think about that. Thunderstorms, hailstorms, broken alarm clocks, sick children, striking bus workers, broken down cars, bronchitis, back pains or sore throats — nothing has been able to keep Bessie from showing up for work in 35 plus years. I dare say that is a record unmatched by anyone anywhere in any line of work. It blows my mind.

When Bessie was at our house, I generally kept my distance from her. Not because she wanted me to or because I was uncomfortable around her, but because she had things to do and we didn’t have a lot to talk to each other about. But I did like talking politics with her once in awhile. Bessie wasn’t very political and I don’t know how often she actually voted, but I did get the sense that when she did vote, she probably voted Democratic. Or maybe I just hoped she did.  I do think she got a kick out of the fact that my little white self was growing up to be a reliable left leaning Democratic vote. Otherwise, our conversations were generally short and relatively infrequent. Still, in 35 years of being around her, I can honestly say I have never heard her say an angry word or even a negative word about anyone … or anything. Truly incredible.

Bessie rented a fairly large house on West Washington Street. I don’t think she ever invited me in to her house. I think she was embarrassed by it. I think she was particularly embarrassed that her house was often run down and in disrepair. Bessie never complained about her landlord, but it was obvious that he never fixed anything for her and didn’t have much interest in keeping the house looking nice. He was, I’m sure, very interested in collecting Bessie’s rent money every month. And he did that for some 20 odd years. Bessie never missed a single rent payment in 20 something years. I know this for a fact. And that too is part of the legend of Bessie.

After college I got a job working on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings. Less than a year later, I was asked to return to my hometown of Greenville to run his Upstate Senate offices. While working for the Senator, I became aware of a public/private partnership sponsored by the City of Greenville that was designed to make home ownership affordable to lower income families. Under the program, the City purchased a large tract of land. Prospective homeowners had to qualify for a mortgage — just as anyone else would based on their income, assets and credit histories — but the mortgage would be for the construction costs of the house only. The land under the house would be deeded to the homeowner — 1/7 at a time — to promote stability and prevent flipping — until eventually the homeowner owned both the house and the land, the combination of which would provide decent equity. Bessie seemed to be a perfect prospect for the program — a low income but financially responsible renter of a sub standard house.

It took me awhile to convince Bessie that homeownership was a good thing. I had to convince her that she could have bought her rental house many times over and that she was enriching her landlord for no real reason. And I had to convince her that we could get her qualified for a mortgage. And that she could handle the payments if we did.  Finally she agreed to give it a try.

In all the many years that Bessie worked for my parents after Otis died, she never once asked my parents for money. We knew she didn’t make much money, but she always seemed to have enough. Still, I wasn’t sure what I would find when I peeked under the hood of her financial life. What I found was shocking. I learned that Bessie had never missed a single rent payment. Ever. And I found that not only had she never borrowed money from my parents, she had never borrowed money from anyone else. Except once. I learned that Bessie had no credit history except for a single consumer loan that she had taken out to buy my sister a wedding gift. Amazing.

Bessie is now in her mid eighties. After paying in to Social Security for 60 plus years, she is now finally drawing a little out. After saving diligently for many years, she is also drawing from her retirement IRA.  And since she made her regular mortgage payment every month (plus a little extra) she now owns her home outright with no mortgage at all. Still, she shows up at my parents house at 9:00 am, on the nose, every morning, because that’s what she’s always done. Unbelievable.

Our family has tried several times over the years to honor Bessie in some way. We wanted to let her know what an important part she has played in the life of our family. But Bessie is not one for pomp or even circumstance. We tried to send her on a cruise one time. She declined. We offered to hold a celebration of some kind to honor her. She said no. I think my parents even tried to get her to take some paid time off and she said she really wasn’t all that interested. I think we settled on a small plaque posted inside an elevator that my father said he had installed so that Bessie wouldn’t have to walk up three sets of stairs. Not sure that I buy that, but the bottom line is, Bessie doesn’t like attention so honoring her is no easy task.

But here’s what I know.  Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Some are loud and attention seeking; others will do anything to avoid attention. Some are brave and do extraordinary things; some just show up, reliably, every day and do their job. Some heroes are well known and get their names in the newspaper; some can not read the paper but manage just fine anyway. Some heroes are great speakers and motivate us to live better lives; some heroes just live better lives and hope we learn from their example.

And, there’s certainly lots of failed heroes around us these days. But it’s good to know that there are some real ones too.  I am glad I had mine.

Your Turn:  So who’s your hero?  Tell us about them.


Extending Paul’s Metaphor or Most of the Good Stuff I learned from Running

I Corinthians 9:24, Phillipians 3:12-16, II Timothy 4:7
Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

I like a good metaphor as much as anyone, I suppose, and I’m not afraid to extend a good one to the point of absurdity either.  So when the Apostle Paul starts throwing out metaphors about my other favorite passion, running, well, that’s a challenge I just have to accept.  So here we go.

But first:

Eight years ago, I weighed about 205 pounds; today I weigh about 160.  Eight years ago, I couldn’t run 800 yards without collapsing with exhaustion.

This morning I ran a very comfortable 12 miles at an 8:00 minute pace; this Fall I will run my 6th marathon in the last 6 years.  I’m a runner.

Running is incredibly important to me.  So I get Paul’s metaphor.  I like it.  It works for me.  In fact, if Paul was a real runner or more of a metaphor geek like me, I think he would have taken his metaphor a lot further because running is a good teacher.  Here’s some of what running has taught me over the last 8 years; most of which are lessons worth applying to the race that Paul is talking about.

1.     Get in the game; enter the race; show up.  As they say, this ain’t no dress rehearsal.  Stop spectating.  Put your shoes on.  It’s time to get moving.
2.     Follow the rules.  There aren’t many of them.
3.     Pace yourself – Consistency in training is better than intensity in training.  Life and running are lifetime projects.  The first marathoner to pass the 3 mile mark gets nothing.  Pace yourself accordingly.
4.     Have fun.  Again, this isn’t a dress rehearsal.  Live large and enjoy life.
5.     What you do today will not show up tomorrow; what you fail to do today will not be evident tomorrow either.  So don’t get discouraged if you fall on hard times while working hard to do the right things.  On the other hand, if you get lazy and undisciplined, and fall into bad habits and bad decisions, things may still go your way — for awhile — but life (and running) have their ways of getting even, eventually.
6.     Teamwork is important; practice it and get good at it.  Do your part.  Rely on others.  Be reliable.  Be a good teammate.
7.     Find a training group, be accountable to each other and encourage each other.  It’s hard to sleep in when the group is waiting on you.  It’s hard to sleep in or merely sit on the back pew of church if your church community is really counting on you.  Find a group that will miss you if you are not there.
8.     Run hills so that the flats will seem easier and you will be able to overcome adversity when it inevitably comes.  Life (and running) is hard.  Prepare for the hard stuff.  Don’t run from adversity, embrace it.  Master it if you can.
9.     Remember: Some days will be easier that others and some days you just won’t have it.  Some times your best effort will be pretty poor and simply won’t be enough.  Sometimes we fail.  Get over it.  And keep moving.
10.     Don’t worry about what others are doing – compete against yourself.  Make yourself better.  And be satisfied with your own progress, regardless of how others are doing.
11.     Work hard when no one’s looking.  Most of the time they aren’t.
12.     Work hard over the summer or during the off season.  Not sure there’s a spiritual parallel here but let’s face it — most of our progress comes while training, not during races.
13.     Win gracefully.  Outright wins in life (and running)are rare.  So we don’t get much practice at winning.  Still, we’ve seen other winners.  Emulate the gracious ones.
14.     Lose gracefully.  We get more practice at this one.  But it still isn’t easy.
15.     Encourage others.  Repeatedly.  And unconditionally.  Some of my most memorable moments in running (and life) were times when I spotted a discouraged runner who had slowed to a crawl and I was able to encourage them to pick up their pace and get back in the race.  It’s really amazing what a simple positive statement will do for a discouraged runner.  Or a single mom who has just lost her job.
16.     Inconsistent training leads to inconsistent results.  I promise.
17.     Have a plan and stick to it — unless you decide not to.  Because some times our plans are no good.  Sometimes someone or some thing has a better plan for us.  Follow the better plan and get better results.  Otherwise, stick to the plan.  The point is — train (and live) intentionally.
18.     Plan for the unexpected.  Something will go wrong.  It’s guaranteed.  Plan on it.  Manage it.  And move on.
19.     Get a coach.  Sometimes we just lose our mojo.  Sometimes self talk is not enough.  Sometimes we get so far off track we can’t find our way back.  When that happens, ask for help.  Find someone who’s been there.  Someone you trust.
20.     Know the playbook.  Read it.  Study it.  Know it.  Follow it.  Teach it to others.
21.     Nutrition – watch what you put in your body and what you put in your mind.  Either way, it’s garbage in, garbage out.  Too much garbage over time causes real problems and will eventually slow you down or bring you to a complete stop.  Be intentional about what you put in your body and how you fill your brain.  Fuel your efforts with the healthy stuff.  Find positive people who promote positive thinking and stick to them.
22.     Take reasonable risks.  Sometimes, you’ve got to redline it.  Sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.  Other times, however, call for patience and caution.  Know which is which.  But don’t be afraid to redline it from time to time.
23.     Don’t get injured.  At least not the permanent kind.  We all get banged up from time to time.  IT Band injuries, low back pain, runner’s knee, piriformis syndrome …  Bruised ego, disappointment, embarrassment and heat ache.  But, if you can, stay away from the more permanent stuff — ACL tears, stress fractures, broken pelvis … destroyed reputations, broken relationships, criminal convictions, overwhelming resentment and other toxic feelings.
24.     Don’t overcomplicate things.  Running (and life) can get pretty complicated but, at their core, it’s really all about putting one foot in front of the other.  Don’t ever let either one get much more complicated than that.
25.     Focus on the fundamentals.  Posture, stride length, nutrition … love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with your God.
26.     Let running/training make most of your decisions.    Have another beer?  Probably not if you’re training.  Stay out later?  Not if you have a fifteen miler in the morning.  Dedication to a program usually helps us make responsible decisions.  That’s  a good thing and can even be a liberating thing.  Don’t fight it.
27.     Be confident but not overconfident.  As you toe the line, picture a fabulous finish.  As you approach the finish, keep your head down.  A cramp could be just around the corner.
28.     Know your strengths and play to your strengths.  We all have them.  Figure out yours.  If you haven’t discovered yours, ask a friend.  We all have our gifts.  We need to use them.
29.     Be aware of your weaknesses and work on them/stay away from them.  Just as we have gifts, we all have our share of weaknesses.  Knowing them is, ironically, a strength.
30.     Learn from your mistakes.
31.     Set goals and celebrate your successes.  Let’s face it, for most of us, winning is not in the cards.  But success is ours to define.  Define yours reasonably and celebrate like hell when you achieve it.
32.     Don’t beat yourself up when things don’t go well or you make a mistake.  Because you will.  Over and Over.  The idea is to get better.  To press on for the prize.  So press on.  And give yourself a break.
33.     Be willing to make sacrifices.  Life ain’t for sissies.  Neither is the marathon.  Be willing to make the sacrifices and do the hard work.
34.     Work all energy systems (aerobic v. lactate threshold v. anaerobic) v. feelings/emotions/intellect.  We need to love God with our hearts, soul and mind.  Equally.
35.     Rule of specificity v. Rule of Variety – both are important.  Pound the fundamentals.  But mix it up occasionally.
36.     If you’ve fallen behind or you want to catch up or you want to get ahead – consider a personal trainer.  Sometimes it’s just too tough to do it alone.  But there’s an app for that.  It’s called a good friend, a pastor, a counselor, a therapist, a gizzled old veteran runner or a professional running coach.  Don’t go it alone.  Get help when you need it.
37.     Learn from others who have had success in your sport.  Wheels are good.  But they are hard to invent from scratch.  And it’s wholly unnecessary to do so anyway.  If you know others who have navigated your confounding circumstances, seek them out for advice.
38.     Associative v. Disassociative thinking – try a little of both.  Studies show that runners who check in on their race progress periodically do better than those that do not check in at all and do better than those that never stop thinking about their race progress.  Keep in touch with your feelings and emotions and your progress in life.  But don’t dwell on these things.  Instead, live a little.
39.     Don’t let quitting become a habit.  Some things are simply too hard.  Sometimes bailing out is the height of wisdom.  But quitting can be addictive or, at the very least, habit forming so do it sparingly.  If possible, press on.  Reset your goals.  Make the best of bad circumstances.
40.     Never ever give up.  This is for a lifetime.  Giving up is not an option.
I have fought the fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Run on!
Your Turn:  Any runner’s out there?  I’m sure you can add to the list.  Have at it!  Leave me your thoughts.