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  • Reverend James Squire

Runners Look for Trees

I had a conversation with a former student who is a runner. He lived near our old campus of our school so I asked him the route that he normally took on his runs. He described the same route as I would take before we moved to a new campus with one exception. When I asked him why he didn’t run on a particular stretch that I included in my runs, he said, “It doesn’t have enough trees. No shade!”

I never thought much about it, but, when possible, I would always choose a route where there were interim breaks from the sun beating down during the summer to include the shade of trees along the way. Given the choice not many would prefer the noonday sun to be sapping your strength without a break.

We experience pain in at least three ways: physical such as in the heat from the sun in running, emotional when we feel stopped in our tracks by a personal problem we can’t solve, and spiritual when we feel alone and believe that our life is such that God must have abandoned us. All three are similar in effect. Some of us believe that this is the way that it is always going to be. The permanent with no relief, like the hot sun on a hot, humid day, gives us that feeling that nothing will change. It is no different from running where we can’t see a temporary release ahead in the shade of trees. The temporary is our friend and perhaps the way to move forward through whatever pain we are experiencing.

When counseling young people who come to see me, they will on occasion begin the exchange with the words, “It is no big deal, but…” It doesn’t take long during their revelation of what it is like to be them to realize that there is a big deal problem challenging them in life. Adults are the same way. We are controlled by our past relationships when we couldn’t assess what was painful and what wasn’t. We just assumed that what we were experiencing is the way things are. When we are younger, we would be looking up at the adults who determined our fate so we were vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life. Looking into a belt buckle and not eye to eye can be a difficult place to be when we are looking for change to see a challenge as temporary.

Parents are often blamed by us for we have forgotten that we are intergenerational people. What did our parents receive from their parents to make them happier and, in turn, translate that feeling to us so that we have more control over our lives than we thought we had? They did the best that they could. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I will make it difficult for my child.” By the time they get to me, those younger people are bigger and can find healthy ways to be less vulnerable, fear rejection, and avoid crippling embarrassment.

This can only occur when the young person discovers that this pain that they assumed to be normal doesn’t have to be permanent. A feeling that my problem or plight is something I can change is critical even if that change takes the form of how I respond to that challenge. Knowing that there is relief, that their plight is temporary, is very important. This is the case where they feel that they can change things when they didn’t feel change could be made such as when they could only look eye to belt buckle because of their physical stature and young age. It is a sacred moment that redeems the emotional pain to acknowledge it but to move on to a new normal that has temporary as it’s watchword.

One of the most painful emotions is the loss of a loved one particularly if it is a family member or friend. It feels as though this is how it will always be. Loneliness creeps into our being. The pain of grief doesn’t end, but it changes. It will always be with us like that run that saps our strength but now we know to look for the trees, the temporary, which makes the pain less painful for we feel the coolness of the air, yes momentary, to continue on with new legs and a new quickness in our step.

I have learned a great deal about physical pain as a result of having some physical challenges. Recall life is to be either enjoyed or learned from. Pain is a great teacher. Regarding others that I have cared for, I know the eight worst words in the English language. “There is nothing more that can be done.” That is the ultimate definition of permanence. But you can still look for the trees, the temporary moments, when you can get out of the blazing sun of how much more can I take. I am reminded of a comment made by a concentration camp survivor, Dr. Edith Eger. She said, “She was able to survive the death camp because of her mother’s final words to her on a filthy cattle train bound for Auschwitz. Her mother’s words were. “No one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.” Dr. Eger created a world that gave her comfort in her soul. Those moments were the trees that she looked for to get relief by these albeit brief periods of temporary shade in the blinding sun of pain caused by inhumane treatment.

Soul pain, sometimes referred to as the “Dark Night of the Soul”, weaves its way through our emotional and physical lives so it is the most important pain in shaping our journey. To feel that we have been abandoned by God is felt as a form of death. I have found that people who feel this, including me as no one is exempt, normally don’t think of complex solutions. The temporary moments of shade in the permanence of the blinding sun of feeling that God is absent are most often generated by simple gestures and simple words. Remember the words of Jesus that ‘unless you become like a little child, you will not enter the Kingdom of God.” My view is that he is referring to the childlike and not the childish.

The permanent nature of the “Dark night of the soul” contains the temporary shade when the little things become the big things. Children do just that. They look for the shade trees in the little things such as the small gestures of grace which means to receive a gift that they have done nothing necessarily to deserve, when they are surprised with joy and wonder, or when they pray in a simple way, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee Lord, my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take.” Simple but really everyone’s desire taking up residence in a child’s prayer.

The best vision to see the trees in the noonday sun of pain are the words that are written somewhere in our souls to be discovered when all seems lost to the big lie that you can have it all. They are the words believed to have been inscribed inside of King Solomon’s ring, whose very name points to wisdom. Those words are “This too shall pass!” This phrase is discovered when you are looking for the trees on the well-worn path of life and you feel the heat of the noonday sun yet know that there may be more shade ahead. It is a phrase that can be one of the ingredients in achieving emotional, physical, and spiritual wholeness.

The hot son…permanent…looking for the trees…temporary…this too shall pass…wholeness of mind, body, and spirit.

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