The Power Of One

The power of example has been so over worked that I hesitated to compose this note. However, recent experience has revived this concept for me in a way worth recording. So here I go.

Almost 20 years ago I began developing knee problems while attempting to train for what I thought was to be my first marathon. I was in my early 30s, and well past my serious athlete days. Exercising without chasing a ball or playing some kind of sport had never been a favorite activity, but the taut schedule of a father of five children, trying to work up the partnership ladder at a large law firm while serving as Mormon Bishop, made jogging an attractive form of exercise. A taste of running was quickly turned by my type A personality into a desire to run marathons.

After a few weeks of training, my left knee began to throb. I tried the usual things (or at least what I thought were the usual things) to alleviate the discomfort, but each time I tried to run again the pain came back. This eventually led to arthroscopic surgery to repair what the doctors thought was probably cartilage damage caused by my years of playing basketball and other sports.

When I came out of surgery, I was told that the good news was my cartilage was not torn, and the bad news was that I was in the early stages of osteoarthritis, which basically meant that my cartilage was wearing out far too quickly. I asked the doctor whether it was something I had done, not done, etc. such as failing to take the right kinds of vitamins and minerals, or whatever. He said no, that I just drew the short straw in the genetic lottery when it came to knee architecture. “Put it this way.”, he said. “If you were a horse, you wouldn’t be breeding.”

The doctor told me that I didn’t need to modify any of my activities. He said that the discomfort I would experience after playing basketball and doing other things would gradually increase until I just didn’t want to do them anymore. He was right.

Six or seven years later I had arthroscopic surgery on the other knee, and the diagnosis of advancing osteoarthritis was confirmed.

After a longer than anticipated recovery from each surgery, I tried to run a few times and on each occasion felt the same kind of discomfort in my knees. Running, therefore, was over for me.

I started to cycle and for years did a fair bit of that, but found it harder to fit into my schedule and that it was more weather dependant than running. Cycling petered out.

I also continued to play basketball and other sports occasionally, but found that true to the doctor’s word, the amount of pain I experienced gradually increased until I seldom wanted to play. If I play a hard game of basketball now, it takes a couple of days on anti-inflammatories to get the swelling in my knees down. For better or worse this is kind of like child-birth – we quickly forget how bad it was and are hence willing to give it another whirl.

So, for the past almost 20 years I have not done any running.

I was at a conference recently, and ended up sitting for lunch at a table with an extremely fit looking fellow with whom I had a great conversation. It soon became apparent that he was a serious runner. He has finished eight marathons, including three Boston Marathons. He says he’s not very fast, and certainly not an elite runner, but he enjoys running and probably puts in something like 20 or 25 miles per week.

I quickly summarized for him my bad knees tale of woe. He responded by explaining to me that he did not start running until after he had serious cartilage problems that resulted in the removal of much of the cartilage from one of his knees. He assumed that he could not be able to run after that, but was told that if he started slowly, he probably could do some running, and that this would be good for his recovery. He accordingly got involved with a running program that basically forced him for the first three months to run at what felt like an old man shuffle. He was required to wear a heart rate monitor and stay below 70% of his maximum heart rate. He could power walk as fast as this so-called run.

This training program (which is utterly pedistrian – sorry, couldn’t resist) is based on the idea that it takes a long time for bones, joints, tendons and muscles to catch up to lung capacity, and that if we run anywhere near as quickly as we feel we are able at the beginning of a running program, we will damage something. So, for three months he shuffled along, and gradually began to run faster while staying at 70% of his maximum heart rate. After the three months were over, he entered a more serious training regimen, and to his surprise before too long was running close to marathon distances at a slow pace. He then stepped up his training again and after a while qualified for the Boston Marathon.

“Amazing and wonderful”, I thought. I didn’t really believe that this would apply to me, but since there was no downside and lots of upside decided to give it a try. “An experiment”, I told myself. Lots of good things start out for me that way.

I already owned a heart rate monitor, and late the same day I met this gentleman I left my hotel to go for an extremely slow jog along the canal system in Ottawa, Ontario – my first run in at least a decade. He was right about the old man shuffle. I was embarrassed to have anyone see me running as slow as I had to run to keep my heart rate below the required level, which for me is about 130 beats per minute.

I won’t bore you with the details regarding how I felt so good after a few of these shuffles that I decided the rules didn’t apply to me, ran faster than I should have (do you have any idea how humiliating it is to be passed by mothers pushing their babies in strollers?), pulled some tendons or muscles, had to take a couple of weeks off, and then humbly returned to the training program. However, I will report that it has now been six weeks since I picked up this idea, and I’m comfortably running 5 km three times a week at between a ten and 12 minute per mile pace, which is a bit better than the 14+ minutes per mile shuffle I started with. Even growth from one stage to another that would be embarrassing to a real runner feels great to me. And so far I’ve had no knee pain.

I’ve also read several books (or parts of books) with regard to running. Ironically, I owned most of them already. I just had to go down stairs and take them off my bookshelves. There I found a description of precisely the program my new friend explained to me over lunch. I had probably read about it before, but assumed that it did not apply to me because of my osteoarthritis and so the information did not register.

I don’t expect to become a marathon runner, but there is something different about the kind of workout I get while running that is better from my point of view than what happens when I ride the exercise bike or otherwise work out in the gym. I am outside where I can feel the wind, sun, rain and see a wider swath of life. It is more social. I can feel my metabolism quickening. I feel more energized when I get home, as a result of the nice little endorphin high that comes from even a slow half an hour run. This all makes it easier to get my lazy butt out the door more often to work out.

For some time I’ve been in the stage of life where I have been saying goodbye to physical abilities. I can’t tell you how good it feels as my capacity increases.

Numerous times during the past six weeks I’ve thought about the transforming impact a tiny bit of information had on my ability to do something important. It renewed me in a meaningful sense.

All I had to know was that someone in a situation similar to mine had done something important to me, and I immediately became more capable than I thought I was and wanted to try what moments before I would have dismissed as impossible. Then I did it, with ease. Utterly amazing.

Ironically, it took someone else to reveal myself to me. While my potential did not change, my reality did, solely as a result of being shown something about my potential. My revelator hence became part of me, as much as if he had given me a lung to replace one of mine as it failed.

This has to do with faith. Faith is the motive force of most of what we do, and in order for it to work we must believe that the investment of effort required of us in order to do something has a reasonable probability of paying off. Given what I had been told by the doctors and the experience I had while trying to jog (too far and fast, as it turned out) and play certain sports made me believe that it was unrealistic for me to expect to ever run again.

In particular, I experience terrible knee pain after playing relatively slow paced three on three basketball. It didn’t occur to me that jogging would cause significantly less stress on my knees than old man style three on three basketball.

And so, with the books explaining exactly what I needed to do sitting on the shelf in my library, and already having read those books, I spent close to 20 years not doing something that would’ve significantly increased my well-being.

Not running and playing the sports I love made me feel and act old. I felt ackward, and was becoming more ackward became of the “use it or lose it” principle. Six weeks later I feel like I have a new lease on life.

Again, I am stunned and grateful, for the transforming power of a bit of information about another human being’s experience.

I can think of many other cases in which something similar has happened to me. Just before going into what was then called the Language Training Mission to learn Spanish on my way to serve a Mormon mission in Peru, I found out that one of my friends had broken the LTM’s record with regard to learning the Navajo language, one of the most difficult languages for English speakers. This guy was no genius. He was a jock like me. Up to that point in life I had not done anything to indicate that I had even average ability to learn. And, I had been an abject failure when it came to learning French. I was worried about my ability to learn Spanish. However, when I heard about my friend’s experience, I decided that if he could do that with Navajo I could master Spanish. I assumed that the fact that he was a missionary, and therefore had God’s help, had a lot to do with his success. Since I was going to be in the same position, I assumed that I would have the same opportunity.

To again make a long story short, I became much more proficient with Spanish during my stay at the LTM than most Spanish-speaking missionaries, and to this day attribute that largely to the fact that I had the idea in my head when I arrived there that it was possible for me to do this. I later discovered that the ability to learn is one of my strengths, but that I have to put in a lot more effort than some before I see results.

On my way out of Mormonism, I ran across a number of people who demonstrated crucially important possibilities. Without the Internet, this would have been impossible. Without them, I would not be who, what and where I am.

I met people who had faced the terror of losing their families, their friends, and other important aspects of their social environment, and nonetheless acted in accordance with their deepest beliefs; refused to accept the gag orders Mormon authorities attempted to impose on them; left Mormonism; reinvented themselves. In most cases they did not lose anywhere near as much as they thought they would respecting marriage, families, friends, etc. And they gained far more than they could imagine. Because I found them, my imagination had some help.

I also met people who demonstrated that beliefs that seemed unshakeable – part of my very being; impossible to let go of – would dissolve into ridiculousness after a relatively short period of time (some in weeks; other in months; others in years) of being subjected to careful scrutiny.

Once outside of Mormonism and embroiled in conflict with certain family members, I met people who gracefully dealt with similar conflicts. These people demonstrated that while it may not be possible to restore our intimate relationships to their prior status, it is possible to create new forms of relationship that will satisfy our basic needs.

The common denominator in each of these and many other examples is that our capacity to do is galvanized by the knowledge that someone else in circumstances similar to our own has been able to do what may have seemed impossible to us the moment before we heard of them. Knowledge of these others is among the most empowering forces known to humankind.

I think about this in terms of the so-called butterfly effect — that principle from complexity theory that shows how a miniscule force within a complex system (such as the single flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil) can produce a massive force elsewhere in that system (such as a tornado in Texas).

Many people who have left Mormonism and other fundamentalist leaning religious belief systems struggle with a perceived absence of meaning in their lives. I believe that this largely results from the way our brains have formed around the Meanings that are emphasized within Mormonism – becoming a God; getting to the Celestial Kingdom; etc. Compared to these, the meanings that drive most human lives are so small that they are hard to notice. Giving up the Mormon Meanings and learning to get along with regular meaning is like living with (and loving) to Death Metal until middle age and then being forced to transition to the philharmonic. It takes a while to learn to appreciate sublety.

Consider, for example, the way in which our seemingly insignificant actions contribute to the creation of human reality. Like the tiny organisms whose secretions build coral reefs, our day to day living builds and maintains the base on which future generations of humanity will rest, as well as occasionally acting as the butterfly’s wing. Even more rarely, something we do or say may empower another human being in the way my mundane conversation over lunch six weeks empowered me, or the way in which reading something someone had left on the Internet gave me the courage to take difficult steps while I was leaving Mormonism, or while attempting to rebuild shattered relationships with family members. In most cases, we will not know this has happened, while knowing that given how human beings function, it must happen many times during the average life. We are drenched in meaning that we rarely see.

Note what people have done to empower me. These were not acts of heroism or even the result of strenously setting a difficult and noble example. Rather, it was just people living their lives and sharing their experience. The guy from lunch six weeks ago has no idea how he affected me. Likewise for most of the people a tiny part of whose trail of interactions with others I have read on the Internet or elsewhere.

What made all the difference for me was the fact that these people exist, and that I became aware of them. Our very existence – each of us, one by one – is the key. We are embodied meaning. And the Internet makes it a lot easier for us to become aware of each other.

We thus paradoxically become acquainted with ourselves largely through our reflection in other lives. The more authentic and less muffled by corrupt authority these lives are, the more varied and true the mirrors they hold up to us, and the more of ourselves we are likely to see.

But in any event, we are they; they are others; others are we. All connected; interdepent. Largely moved by a collective intelligence into which we each unconsciously contribute. Gloriously beautiful. Sometimes terrifying.

Awe completely stills me when I think about this as Celestial glory never could.

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