Today, October 5, 2009, is the five-year anniversary of my quitting running due to leg pain. For a long time, I didn’t have a date to pin it to. I remembered the moment, that final foot-strike when I thought to myself that I simply could not take the pain anymore. It was as if someone had replaced my shinbones with blades, and I’d been running on those blades for a few weeks before I finally quit. I missed cross-country practice that day, so I set out to do a five-miler in my own neighborhood. I only went one mile.
I’ve known that it was Tuesday of fall break of my sophomore year of high school, but the date itself was elusive. Woodford always used to put their fall breaks on the first full week of October, however, and Sunday I checked a 2004 calendar to see what the date itself was. October 5, 2004. The beginning of it all.
Part of me wishes I could sum it all up—talk about the struggles and the tears and the lessons and then end with some great epiphany. The meaning of it all, finally realized five years later.
But it’s so much bigger than that. It’s messy and beyond my comprehension. I can talk about some of what I’ve learned, some of what I’ve wondered, some of what I’ve hoped for and dealt with and experienced, but it would take a whole book and several more years and great emotional capacity to put it all into words and make it all pretty and neat.
I remember when I went to the first doctor. The first of, at this point, eleven. He gave me only a vague diagnosis: overuse injury. Take off four to six weeks, stretch and ice, and return to running after that. I remember that I started crying as I walked out of the doctor’s office. I asked my mom how in the world I was supposed to go four to six weeks without running. That’s like telling me to go four to six weeks without sleeping, I said. I have to run. I can’t function without running.
And somehow, somehow, four to six weeks has turned into five to who-knows-how-many years. I was 15 when it happened, and now I’m 20. I feel like a completely different person. I’m most definitely at a different stage in my life. But I’m still battling the pain—physical and emotional—and my own inability to do that which I love most.
I knew I wanted to write about it today, but I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t think I had time. I’ve been so busy lately with classes and work that my brain is always constantly shifting from one task to the next. I have to plan out all my work a couple of weeks in advance just to make sure I get it all done on time.
But I was on the phone with my mom this morning, and I was telling her about a short story I’m writing for fiction class. I’ve been frustrated with it lately because I felt like I had a great beginning to the story but absolutely no clue how to end it. The story is about a woman who had a miscarriage, so I hesitated to ask my mom about her own because I thought it would bring back such sad memories.
When I did ask her about it, however, and expressed my concern that my asking might make her sad, she said, “I wouldn’t say that the miscarriage was a gift. I would never say that, but, oh, honey, looking back on it now, I see that I have the three most wonderful children on the planet.”
And I don’t really think it’s any coincidence that I had this conversation with her this morning. I got to hear about the good that came out of one of the lowest points of her life on the anniversary of the beginning of the most painful thing I’ve ever dealt with. And lately I’ve begun to see that even though I would never ever consider this a gift, and most days I just want to cry and scream at my legs to get better, that a lot of good has come out of it. That is undeniable.
So here it is, just two of the good things that have come out of it, as neatly packaged as I can manage. I know I’m just brushing the surface of the lessons I’ve learned, but that’s all I can do for now.
1. I’m able to empathize with others who suffer.
Dealing with my own pain and the emotional struggle of desperately wanting something unattainable has made me aware of just how many other people are dealing with pain in their own lives. There’s the pain that comes, like mine, from a physical injury. It has the tendency to drain every bit of energy and hope and optimism out of you. It’s just a weight that you carry around, a constant concern.
Then there’s the pain that comes from having your hopes dashed. You know that song from Les Mis? I’m not sure anybody’s ever put it better than that:
“I dreamed a dream in time gone by / When hope was high / And life worth living … But there are dreams that cannot be / And there are storms we cannot weather / I had a dream my life would be / So different from this hell I'm living / So different now from what it seemed / Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
I think that, in many ways, living with great disappointment can be more difficult than living with physical pain.
Then there’s the pain that comes from being misunderstood. When I initially got hurt, I felt like nobody took me seriously. Six months passed between the time of injury and the time that I finally got a wheelchair. Part of that length was due to the fact that I did keep expecting to get better, but much of it was simply the fear that everyone would give me a hard time because no one believed me. Why would they? I look completely fine. My legs look totally normal. I’ve looked back on journal entries from those days and remembered that even my closest friends gave me a hard time about its being “all in your head, Kate.” I now know that the worst thing you can do for a hurting person is cause them the added pain of feeling misunderstood.
But many people’s struggles don’t revolve around physical pain or dashed hopes or being misunderstood. Many people are struggling because of something else completely, be it trouble in the family or the loss of a loved one or financial difficulties or whatever. Even though this is so different from my own experience, I am now better able to empathize with people in situations like these simply because I have suffered myself. I don’t think we can ever understand the suffering of another until we have suffered ourselves.
2. I’ve learned more about the character of God.
Of course this is the most important thing of all. The reason it all happened, perhaps? I wouldn’t say God caused this to happen, but I know that he has used it. It seems counterintuitive. I plead with him all the time to take it away, and even though he doesn’t, the more I ask him for healing, the more he shows me how much he loves me in return.
I’m reading this book I borrowed from Lola called The Lazarus Life. I just saw it sitting on her dresser one day, and asked if I could borrow it when I saw the title. John 11—the story of Lazarus—is my favorite chapter in the whole Bible because it says so much to me about my legs. The book had this to say:
"The transforming moment in Christian conversion comes when we realize that even God has left us. We then discover it was not God, but our image of God, that abandoned us. This frees us to discover more of the mystery of God than we knew. Only then is change possible.”
I feel like that’s what God has done in my own life throughout all this pain. He’s taken away my image of him and given me back a picture of who he really is. There’s no way I can touch on every way he’s shown me himself, but I’ll mention one.
As I was leaving the state cross-country meet of my senior year of high school, I literally fell to my knees in tears. I was doubled over, so upset about the fact that high school cross-country was over. I would never be healed in time to run for the team again. It was all I had wanted for so long. And God could have fixed it! I kept thinking that as I walked around on painful legs and watched everybody run that day. He could have healed me if he had wanted to!
When I got in bed that night, I was still so upset. I opened up my Bible, and my reading for that day was John 11. These were the first words that caught my attention:
“So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ … Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”
Jesus did that. To the one he loved. Jesus waited and let. him. die.
I’m not sure any words in the Bible have ever evoked such an emotional reaction in me. I want to say, how dare you! You could have saved him! It would have been so easy for you! You save people all the time! Why abandon the one you love when he needs you most?
But I, like Mary and Martha, didn’t see that Jesus had a much better plan. When Jesus finally does show up, Martha and Mary both say to him what I wanted to say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Lord, if you had been here my legs wouldn’t hurt. I would be able to run. I wouldn’t have to deal with all this.
I was in tears at this point in the story. So was Mary, and “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied.” Jesus wept.
He wept despite the fact that he knew he was about to perform his greatest miracle yet. He would raise Lazarus from the dead. And he wept with me that night even though he knows the final outcome. Tim Keller says that’s what makes him fully God and fully human.
He’s able to know what happens next. But he’s also able to weep with us because he understands the pain that comes from not knowing.
Here comes the happiest part of the story.
“Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’”
And Jesus raises him from the dead.
God’s timing is so confusing sometimes. I desperately want healing. I want to run again. I want this all to be over and behind me, but I’m thankful that the one who controls the timing of it all is the only one who never gets the timing wrong. When Mary and Martha think he’s two days late, he’s actually right on time. When I think he’s five years late, he’s still right on time.
I don't know if this blog is coherent. I don’t really have time to read over it and make all the corrections I’m sure I will want to make. I don’t have the space to include all the other ways God has shown me his character through my suffering.
What I do have, however, is reason to focus on the good that has come out of the pain and reason to keep hoping that God will heal me. So that's what I'll be doing today, five years later.