“Perseverance is the act of true role models and heroes.” ― Liza M. Wiemer
There’s a famous scene in “Scent of a Woman” where Al Pacino bellows in defense of Charlie that he’s “not a snitch!” While that’s the line that’s remembered, there is much more that the blind and flawed Mr. Slade said that is important.
Pacino’s Slade didn’t defend Charlie’s actions; “I don’t know if Charlie’s silence here today is right or wrong; I’m not a judge or jury.” But he went on to give an impassioned speech about crossroads; about the integrity with which Charlie chose his actions; about how he chose the right path because of his character; and about how he followed that path, no matter the obstacles or the pain, because of his courage.
In the age of Honey Boo-boo and Jersey Shore, it’s hard to find real integrity, character and courage. Do what feels right, what is easy, what causes the least amount of discomfort and can be done with the least amount of effort, that’s what we’re shown.
But that’s not what we want to teach our children; we want them to stand on principles of integrity, character and courage when they are on their own at their own crossroads. Where will we find role models to teach us this?
We overlook so often what is right in front of us; we don’t recognize everyday heroes because they don’t get a silver screen platform. Often times they are hidden in the back, at the end of a race, when the winners and flashy runners have long since passed and most others have already crossed the finish line and are celebrating, and only the clean-up crew remains.
Life is not easy. There are moments of brilliance and beauty, but mostly life is a struggle. And it is how we handle these struggles that define us, not how we react when things are good and easy.
So it is that most people did not notice the small framed middle-aged woman with the sparkly blue eyes as she limped across the finish line, four hours after starting and long after most of the 21,200 runners had finished the Disney Half Marathon. There was no fanfare or dramatic music, no celebration, no congratulations from Mickey, just finally, tears of relief that it was over.
She knew she was injured, though she didn’t know to what extent; but she’d learn later that she suffered a stress fracture in her left tibia, probably early in the race.
The pain started at mile two. It “felt like someone was hitting my shin with a sledgehammer, a sharp, shooting pain. It dulled when it wasn’t weight bearing, but didn’t go away, so the pain was constant.” Understand that this was a constant pain for eleven miles.
Certainly working hard, working through pain, to achieve a goal, is noble. We all have our thresholds, and we all have to decide on our own when to stop. But we are inspired by those who push on through the pain that we know we couldn’t endure. We cry along with the Olympic sprinter who crosses the finish line with his arms around his dad’s shoulders after tearing a hamstring, and we applaud Rocky raising his fist in victory with his eye bloodied shut, and we are appreciative every night of Edison’s drive to find a filament that worked after thousands of failures.
But we don’t understand what sort of character we need to overcome physical pain. Perhaps Lance Armstrong can help: “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever. That surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, stays with me. So when I feel like quitting, I ask myself, which would I rather live with?” Certainly this heroic Disney runner can empathize with Lance, wanting to achieve the goal she worked and trained so hard for.
But what keeps you going when you know you can stop, when you know its okay to give up? What kind of character and mental fortitude can overcome the excoriating pain of 11 miles on a broken leg? That can only come from the depth of the human spirit and a love of life honed by weathering the worst life can throw at you.
Certainly Lance understood this, his own life threatened by a formidable foe in testicular cancer. You only live once, so grab the bull by the horns, and fight with everything you’ve got.
But you don’t need to have your own life threatened to understand this. Life is not fair, either, and our injured runner had just competed in the longest and hardest marathon of her life. Primary caregiver to a terminally ill spouse is an especially cruel sentence, especially when the disease is messy, the lives are young, and other young lives hang in the balance.
There is no amount of training or preparing you can do to negotiate a challenge like that; there is only one way to face it – head on. Your world is turned upside down, your dreams inside out, everything you know is irrelevant now, and you are forced into the terrifying world of chemotherapy, PET/CAT scans, and cell counts, while trying to come to grips with the horror that you’ll have to navigate this while still trying to be a mother, housecleaner, grocery shopper, full time employee, bill payer, house maintainer, and wife to a husband who is sick. In the dark of night, sanity seems as distant as sleep, and the nightmares collapse all around you.
But you get up everyday, and you move forward. Sometimes it is one day at a time, sometimes its one hour at a time, and sometimes you curl up in a ball and cry when no one is looking. Sometimes the unfairness of it all makes you angry, sometimes you just want to escape, to fly away and forget it all, for just a little while. But always, you just push on, you just keep going, despite the pain. You teach yourself to be numb, to just keep going through the pain and disappointment and frustration; just keep going, it is all you can do.
And so maybe running on a broken leg isn’t that bad. Think about those who were close to you battling cancer, how much harder it was for them. Think of their courage, their inspiration, their desire for just one more day, no matter the challenges and pain, think of their courage in climbing to the top of a lighthouse or accompanying the family on a vacation when the body is deteriorating. Think about those who survive terrible disasters like tsunamis or earthquakes, against all odds; think about those who inspire us, those who overcame more.
And give thanks to those who love us, those who support us, the strangers who offer kind and encouraging words, the trees for their shade and life giving oxygen, the friends who have been there unfailingly, the family there to lean on, and to God, for lifting us up, for carrying us through the darkest days, through the pain, and back to the Light. Just keep moving forward, and don’t think about the pain, one step at a time…
Many will lob criticism that she should have stopped running and gotten medical attention sooner. Perhaps. But like Pacino’s Slade, I don’t know if her continuing on was right or wrong, and nor will I judge; she made a decision to press on, to finish, to achieve her goal, pain be damned. Her reasons were true and genuine and noble, her character and integrity whole and intact, and her courage, learned through life’s hardest lessons, was on magnificent full display for the whole world to see. And that impresses the hell out of me, right or wrong.
And so this tiny woman, all 110 pounds of her, carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, bearing a heart still heavy with loss, the worries of single parenthood and demands of full time employment, crosses the finish line, number 20,823 out of 21, 222. But she finished.
She said she only cried twice; first, when she realized she wouldn’t cross the finish line with her daughter and friends, with whom she trained for so long and for so hard, through busy schedules and freezing cold. And then at the end, when it was finally over.
Nobody notices her tears when she finally limps to the bus and lets her guard down. But they should. For heroes aren’t just on the big screen, they just might be sitting right there next to you on the bus or tucking you in to bed at night.
“I am a slow walker, but I never walk back.” ― Abraham Lincoln