My feet hit the pavement rhythmically while the wind plays in my ponytail. Despising earbuds, I blare music from my phone for an audience of one and an infrequent passing car. For the first 10 minutes, I feel like I am slogging in mud, slow, uncoordinated, flailing. Then I find it…my pace and my breathing align in harmonic peace. My body knows what to do, and I can focus on whatever is on my mind. I have never been a runner, and this post is not to convince you to be one, either. But one day, sometime after my third birth, I was feeling like an inflated beach toy bobbing around on an empty sea, and I needed both a physical and a mental reprieve from that encompassing ocean of others who needed me: kids, students, husband, bosses. So I ran after myself, and I found myself, over and over, every time I needed some head space to consider some idea, or decision, or frustration.
There is something soothing about the physical ability to escape the everyday reality, and lacing up my shoes each time fills me with overwhelming calm. As an introvert, I know that no one is going to bug me on my weeknight jogs, and I feel free from having to answer questions, justify decisions, or explain ideas. I am free to explore the thoughts that bottle up while I am busy discussing literature, explaining why bedtime is still at 8 pm, and answering a seemingly endless list of emails asking for letters of recommendation. I am free to talk to God, and to listen, without interruption. I write and rewrite ideas in my head with abandon. Starting to run gave me the gift of finding myself again.
I so often hear friends talk about losing themselves: in a relationship, in parenthood, in careers, in expectations. Losing yourself is scary; you feel helpless and alone, grasping at whatever vestiges remain of who you were and who you thought you would be. Running was my way of regaining my foothold, my promise to myself that I wouldn’t get lost again, leashing myself to my thoughts and dreams and hopes in a way that kept me going. The physical act of running gave me confidence to pursue other dreams long left on a back burner: writing for an audience, for example. It felt like a measurable, concrete activity that reminded me that I am strong and capable and independent.
If you are feeling like I was four years ago, metaphorically lost at sea, here is my effort to convince you to run after yourself, either by literally running or by figuratively finding yourself through some other method.
1. You need yourself. Yes, I realize that sounds silly. But you may have forgotten over years of needing others and/or being needed by others that you also need yourself. I lived alone my first year of teaching, and it was an experience that showed me so much about myself. After years of living with family and roommates, I was forced to become self-reliant. I became my own friend (DORK alert). And then I got married, had three kids, taught hundreds of students, and sort of forgot that I actually like spending time with myself- until I made it a priority again.
2. You need time. So much of what we do today feels mission-critical, especially parenting. Every decision must be made immediately, and often under the duress of crying or screaming offspring. I become a stuttering fool in these stressful moments…sometimes I can’t even string together a coherent sentence in the peak of the chaos. Give me a minute! I find myself saying/yelling/pleading. If this is you, you need time, an opportunity to walk away, to gather your thoughts and your sanity. I don’t mean this in a selfish, leave-me-alone kind of way, but more a I-can-do-this-better-in-five-minutes kind of way. Scheduling that time alone allows you to control this pressure and manage your responses.
3. You need personal goals. For me, running was full of measurable goals: distance, time, pacing. Even the simple act of controlling my breathing or surviving side cramps gave me something to focus on. Certainly the physical aspect makes running a positive goal, but anything you enjoy doing can have measurable goals for you, and meeting those incremental goals reminds you that you are capable of more that what you may feel you can do in this moment. Every time I meet a new goal, I feel confident that I can face whatever else the week may hold.
4. You need peace. Many days feel less than peaceful in one way or another. If it isn’t an issue at work or at home, it is stressful news or worries about a potential future issue. We certainly know how to borrow trouble, and our poor little life rafts are sinking under the weight. Finding yourself in the midst of trouble gives you peace. I mentioned above that I use this time not only to be alone with my thoughts, but to be alone with God. For me, running feels meditative. My mind is lulled by the rhythm of it. I am able in that quiet span of time to focus on peace. Of course, it helps that I run in the country, past sheep, horses, and open fields. But I think you can find peace anywhere that you can focus inward. I mean, my husband hides in the bathroom, and that seems to work for him, so to-each-his-own, I guess.
Run after yourself. Uncover your forgotten dreams and chase them with abandon. I can speak with some experience that running after myself made me better equipped to be present for others in my life without feeling lost and overwhelmed. It gave me freedom to explore my ideas again and to find peace amidst chaos. And it can do the same for you.