Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Treadmill and the Trampoline

Two Lives - One Life

Today

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like something is going to happen, something important, but you don't know what it is? Or why? The story I want to tell you happened on that kind of day, and looking back, I suppose it wouldn't have mattered if I had known what was going to happen. Sometimes the person we trust the least is ourselves, I guess. Before I tell you what happened though, I should tell you something about me. I used to think that I could control things in my life by the decisions I made, that I was the master of my own universe. I suppose I still believe that, but what that means to me now, and what it used to mean, are very, very different. I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but it's important you understand what I used to believe, and how things have changed since that day.

I worked in a church for many years, and I have worked with people my entire life. I can't tell you how many times I heard people asking me to pray for them, that they needed a miracle in this situation or that situation. I generally like people, but I sometimes found myself wondering why they needed a miracle at all.

You live in North America. You own a beautiful house and two cars. You have a nice family. Sure, you have struggles, but isn't that part of life. Things can't be great all the time. You don't expect THAT, do you?

Just the same, I would agree to pray for them and offer what counsel I could. This went on for many years and I still didn't understand why so many people were looking for a miracle until the hedges of discipline and duty broke down in my life, when I began to realize the rhythms of life too often had little to do with my choices. I still believed in God, but this sense of powerlessness rattled me to the core. What if our choices didn't matter? What if I wasn't actually choosing? This went against everything I'd been taught in the church, and I didn't know how to handle it, so I just kind of sucked up and hoped for the best.

Until the day I got my own miracle. I didn't ask for it, not consciously at least, but it happened nonetheless, and things have never been the same.

Yesterday

It was warmer than I expected when I finally left the gym, the crowds thick along the street as I headed towards the subway and home. It was an uneventful ride and within a short time I was headed towards my car, my traveler's mug in one hand, my gym bag shifted well over my right shoulder. Another long week had ended, but I wasn't tired. I was oddly fresh, enjoying the bright sun and cloudless sky as I ambled along the sidewalk. The trees had lost their leaves, but even without their vibrant colours, today they seemed to glow and reach towards the heavens in the quiet stillness of the bright afternoon sun.

When I finally reached my car, an older woman with fiery red hair was sticking a piece of paper in my windshield. I shuffled forward quickly, my bag bouncing against my leg.

"Hey, I'm allowed to park here!"

I'd been forced to park further and further away (yup... parking tickets) from the subway until I was a full ten-minute walk away.

She saw me and smiled, and then removed the note.

"Oh good. You're here. I was wondering if you'd ever get back."

"I scheduled another client late..." My voice trailed off as I realized what I was saying. "Is there something I can do for you?"

She was a heavyset woman, wearing a purple scarf over a bright pink coat that was tattered along the edges, her lips painted a garish red that matched her hair. I instantly felt sorry for her, although I wasn't sure why.

"Can you give me a ride?"

I looked at her for a long minute. I don't always give rides to strangers, especially to the ones who hang around my car, but like I said, I felt sorry for her.

I opened the door and she slid in beside me, laboriously adjusting her thick coat and scarf. The musky scent of old perfume and sweat momentarily engulfed me, and I tried not to be obvious as I rolled down my window a crack to get some air.

"Where to?" I asked.

"Take me anywhere. Somewhere far away from here."

It was a ridiculous answer, but instead of questioning her further, I put the car in gear and pulled out. I glanced over at her while I was driving. Her face was craggy and lined. Other than the lipstick, she wore no other makeup else that I could tell.

"Do you have a place to stay?" I asked, my voice gentle.

"Yes. It's the same place it always was. It changes but never does, you know what I mean?"

I tried to check her pupils, but couldn't keep my gaze off the road long enough to see if they were dilated.

"Sure."

'What do you mean 'sure'?" She barked, her voice suddenly strong and narrow. "That's the first dishonest thing you've said to me."

I swallowed and didn't respond, suddenly wondering what I'd done. Had I picked up a total psychopath? Maybe it was my mood, but I decided to play along.

"You're right. I don't know what you mean."

She smiled, her face suddenly soft.

"Yes you do. But I appreciate your honesty."

"No, I mean it. I'm not a fan of so-called 'cryptic' statements because usually they don't mean anything. People say things just to say things, or say that they believe something and don't even understand why they believe it in the first place."

"It's not very helpful, is it?" She said.

"It's destructive."

She looked at me, and I could feel her gaze, which had somehow become stronger.

"So what do you believe?"

A blue Civic swerved in front of me, and I grimaced but didn't say anything for a minute.

"I'm Steve, by the way."

She smiled again, and when she didn't say anything, I began to worry.

"Seriously, where can I take you? There has to be someplace-"

"There is."

She pointed, and I sighed when I realized where we were. I pulled into my driveway.
I bent my head over the steering wheel. I knew that I was having a hallucination of some sort, that the woman beside me wasn't real. At least, I was almost positive that she wasn't real.

"I don't understand."

"Good. And you never will. That's the point."

"See, that's exactly the type of BS I hate!" I said, my voice rising. "The point is ALWAYS to understand! That's what it means to be human!"

She looked at me, her scent suddenly overpowering.

"Is it? Your problem, Steve, is the same one most people have. You have never accepted that you are human. You are not God."

"What? I know that!" My voice began to break. "Better than most, I think."

She reached out and patted my knee. Her hand was warm, and at her touch, I felt a surge of emotion.

"Thinking little of yourself is no different than thinking too highly of yourself. Both are a matter of pride. It is discouraging though, when some people use God as a tool to keep others unaware of their humanity, and keep them reaching towards divinity. God sees, but in this, he asks us to stumble and reach toward him. To see God is to accept who you are. How can we say that we believe God became human if we can't even acknowledge our own humanity?"

"I don't know if it's that." I said, my voice steadying a little. "It's just that life never really turns out the way we want it to, I think." I said. "I don't think people are always greedy, I think they're just being... human."

I looked at her, but when she didn't say anything, I turned my gaze back towards my house.

"Why don't we get what we want? I think that's what most of us struggle with. And even when we get what we want, we don't really want it. Or something."

"What do you want, Steve? What do you REALLY want?"

Her question lingered as I lifted my head and stared at the house. I thought about Bethany. About my family. About Mark and Jackie and Mireille and Ernie and all my friends. I thought about Szymon and Nads and all my housemates. And I thought about those who were struggling and broken, the ones who saw no way out and that not only wanted a miracle, but also truly needed one, the ones that touched my heart more than any other.

She shifted her shawl.

"I have a question for you, Steve."

"Okay."

"Do you like working out?" She asked.

I wasn't sure what her question had to do with people getting what they wanted, but then, I was having a conversation with either a highly delusional woman or hallucinating, so I wasn't sure it mattered.

"Sure. I've been working out for a long time."

"Do you like running on the treadmill?"

"Well, no, it's boring. Unless there's a TV it's okay-"

"Have you ever been on a trampoline?"

"Yeah."

I saw where she was going and gave her a rueful smile.

"Life is both a treadmill and a trampoline, Steve. As a trainer and someone who likes to workout, you know that you can't always choose your gym, given the circumstances, but most of the time you can choose how you're going to exercise."

"I've heard this before, you know." I said. "This isn't exactly a new idea."

She laughed.

"No, it isn't a new idea. The difference is that you heard it, but didn't believe it. Didn't accept it. Knowing and understanding are very different things."

I paused.

"Are you an angel?"

She smiled and opened the passenger door. A fresh blast of air rushed into the car. She leaned in and glanced at my notebook on the back seat.

"Keep writing, Steve. It matters. Keep loving people. And tell your readers that even if they can't understand why life makes no sense at times that they should pursue the better. Our lives are a reflection we see only dimly even in the best of times. Tell them not be afraid to ask for God's help, and when they get the choice, to choose the trampoline."

I nodded, unable to speak.

I watched her walk away, her scarf lifting in the breeze, until she disappeared from sight.

Tomorrow

I know you probably don't believe my story. Heck, I don't believe it and it happened to me. Well, I think it happened. Maybe it was a dream. Still, things haven't been the same for me since that day.

The change hasn't come all at once, of course. Some companies and religions like to promote "instant makeover" or a "new life today", but anyone who thinks about it for more than a minute understands the ridiculous (and dangerous) premise to that notion. And in the movies, you only have a couple of hours for lives to be changed forever. But in life, the changes that last forever take just as long. Some days I still forget that, and I feel lost and unsure, but when I think back to that day, I remember her words. Treadmill or trampoline? It helps that I work at a gym, but maybe that's why she chose that example in the first place.

Every day I go to the gym. I like it most days, but it's still work, and I have to be there. In that sense, I guess I'm not choosing. And when it's time to work out, there are days I find myself wanting the treadmill, not because it's fun, but because it's functional. Because I don't have to smile. You can't force happiness, I don't think, but when I bounce on that trampoline, its hard not to laugh a little. I'm not sure what this all means, if anything, but my angel (or whoever she was) told me to tell you, and it really has made a difference in my life.

To embrace God is to accept our humanity. And when we can accept ourselves, in all of our foibles and brokenness and selfish nature, we are not only more likely to ask God for help (especially when it comes to loving other people) but there's a better chance of us finding the trampolines in our life. At least, I think that's what she meant.

So there it is. Another to story to dwell on or brush aside. My only hope is that you will at least think about it, and if it helps in some small way, well, then maybe you can pass it on to someone else. I haven't met many of you, but someday we may meet, and when that happens, maybe you'll have a story for me too. Maybe we can get a coffee and talk about it, after spending a bit of time on the trampoline together.

-Steve