A few weeks ago, my friend Suzanne and I celebrated a beautiful late summer morning by running a marathon. We started way up in the mountains, where the leaves had already begun to change, and ended in a small town in the throes of Saturday football practice and soccer games. One thing that was noticeably absent was the lack of crowd support. I mean, I wasn’t expecting crowds from mile 1 to mile 26 (like you get in Boston) or bands playing at strategic intervals to keep runners’ spirits up (like you get in Nashville), but usually there are some people waving posters every few miles, and the last few miles is typically full of cheering families instead of people who want you to get out of their way as they push strollers laden with snacks and lawn chairs to the soccer sidelines.
Suzanne and I both noticed the lack of crowd support, and at one point I turned to her and said, “At least no one is telling us we’re almost there.”
“You’re almost there.”
It sounds like an innocuous enough statement. I know that most people mean it as an encouragement. And most marathon spectators are not marathon runners, so they really have no idea that miles one-22 actually take less total effort than miles 22-26.2, so when they start telling you you are almost there at mile 18, you kind of want to deck them. I don’t want anyone telling me I’m almost there until I can see the finish line, and then only if I think I have enough energy left in me to sprint there. I’ll take “you’re looking strong” or “nice pace” or “keep it up” or even (the now rare) “you look great” as helpful compliments that boost me, but telling me that the end is not far away when the route seems endless is not helpful in the least.
Yesterday, I took my fourteen-year-old daughter Annie and her friend Abby on a hike. I have always wanted to hike Mount Olympus, whose peak dominates the near eastern suburbs of Salt Lake City, and the girls agreed to keep me company. We started very early, with headlamps and sweatshirts, and reached the summit not long after sunrise. While we’d only seen one or two people on the way up, most of the Salt Lake Valley seemed to be going for one last Labor Day hike up Olympus on our way down.
I can’t tell you how many times I found myself passing people, saying hello, and wanting to be helpful, very nearly saying “You’re almost there!” Of course, they were not almost there. And if you’ve ever climbed Mount Olympus, you know that the hike (just like a marathon) gets gradually more challenging as it goes on, and the last little bit is not on a path, but rather a scramble up the nearly vertical face of the rock. I didn’t feel like I was “almost there” until I was sitting on my butt eating Oreos at the summit, and even then I was planning for how I would get down.
So if you’re trying to be a good friend, or even a friendly stranger, what do you say to people who are going through hard things? I remember when I was a teenager and read the LDS scriptures for the first time, there were plenty of scriptures that talked about how we had to have faith, be baptized, and endure to the end, almost like enduring was something quick and easy that could be checked off a list, like baptism. It took me years to realize that enduring was a lifelong kind of thing. It’s hard to resist platitudes, especially when you don’t know what to say, but wouldn’t it be nice to have an arsenal of good things to say to people who are going through hard things?
One time years ago, I was struggling through the last few miles of a marathon and happened to run into Kim, a running legend around these parts who has probably won as many marathons as I’ve run. She stuck with me for a few of those hard miles and said, “You know, at this point I never think ‘I still have five miles left.’ Instead, I just focus on getting to the next mile marker. Because maybe I can’t run five more miles, but I certainly can run one.” That conversation always runs through my brain in the last few miles of a marathon as one of the most helpful pieces of advice I’d ever gotten. I just took a new job, and between that job and my old job and my busy family life, if I try to look at the big picture or the finish line, it can be devastatingly frustrating. Instead, if I focus on the two or three things I can get done today (like writing this post) then those tasks feel less like a marathon or a climb up a 9000 foot mountain.
How about you? What works for you to make life manageable? How do you avoid giving bad encouragement or advice (even inadvertently?).