My jogging shirt and shorts were sweat-soaked and clinging. I probably could have stopped and wrung out my wristband. In fact, stopping was what I had in mind as I made my way up the short hill on my evening jog a few nights ago.
It was hot and extremely humid. My legs were pretty well spent. There was so much water in the air that each breath felt a bit like inhaling the whole ocean. And I still had a mile to go before I was back home.
Yeah, I think I’ll stop when I get to the top of the hill and just rest a while before I start up again.
Just then, I noticed three children approaching me on the sidewalk. Two boys, one girl. About 10 years old or so. African-American. They probably lived in the apartment complex right there, one where you don’t live if your family is well-off.
“Hey, how you guys doing?” I said.
“Gooooooooood,” they replied as a group, in the long “oooooo” sound that kids will make when you ask them that question. And then one of the boys asked a question back.
“How you doing?”
Normally I might say “gooood” right back, but at that moment I had to be honest.
“I’m strugglin’!” I said.
They moved aside to share the sidewalk with me. I thanked them. After I’d passed them, I heard one of the boys say to me, “You blazin’!”
I know that the expression has several connotations, but I took it to mean that he thought I was going fast. That made me laugh.
“I’m tryin’!!!!” I said.
And then I heard the girl’s voice call after me.
“Don’t give up!” she said.
Don’t give up. Wow! This young girl tells the plodding 60-year-old guy not to give up. All I could do was smile, turn back over my shoulder and say, “Thank you!!!”
You know those times when someone totally unexpected _ in this case, a group of children _ gives you a lift with their kindness and encouragement? Don’t those moments make you feel good?
We all need encouragement, and I have to admit that I struggle with that in some ways. Often, when I encounter someone who’s struggling with something, I’m not sure what to say. As a writer, I try to find the right word, and words are often so slippery.
Plus, it’s hard to know what to say to someone who is facing something that’s not part of my experience. For instance, feeling trapped inside the cages of racism, sexism, homophobia. Facing ostracism because of your religion or your sexual identity or your ethnic background. Being constantly judged by your looks. Fighting endlessly for your special needs child so they can get the opportunities they deserve.
I hear the daily frustration of those who are still – STILL, can you believe it! – having to push back against hatred and discrimination and indifference. They’re worn out and discouraged. They feel like they’re getting nowhere. They wonder why they should keep trying.
Me? I haven’t had to walk in their shoes; I’ve had the privilege of doing my daily jogs in cushy, comfortable ones.
And then, I meet three children on a sidewalk and they remind me of something important: Encouragement matters, no matter how it’s expressed or who it’s coming from. Sometimes, the few words of a stranger can be as powerful as any spoken by a friend.
A simple hug, a kind word – those make a difference. So does reminding someone that they matter and that their life matters. And yes, it’s important to acknowledge how frustrating it is at times. Then, it’s equally important to remind them that the arc is long, but their hands are bending it.
So keep blazing. Keep blazing those trails in our families and our neighborhoods and our schools and our religions and our cultures and our countries and our various circles of friends, including those on social media. Keep doing it even when we’re out of breath and our legs feel like they’re giving out and our energy needle is getting awfully friendly with the empty mark.
Do it even when we feel like we’re getting nowhere — especially when we feel like we’re getting nowhere.
And if we need to stop for a moment and catch our breath and wring a little sweat from our wristband, that’s cool. Everybody needs to take a step back from time to time and catch their breath before putting one foot in front of the other again.
Remember the young girl’s three powerful words. The ones that helped me make it all the way home without stopping on one hot night. And probably will many more nights, too — more than that girl will ever know.