Is it possible to share one’s peace of mind with another person? If it’s possible, does it matter? When I sent the first text message that eventually led to the formation of A Mile With You, the COVID Memorial Walk and Run and the completion of two half marathons and a full marathon within a 12-month period, I did not realize that this was the question that I had set out to answer. The arrival of COVID with accompanying traumas of lockdowns and deaths produced a kind of anguish and isolation that I had previously recognized as key features of life at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.
At the bottom of the ladder is where I grew up with my family and many of the families that lived in my community. Living as we were on the margins of power and status, we dealt with the persistent sense of insecurity that accompanied our lives by showing up in any way that we could for our neighbors in their time of need. A visit, a prayer, a loan to buy a pound of rice or flour, a shared contact to get a sick relative to the hospital late at night, we lent, shared, sacrificed or vouched for a neighbor so that they could make it to the next day. We acted with the hope and the belief that our neighbors would do the same for us when our time of need arrived. We knew that we could not make the type of gift that would completely eliminate the challenges, and we gave without letting this limitation paralyze us.
In face of the general fear and anxiety that came with COVID, my mind immediately returned to this sense of being in a community with others. Like everyone else, I knew that there was nothing that I could do to make myself immune to the disease or to fully protect the people that I loved. However, I recognized that collectively we could all take turns giving and receiving help as our personal situation allowed.
So, is it possible to share one’s peace of mind with another person? My intuitive answer is “yes.” Does it matter? Here too, I have to answer in the affirmative. We send cards, make phone calls, drive across the country or fly across the globe to stand with a friend or a relative who is dealing with some kind of tragedy or facing a major challenge in life because we know that our personal anxieties and burdens become more manageable when another person sets aside some of their mental reserves to focus on the source of our anguish. A toddler will stop crying when a parent kisses a bruise. After a miserable day at work, a spouse will go to sleep feeling loved, refreshed, and ready to take on the challenges of the next day if she comes home to a partner who is attentive, supportive, and a good listener.
Furthermore, it has been scientifically demonstrated that it is easier to deal with pain if we have a loved one sitting with us and holding our hand. None of these interventions changes the actual stimulus that causes the discomfort, but the loving attention of another person is sufficient to change the chemical signals being sent in our bodies, and that change is enough to reduce stress, uplift our emotions and replenish our depleted energy. In sum, when we demonstrate to someone that they still matter and are still seen, this act of solidarity can free up enough mental energy to unlock their own creative genius so that they can better traverse whatever challenges come before them.
Let me elaborate on my thesis in another way with some fancier words. In the asset-based approach (as opposed to the deficit model) of service-learning and human-centered design, we assume that the intended beneficiary of our actions has much to contribute to the solution that is being designed. Sharing your mental peace with another person matters because your actions can help that person to free up the brain space that they need to solve the current challenge that they face or access and replenish the mental reserves that they need to endure a painful transition in their lives. I lived the proof of this argument as a child, and I again rediscovered its validity earlier this year.
I decided to run a marathon at the one-year anniversary of the first COVID lockdown in the U.S. as an act of bearing witness to the losses that I had seen over the past year. It was also a way for me to pause long enough to absorb the gravity of the lives that had been lost and to make a personal commitment to do more to help in any way that I could.
Twelve miles into the marathon, I felt great as I cruised down the Mt. Vernon Trail in Alexandria, Virginia. The first sign of trouble came right after that moment of confidence in the form of a minor leg cramp in my right calf. I phoned my wife and asked her to meet me earlier than we had planned. I rehydrated, stretched, and set off again for the return trip. At mile 16 my right leg completely locked up and I slowed to a walk. I remember looking over at a sixty-something grandmother running by while I limped along and feeling frustrated that I could only walk. I also drew some inspiration from her determined effort. She’s moving forward one step at a time, I thought, and so can I.
After walking for a few minutes, I set off again and made it to mile 21 which was the agreed meet up point with a friend who had promised to complete the last five miles of the run with me. Turning the corner and seeing my friend as well as my wife and kids provided a bigger morale boost than I had anticipated. I had started the run to express my support for friends, neighbors, and others who had lost someone or something during the pandemic, but at mile 21, I needed all the help that I could get in order to achieve this goal that I had set. I had 5.2 miles to go, the late spring heat to contend with and a 300 ft. elevation to make it to the finish line. My friend could not run the miles for me, flatten the hills, or make the temperature cooler. But he lightened the load in every other way that he could. Likewise, we cannot erase the pain that many people are experiencing right now, but we can make it easier to carry that load. My friend used both words and actions to communicate his support and his care:
“Can I carry your phone for you?”
“Let me carry your water bottle for you.”
“Do you need a new mask?”
“Do you need an energy bar?”
“You’ve got this!”
“Clear,” a sign that there was no oncoming traffic as we crossed a busy road.
“Let’s get to the next marker.”
How does this story apply to the present context of the pandemic that we are living through? Consider the fact that the 1918 flu pandemic lasted about four years. As is the case with COVID, there were tragic losses, exhausted wills, fear, and despair. There were also heroic moments and moments of great empathy and generosity. People used their ingenuity to support each other and they made sacrifices to help each other get from one day to the next. Despite unexpected setbacks, they kept moving forward, even if they did so at a slower pace than they might have liked. On some of the most difficult days, an unexpected act of support or generosity made them laugh and gave them the energy to keep going.
On some days, I will use those happy memories to help me or my family make it to the next day. On other days, I would be happy to send you a kind word, run a mile for you, share my network or help to think about a challenge that you are facing just so that you can have enough space to maneuver or find the strength to hold on for one more day. Together we can hope that tomorrow will be the day when the new reality is better than the one that we had before or the one that we are struggling through right now. If you realize that you are living with some degree of mental peace and tranquility in your life, find a way to share it. Act now with the faith that someone else will show up to refill your cup when the time comes.
In the final analysis, I had to run the miles. I had to decide when and how to push. I had to maintain the faith that the 980 miles of training that I had done prior to the marathon made me strong enough to get the job done. I had to trust my knowledge of my body to know that I could safely push through those cramps and climb that hill without tearing a muscle. But as my friend, and retired Navy Captain, Joe Eldred, ran alongside me and shared his words of encouragement, I had a deep sense of gratitude that I did not have to complete the journey alone. In fact, by design, I heavily relied on mental supports to get through the final stretch of the marathon. A little after mile 24, I switched from my Asics to my Enda Black Rainbow Runners, and I thought about the hopes of the Kenyan shoemakers who had poured so much love into making these shoes that would help me complete this final climb. I had also made sure that the path of my last five miles would take me through the Chirilagua community because it is a community that energizes me with its creativity and resiliency. Some elements of support were planned and others came as welcomed surprises. Unbeknownst to me, my wife texted some of my friends and colleagues to come out and welcome me across the finish line. I had planned on a quiet approach into the final 400 meters of the run but the line of smiling faces, the sound of clapping hands, and the voices shouting their congratulations added a sweet note to the finish. I am forever grateful to everyone who donated to the project, cheered me on, wrote about my run, and allowed me to be a part of their story. Let us continue to build the spaces, relationships, and communities that can nurture us and help us to soar to new heights!
My family and me after the marathon
Spanish Teacher, McCain-Ravenel Experiential Education Consultant, Coach at Episcopal High School