I was a decent distance runner in my youth. (Geez that makes me sound old, haha.) My personal best mile time was four minutes and fifty-eight seconds, not too shabby! I remember the refreshing sense of freedom that came from being able to take off and go for a five mile "drive" using nothing but my own legs, and a good pair of running shoes. Running was a valuable outlet in my life, with countless positive side effects. Ultimately however, I ran in the summer to stay in shape for my true love in the winter: basketball.
I was the starting point guard on my high school basketball team my junior and senior years. Junior year we were undefeated in the regular season, and senior year we only lost one game, and by a margin of two points. We nearly went two consecutive years without tasting defeat, a level of success pretty much unheard of in the world of basketball. Suffice it to say, we weren't just lucky- it took hard work and dedication to do what we did.
I was a tireless student of the game. I put in countless hours of extra practice on my own, raising my free-throw percentage to 80%, polishing my three-point average to 66%, working on my ball handling, and refining my defense. I studied every piece of film I could get my hands on, and got to know each of my teammates strengths and play styles. I patterned my game after the all-time NBA assists and steals leader: John Stockton. I even wore the number 12 on my jersey. Basketball was my first great, truly passionate pursuit in life.
Then at age twenty-one, six months away from pursuing the next level of my basketball career- I was in a freak accident, injuring my spine, and discovering in the process that I have degenerative disc disease.
When I first got hurt, I could barely walk, wound up falling quite often, and was in a great deal of pain 24/7. Common household features like stairs were completely out of the question. After all the MRI's, specialists, prayers, and months of hard work in physical therapy- I regained the ability to walk normally, and stairs were no longer an insurmountable obstacle. But my life-long dream of playing college hoops was gone, evaporated in a single moment of misfortune. My passion was now something that made my heart ache, instead of being a renewable source of joy like it was before. I lost a treasured part of my identity.
In the years since then, disease has claimed more discs in my neck and back, making life increasingly complicated. Along the way, some people have asked me why I don't watch every basketball game on TV like I used to, or why I don't even bother making a bracket for March Madness along with half the nation. The short answer? Simply put: it hurts. It's like being reminded of a dearly departed loved one, who was lost in an untimely accident. The human brain grieves over losing part of our identity the same way it mourns the loss of a friend or family member.
To the inner workings of the soul, a deep personal loss is a deep personal loss. It took me years to understand this for myself. I can't watch basketball on television without having all the thought patterns and instincts I spent years drilling into my mind and body, all come rushing back. I can't help but want to be out there on the court playing, instead of always just watching. It's especially bad if the team I am watching is struggling- all I want to do is lace up my Nike's and get to work strategically righting the ship, like a good point guard would. But I can't. So instead I have to watch the guy on TV make bad choices and hurt his team, over and over for an hour, while I devolve into an insufferable "armchair quarterback". It may sound silly, but I have tried- and that is almost always what happens.
So anyway, it has been a while- I'm thirty-four now, and I have slowly realized a few things along the way. For example: I have tried to boil down the individual elements contained in the passion I had for basketball, to find out what parts of it I could salvage and continue to benefit from. There are many little bits and pieces I have been able to extract, but the main one I want to mention here is purpose.
Being able to pour your heart, mind, body, and soul so completely into something, regardless of what that something is, gives you a thirst-quenching sense of purpose. Ultimately, a profound sense of purpose is the key ingredient that I missed when that piece of my identity was shelved. Emotionally, purpose is the element that was the hardest to do without. Mentally I could distract myself with other outlets. Physically, I had very significant pain-based incentives driving me to learn to let go of the active athletic lifestyle I once had. But emotionally, there was always a problem, there were no shortcuts. A haunting lack of purpose can do a lot of damage, and it can do it silently, invisibly, like a slow internal bleed.
Which brings me to the present, and the reason I am telling you this story today...
Yesterday, thousands of the world's best distance runners gathered to participate in one of the most iconic events in the history of organized running: the Boston Marathon. Four hours into the race, a time when many of the runners were finishing their 26 mile jog, two deadly explosions went off, right at the finish line. A pair of bombs designed to hurl shrapnel in every direction, at leg level, sent racers and spectators alike screaming and running for safety... except for those who could no longer walk.
These are people whose passion is running! Many of them are career runners, they do it for a living! To lose the functionality of a limb, or lose a limb completely, is a horrible thing for any person to endure- but these people are losing even more than that. Theirs will be the kind of loss which stings long after the physical wounds have healed. Sudden, overwhelming change... and the inevitable question: "What am I going to do now?"
May God bless those who were caught in harm's way this week, and their loved ones, with the consolation and courage they need, to be able to handle the new, very different life they will be facing for many years to come.
And may God bless the rest of us to remember that not all losses can be seen or measured.
EDIT: One week after this writing, I came across an excellent AP news article written by Emilio Morenatti, offering empathy to the Boston Marathon victims based on his own experience losing a leg to a roadside bomb. Mr. Morenatti does a wonderful job sharing his personal insight regarding the mental/emotional challenges brought on by physical trauma.