The First Step Is Always the Hardest

runner at night

Dear Will:

I used to be a runner. Seriously.

OK, so not all that seriously. I was more of a shuffler, to be honest. But I did go out a few nights a week and plod three or four miles around the neighborhood. Hardcore runners would never have admitted me into their club, but I did get to the point where I kind of enjoyed it. I felt better about myself for doing it, that’s for sure.

But you know how it goes. You change jobs or your kids’ lives turn complicated or whatever and next thing you know you’re back on the couch every night with a remote control in your hand. Honestly, I don’t remember why I stopped my evening jogs, but here we are, several years and 10 or 12 pounds later and I have lost the gumption.

The gumption, but not the desire. I remember both the physical and psychic benefits of the discipline, and I do miss it. I often feel like I ought to start up again. But how?

I read somewhere recently that “the first step is always the hardest.” I think that’s because of everything that leads up to that first step: overcoming the dread, clearing the time on my schedule, strapping on my shoes, making the visible declaration that “I’m going for a run” while realizing that for that to be meaningful there had better be other runs to follow. That’s what the first step looks like. After that, it’s just huffing and puffing, one foot after another. Those second, third, fourth steps—they’re way easier than the first one.

I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for people to feel this same sort of inner conflict when it comes to spiritual exercise. Maybe there was a time when you were regularly engaged in some sort of religious practice. Maybe it came easy to you, or not, but you regularly cultivated your personal spiritual development. And it felt good.

But you know how it goes. You move or someone mistreats you or your real-world obligations and interests demand more and more of your time. Or maybe your intellect simply overpowers belief and you tire of the inner turmoil. Whatever the reason, next thing you know you’ve put away your Bible, stopped attending services, and hardly think to pray anymore. Maybe you don’t even fully remember why, but now here you are, however-many years later, and “church” is simply no longer your thing.

Do you remember how it felt though? How it felt to surround yourself with like-minded people who were also striving to follow the teachings of Jesus, to do better, to be better? Do you remember those moments when you felt the reality of God’s love for you or the warmth of the Holy Spirit? How you sang “I Am a Child of God,” and the words rose up from your innermost being? Perhaps you would like to feel that way again.

Perhaps—if not for that ominous, overwhelming, almost-unthinkable first step—emotionally daunting just to think about. If only there were some way to find the gumption, the courage, the inner strength to begin. . . .

Of course, there is. Isaiah reminds us that we do not embark on such journeys alone: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). It all begins with a single step—a step I would be delighted to take with you. God knows I could use the exercise.



Photo: Night Runner by Jeremy Brooks

To Try Again, and Then Again

Dear Will:

I am in such bad shape. I haven’t had any sort of formal exercise program for years because (I told myself) my obligations as an early morning Seminary teacher made it impossible for me to work in a workout. So I’d hike the hills from time to time, but other than that I did little else but sit at my desk each day watching my waistline get doughier and doughier. My wife even took to calling me Jabba. (Not true, but I kept expecting it.)

Well, the Seminary excuse is dead, so I’ve little choice but to start exercising. I won’t bore you with my unimpressive plans, but I will say this much: One thing I did was download an app that creates randomized exercise routines that take little time, space, or equipment. (You gotta start somewhere, right?) So yesterday, with a bit of trepidation, I fired up my iPad and gave it a go.

It was everything I expected it to be. Which is to say, it was dreadful. I had neither strength nor stamina nor the internal fortitude to push through the lack of strength and stamina. My body was so traumatized by actual activity (Hey! What’s this all about?) that it took me as long to recover as it did to perform the rudimentary calisthenics. It was awkward. Painful. Embarrassing.

But you know what? Later that day it was kind of nice to feel the sort of residual stiffness that comes from exercise. And today? I’m sore all over, but it’s a good sore. An encouraging sore. Motivating even. I’m feeling eager to get back at it and reclaim a little dignity along with a couple of pairs of pants I no longer take off of the hanger.

As with any previously inactive dude who makes a few feeble attempts at working out, the test will be whether next year or next month or next week I’m still at it. It does get easier, right? And it does, eventually, bear fruit. That’s what we know from experience—and what we promise ourselves when we first set out. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do; not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have no delusions of appearing on the cover of Men’s Health. But becoming a few pounds lighter would be a good thing. And having the sense of  vigor that comes from regular exercise would be even better.

So what does any of this have to do with you? This: If you ever ponder coming back to the church you once loved, it may be awkward at first—uncomfortable even. That part is perhaps unavoidable. But if you’ll stick with it, I promise that we’ll minimize that discomfort for you. And at the end of that first Sabbath morning when you find yourself at home considering what just happened, I’m confident that you’ll feel encouraged—motivated even—to try again, and then again, persisting until your power (and inclination) to do has increased.

Ultimately, the benefit of reigniting faith far outweighs the trepidation you may feel about starting again. President David O. McKay once said: “Spirituality is the consciousness of victory over self, and of communion with the Infinite. Spirituality impels one to conquer difficulties and acquire more and more strength. To feel one’s faculties unfolding and truth expanding the soul is one of life’s sublimest experiences.”

Will it be easy? Maybe not. Will it be worth it? Absolutely. So come and join us. You’ll be glad you did. And so will we.


Hoping for a Broken Bone

Dear Will:

My right thumb is swelled up like an Italian sausage and I have a welt on my arm that makes it appear that I went out and got a budget tattoo of Saskatchewan on my left biceps. There’s also a mustard-yellow bruise on my sternum, and my ears are sore (I didn’t even know that was possible). All of which confirms that I have been doing something inappropriate for my 44-year-old body.

That something is jiu-jitsu.

What in the world would compel an otherwise rational, middle-aged bald guy to take up a glorified form of street fighting? That part’s simple: Luke, my occasionally rational, 14-year-old manchild, has done his research and decided that this would be the coolest of all martial arts to learn. Since it’s a half-hour round-trip to the studio where he trains, it quickly became obvious to me that either I should sign up with him or resign myself to sitting in the parking lot with a good book.

Which of course begs the question: Why in the world would an otherwise rational, middle-aged bald guy not welcome the excuse to read a good book? I look down at Saskatchewan and wonder the same thing myself.

Luke, on the other hand, is thrilled. He’s learning a very manly art and gets the chance three times a week to beat up on his old man. What occasionally rational, 14-year-old manchild wouldn’t welcome that? I’m sure, in fact, that the possibility of pummeling and humiliating his dad will keep Luke attending these classes for many months to come. At least, that’s my fear.

Every session we learn some new moves and then “grapple.” It’s little more than a glorified wrestling match at this point, with lots of sweat and grunting and very little that resembles anything that one might consider “martial arts.” And because I sit at a desk all day, my conditioning might best be classified as “abysmal.” So I can go about two minutes before my grunting turns to gasping and I find myself stretched out on the mat hoping for a broken bone or seizure to end my misery.

When I was 14, I played basketball and ran track and  spent long hours visiting the elderly and reading to the blind. (Hey, it’s my story; I’ll tell it the way I want.) Why couldn’t my son take up basketball instead? I could stand under the hoop rebounding for him and not once wonder about the details of my HMO formulary. I could even hold my own in H-O-R-S-E with a distinct competitive advantage in the early going. And while I might still run the risk of bruising from time to time, I guarantee you the welts would look more like Rhode Island than some obscure Canadian province. I would also have the glory of an occasional good shot and even maybe a victory from time to time.

But no—my son wants to be a street fighter, which virtually guarantees that I will return home after each session a beaten man with only the vaguest notion of what to do next time I get jumped in a dark alley. My real fear, of course, is that the guy jumping me in the alley will be Luke, who will already know the only two jiu-jitsu maneuvers I’ve learned and will be able to execute them better besides.  (Note to self: no more dark alleys.)

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I need to find someone else to give my son a ride to class. Interested? Think of it as a way to see Saskatchewan without ever leaving Orange County.