April 12, 2017

Which Came First: Running or the Love of it?

The first road race done by someone in my house was not by me, but by Jill.  The 2010 HBF Run For A Reason.

Jill’s reason was to celebrate the fact that I had recovered from major surgery a few months before.  The local newspaper did an article on her reason for running, they came and took a pic of her, she ran the race.  Done and dusted.

I feigned interest.  Really I did.  But she left for the race before I’d woken up, caught the train to town, ran, caught the train home again, and I was pretty much scratching my still very scarred stomach and yawning “How did that go?”, before getting on with the rest of the morning.


Apart from the fact that you are now thinking what an uncaring, self-focussed so-and-so that McAlpine is, the question of my previous lack of interest in anything to do with running is intriguing.  No, really it is.

For since then, well, since another year after that, mid 2011 to be precise, I have run around 15 thousand kilometres.  I have bought countless running mags, spent too much on shoes, spent way too much on physio, and gone into countless deep funks when injured and unable to run.  And it’s all there in glorious technicolour on Strava to prove it.

How? Why? What the…?

How did my total lack of interest in running translate into a healthy commitment/unhealthy obsession?  Did I just decide, after doing a bunch of research that I would love running,  indeed was growing to love running, as I read about it, before finally taking up running on the basis of that abstract love?

Or was it other way around? Did I start to run, tentatively, embarrassingly, intermittently? And then over time, did I come to the growing realisation that not only did I like to run, but I didn’t like not to run? That the sense of achievement, the endorphin kick, the camaraderie, and the mega-slow heart rate, made the long slogs, the cold mornings and the blasting heat all worth it?

Did I then eventually love running enough to feel antsy if I miss more than a day in a row?  To have it so ingrained in my life that I can roll out of bed at 5:15am on a cold July morning, be in my running gear and off on a 20km run without a second thought? Is that how it happened?

By now you’ll realise that it’s firmly the latter rather than the former.  I love running because I started to run.  I didn’t start off by loving running and then decide to do it on that basis.  It became a habit and habits are, well,  habit forming!  In fact habits are “forming” in the sense that they become part of our formation; part of who we are over time.

Jamie Smith, in his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, delves into the idea that it’s the very doing of something that embeds it into our lives.  We practice something,  and over time as we make it a habit, it becomes what we want to do more than what we have to do.  We grow to love that thing, and that in turn makes us embed it as a practice even more. And so on.

The word “habit” has a nasty connotation in our late modern minds, captive as they are to the ideas that propelled Romanticism.  We cannot help but think that habits are negatives; porn, nose-picking, shouting in traffic, that kind of thing.

But the opposite is also true, and a few aspiring writers could do well to junk their Romantic ideals and idylls, and realise that if they’re ever going to write that great novel only “habit” will get it done, rather than hanging out in some retro-beatnik party talking Derrida all night, week in week out, before complaining intermittently of writer’s block.

The great writers, the prolific writers, have steely discipline. They get out of bed early, sit in front of the notepad/typewriter/computer and write. Every day. They write according to the clock, in the same seat, in the same room, with the same cup of coffee. Every morning.  Or on the mornings they have pre-ordained.  The freedom to write well is bounded by habit.

That’s why those movies in which deadbeat cowards suddenly, in the crisis, find that they are full of heroic endeavour and can save the day, are just more Romantic nonsense. The reality is less “cometh the hour, cometh the man”, and more “The hour revealeth the man”.

The blessing – and curse – of habit, is that it kicks in unthinkingly.  Blokes take a second, and third lustful look at the young woman walking down the street because that is their habit. We pull out a snide remark to our spouse when we are angry or frustrated because that is our habit. And that’s the curse.

But the blessing? It’s exactly the same.  We avert our gaze from a human object of desire, because over time we have grown to love something more. We have grown to love holiness, and a vision of God that keeps our eyes front and centre.

We not only don’t find we need to suppress our angry words, but we find that we speak loving words because they’ve become our default.  We spend time with the people of God on a regular basis, not because we first felt like we wanted to, but because the very practice of doing it, makes us want to.

I know that kicks against every Christianised version of Romanticism also.  The idea that somehow we need to feel something inside before we do it. But as humans we are not built that way.

Let’s take one more example.  If you are mindlessly eating in an unhealthy manner, the trick is not to move to a position of where you are mindfully eating in a healthy manner.  No, that is simply not sustainable.  The trick is to so eat healthily for long enough that it becomes mindless. That it becomes second nature to you. That it becomes the thing you do because you do it.

You start off mindlessly eating in an unhealthy manner, you then move to a state of concern about your eating, let’s call that mindful but unhealthy eating. You then put in the effort to change your eating habits; that’s mindful healthy.  It’s also exhausting, and the point where you are tempted to give in. But that’s not where you stop. If you do you will relapse.  You move beyond that, over time, to mindless healthy eating.  You walk down different aisles in the supermarket.  You don’t automatically reach for the chip packet.  The power of habit kicks in in a positive way, just as it had kicked in a negative way in your bad eating traits.

Our culture can’t grasp that reality.  Well not when it comes to spirituality anyway.  The zenith of our culture is for us to give in to our desires because that is when we are truly being who we are. It’s as if somehow the same laws don’t apply to how we are as moral creatures. Well, frankly, that’s a load of rubbish.  We can  – and do – change our desires all of the time.  My running is a case in point.  And it’s true of our Christian experience too.

The power of habit will – over time – see us seeking out God’s word mindlessly. The power of habit will see us meeting with God’s people mindlessly. The power of habit will see us seek the good and avoid the evil mindlessly.  And I mean that in the sense of habitually, rather than merely unthinkingly.  The practice embeds itself. It becomes more than second nature, but our very nature itself.  That’s the stage of maturity we want to reach.

Of course we lapse.  We slip. We fall.  We go back to the throne of grace in time of need and ask for help. But that is to become our habit too.  As Luther said, the Christian life is a life of repentance.  That’s our habit – to repent.

It starts to all make sense of that famous passage in Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)

And do you notice we’re not alone in this? Notice that Jesus was shaped by the power of habit?  “For the joy that was set before him”.  Elsewhere in Hebrews we read that Jesus, although a Son already, “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). The habit of trusting his Father daily, refusing sin daily, praying and asking his Father for help daily, looking to the reward daily.  Jesus is not calling us to something he has not already done himself.  His subsequent “being made perfect” status is based solely on his dedication to the power of godly habit for an entire lifetime.

So get out there and run the race through habit. Learn to love the race through the doing of it.  Let becoming like Jesus be something you want to do, not simply something you have to do.

And if you’re not feeling it at the moment?  Do it anyway. For you will grow to love it I assure you.  Either that or you will grow to love something else.  For that’s the spiritual power of habit.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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