I love Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I have never, ever bought one new. I always find them at yard sales for 25 to 50 cents each. I love them because there are about four books condensed in each edition and I can expose myself to a variety of authors and stories that I might never have found. I have discovered authors in these books that have become favorites.
One book I found in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books years ago is called Flanagan’s Run by Tom McNab. It’s not a bad story, but I think I might have read it once and forgotten it if it hadn’t been about a grueling journey across the country. It caused me to ponder a lot. If I were to make a list of books that changed me, this one would be on it.
The book is available at Amazon.com, which describes the story this way:
It is depression-era America and notorious huckster, Flanagan, plans the ultimate race, reeling in contestants with the promise of a glittering jackpot prize. Two thousand audacious hopefuls line up at the starting line from every walk of life and all ends of the globe, each with something to prove. As they run themselves ragged across America, they come up against numerous hazards, including the precipitous Rockies, shady mobsters and crooked officials. Their different stories, ambitions and dreams converge through a shared determination which will inspire you to push on to the finishing line.
As the race began, participants formed mostly informal alliances–small groups of runners who joined together to encourage and support each other through the race. The story centered on one of those alliances, which was headed by old Doc Cole, a veteran of other marathons. He advised the members of his group on what to wear, the necessity of keeping hydrated, how to pace themselves, and how to care for their bodies. As the race continued, the teammates formed a close bond and they provided encouragement and support to each other. Sometimes teammates ran together for several hours and sometimes one gave a word of encouragement as he ran past the other.
The book made me ponder the importance of having a group of friends to provide encouragement and support. I know that my family gained a lot of strength from friends all around the world who prayed for us, encouraged us, cried and laughed with us, and provided us with practical help while JJ was battling cancer. They even took pictures of themselves in silly hats to make JJ laugh. Even their pets wore silly hats. We couldn’t have made it without our friends.
I also understand the importance of not just receiving support, but also giving it to others who are going through difficult times. I have known several people who were so focused on their own struggles that they became very self-absorbed and without compassion toward others. These “poor me victims” are miserable to be around.
I love a story a family friend tells of a time when he was complaining about all his struggles and problems to a co-worker. The older man listened and then said, “That is a sad story. Everyone has a sad, sad story.” Then he shared his own sad story, and the tale was so heartbreaking that our friend was ashamed for complaining about his own problems. He realized that all his problems were as nothing compared to those of this other guy.
One time an on-line friend asked advice at a forum about a situation she was struggling with. I had similar struggles, so I messaged her to encourage her and we began to share our experiences with each other. When I heard her story, I emailed “Wow. Your story is very horrible. Compared to what you are going through, my own struggles are minor.” As I sent the email to her, I received one from her in my inbox. When I read it, I laughed because she had pretty much written the same thing as I had: “Wow. Your story is very horrible. Compared to what you are going through, my own struggles are minor.” We laughed.
Things things all taught me that I’m not the only one struggling, and that while sometimes I need the support of others, they also need my support. Reaching out to others helps keep our own problems in perspective. I’ve also observed that sometimes people are in our lives for years and sometimes people enter our lives to give brief encouragement before they disappear–like medical staff in the hospital or a stranger who stops to help change a tire.
Another thing that Flanagan’s Run taught me is that every participant ran their own race. When a runner in the story was struggling with a foot injury, a teammate ran alongside her to help her pace herself so she could reach the next checkpoint on time, but he didn’t attempt to carry her and he didn’t risk disqualifying himself by keeping beside her the whole way. They both were responsible for running their own race. They were both in it to win.
This is important.
EJ and I are both compassionate people who love to help others. Once we let a guy who was going through a difficult time live with us for a while. The guy, who was about our age, had lost his wife (divorce) and his job. After he moved in with us, he spent his time sleeping, reading, playing on the computer, and sometimes talked about digging up my gardens, planting vegetables, and using our house for a soup kitchen. Uh….no.
We talked to a counselor we knew about this and she said the guy was living like a teenager with no responsibilities. She counseled, “You need to tell him that he can only stay with you if he agrees to spend every week day looking for a job. Looking for a job needs to be his eight-hour-a-day job.” She continued, “If he is serious about getting his life back on track, he will readily accept these boundaries. If he only wants to live off you without responsibilities then he will manipulatively threaten to move out in hopes that you will beg him to stay.” So EJ went home and told the guy that he needed to look for a job starting that Monday. The guy threatened to move out, blah, blah, blah, everything the counselor had warned he would try. Forewarned, EJ did not allow himself to be manipulated and the guy moved out the next day.
I’ve also had other friends who were wounded and struggling. I have compassionately listened to them for hours, we have rearranged our schedules for them, and we did all we could to help them. But all they really did was moan about their problems, and they never changed anything, and when I couldn’t fill the empty places within them, they moved on to others who tried to support them…and then on to others. All my help and encouragement didn’t do much of anything for them.
I began to learn that although we can give encourage, advice, and support, we all really are responsible for running our own races. We can’t run others’ races for them. The guy who lived with us needed to take responsibility for his own life. We couldn’t support him for the rest of his life. Neither did we want a soup kitchen in our home. Our one friend needed to stop expecting people to financially and emotionally prop her up, and she needed to get a job, get out on her own, and provide for her children even though that was hard. She’s hurting herself by not reaching for independence. My other friend needed to stop focusing only on her own emotional wounds. She needed to begin the hard work of healing and to reach out in compassion toward others. These people are all emotionally crippled and living miserable lives because they wanted to be carried by others.
At the same time, I always try to keep in mind that no one can carry me either. Yes, I have gone through some difficult things in my life, and, yes, I sometimes need the support of friends, but it’s my responsibility to face problems courageously and with faith, to overcome difficulties, and to reach for growth and healing. No one can do this for me.
I can’t carry others through life and they can’t carry me. We can advise and encourage each other, but in the end, we each must run our own races. We each run alone together.
That is what I learned from Flanagan’s Run.