I am training for a run. I don’t think I can convey to you how completely odd those words look to me on paper. It is not in my nature to run. I rarely exercise and do not consider myself a person who says things like, “…as soon as I finish my run.” Or, “Aaron, will you please watch the kids for me so I can go run?” I feel like another person when they come out of my mouth. I should also say that it’s only a 5K run. Which, for most people, wouldn’t require training at all. For me, however, it has required quite a bit. This has given me time to think.
As I began my training, I asked myself: When was the last time I had run like this? The answer was high school. I was never an athlete and the only team that I could make in my large school was the cross-country ski team. When the season started and there wasn’t any snow to ski on, we had to run. I can vividly recall walking in one day and seeing these words on the chalk board, “ONE MILE RUN TODAY!!!” Beneath them, someone else had written “Run. Walk. Crawl. Puke. Death.” Now, using my keen deductive skills, I would say that the coach wrote the top portion and one of the kids wrote the bottom part.
We walked across the street to the track and began our run. It was my first year in skiing and I had never run a mile in my life. As I began, an unbidden soundtrack started in my head. The words ran in sync with each step. “Run. Walk. Crawl. Puke. Death. Run. Walk. Crawl. Puke. Death.” The same words over and over again. I could not get them out of my brain. Despite my attempts to quell them, they crept back into each and every thought that I had during my run that day. You, dear reader, can probably guess that it was a pretty miserable mile. It was.
We often hear about the power of words. They have the ability to change our thoughts, our lives, our attitudes, our beliefs and, evidently, our endurance capabilities. After that day, I believed that I was not a runner. Other people seemed like they could do it, but not me. It just wasn’t a part of my DNA. This belief stayed with me throughout my two years in cross-country skiing and into adulthood. It gave me a back door through which I could always slink out. When the rest of the team was starting out on a 5- or 6-mile run, I would stay in the back of the pack with a friend. We’d begin with them but sneak out as we ran past K-Mart and pop in to consume a bright red Slurpie at our leisure. Then, we would sneak back in with them at the end. Needless to say, my friend and I were never the shining stars on the team.
As I began training this year, the words did pop back into my brain during one of my first runs. I don’t know if it’s the wisdom of age or the fact that I just have more things to think about now, but I am able to block them out. I am actually finding that I can run. I do have some endurance and I can hit a bit of stride. These are revelations to me! I truly feel like I have left those words and the negative associations that they brought with them behind. I’m not ready to say that I enjoy running, but I am ready to say that I can do it. This whole process has been very empowering for me.
It has also scared me a bit. I can guarantee that the teammate who wrote them was just trying to be funny. I am certain he or she was not thinking that those words would be etched in my brain all of these years later. But what if that person had written something about how easy it was to run a mile? Would that have changed my entire experience? I have started to wonder about some of the words I use as a parent. It has been a vivid reminder to me that what we say at any time could really have an effect on our children (not to mention the other people in our lives). As a mother, I have tried to use words and phrases that do not limit my kids or put them in a box. I try to speak about things as though they are always possible — their worlds are very open and limitless, and I try to allow them to find their own way.
But if I’m honest I’ll admit that I am like that on a good day. On a bad day, do my kids hear the little aside I might add out of frustration? On a bad day, did I say something about a teacher or my husband that might begin to shade the way they see the world? Did they hear me make a comment about their skills, strengths or weaknesses that will have a negative influence on how they see themselves? I am certain that I have. If I am honest, I must realize that it has happened.
I will use this realization and this training as a reminder to myself to always recall the power of what I say. The words that I use are shaping their lives and I want to do my best to make sure that their futures remain as open and full of wonder as possible for as long as possible. I do not want to wall them in or define their strengths and weaknesses for them. My training for this race has reminded me of the influence words can have on all of us. I promise to redouble my efforts to give my sons words that create instead of words that restrict. I am grateful that this race has already given me the gift of that insight.
Stephanie Olson is a mother of two boys who lives and writes in Seattle. She believes her golden rule in parenting, “Just wipe it off on your pants!” will be her epitaph someday. It has gotten us through pretty well thus far. Read more of Stephanie's work on her blog, Ma Swell Vie.