How to Keep Going When You Can’t See the Finish Line
COVID is not a marathon or a sprint. What are we running, exactly?
We’ve just made it out of January, and already I find myself feeling a bit exhausted. Against my better judgement, I look back and see that I was somewhere between expecting and hoping against hope that the woes of 2020, from pandemic to political strife and all that lies in between, was going to evaporate when the clock struck midnight on January 1.
One of the phrases I have heard repeated so many times since COVID-19 began is that “it is a marathon, not a sprint.” And it is true, that pacing ourselves has been crucial and endurance is necessary to keep running the road ahead of us.
But this does not feel like a marathon or a sprint. A sprint is a dash, running hard for a short time. A marathon is a test of endurance for 26.2 miles (let me be clear, that is a very long time to keep running). However, both of these races have clear goals with defined milestones. There are even markers along the way to let you know how far you have come, how close you are to crossing a brightly painted finish line. The pandemic has given us no such clear signs of progress, no such certainty. The vaccine has brought a light at the end of the tunnel, but it is still hard to tell exactly how far away that end of the tunnel is from where we are now.
Setting milestones is a strategy for coping. Especially in the first few months, to function with the chaos of COVID I found myself setting these mile markers in my own mind. If I could just make it to ______, everything would be okay. The end of the month. The end of the academic year. The end of the summer. Surely the race will be over by then, right?
Last March, I was wondering if my travel plans for April would be able to move forward as planned.
Several weeks later, I was wondering how we could possibly imagine a remote graduation for our students.
Several weeks after that, I found myself wondering if my town would still have fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Soon after that, I was wondering if our school would open in person in the fall.
A little further down the road, I was wondering if the 2021 would bring the normalcy I was hoping for.
The problem with these milestones is that they are entirely constructed by our own optimism (or lack thereof). And when we realize that our "finish line" is actually just another bend in the road, we can grow disappointed, jaded and frustrated. It can be hard to keep running on a seemingly endless path.
When we can't see the finish line, when we don't even know that there is a finish line, what gives us the strength to keep running?
And it's not just COVID. Working at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, so many of the crises we are stepping into are seemingly endless races: human trafficking, refugee crises, unjust systems, hunger, climate change. These are races we may not see the end of, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what progress we’re making (if any at all). When we can't see the finish line, when we don't even know that there is a finish line, what gives us the strength to keep running?
Making our happiness, satisfaction, work ethic or motivation conditional on crossing the finish line will set us up for disappointment.
Perhaps we need to learn and train better.
We learn to stop and take a breath when we need to.
We learn to enjoy the company of those alongside us.
When we are hitting the wall and we can't see that we are even moving forward, Christ and community can be the things that sustain us.
This is not a marathon or a sprint. But let's keep running together, and see what hope and beauty and joy can be found on the path.
It is easier than ever to stay on the sidelines of community. Staying at home gives us an easy excuse for staying out of touch. It is easier than ever to simply “attend” church (virtually or in person) as a spectator, and easier still to skip altogether. But not only is it important for us to keep showing up, we also must find ways to invest in the Body. “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25) is an often quoted verse, but it then continues: “...encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We need to keep showing up andalso actively find ways to encourage each other as the road grows long and our legs grow tired.
This is not a marathon or a sprint. But let's keep running together, and see what hope and beauty and joy can be found on the path. Even if we don’t yet know where the finish line is, we can hold signs for each other, cheering one another on along the way.
Samantha Ervin is the Associate Director of Training & Education at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. She earned a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College ('19) and M.S. Management ('17) / B.S. Social Entrepreneurship ('16) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.