I saw two men running at the beach the other morning. The one in the lead was older, wearing a colorful Gilligan-style fisherman’s cap, sunglasses and bright orange shorts. His white t-shirt was soaked with sweat and South Carolina humidity and he was pushing a three-wheeled stroller while he ran. He looked to be mid- to late 60’s and he seemed to have enjoyed every one of those years. He was not overweight, but he hadn’t missed very many meals either. He smiled as he ran and while I couldn’t see, I’m sure that the occupant of the stroller was smiling, too.
A younger man, shirtless and in black shorts ran behind him. The younger man was fit and in his prime. I remember one day that I was fit and in my prime. The next day puberty started and it all went downhill from there.
I saw them far down the beach, well before they crossed in front of us. I had been reading and came to a paragraph in my book that needed reflection. The book was closed on my lap and the author’s thoughts were floating in my mind as I glanced up and down the beach.
First, I saw the stroller, moving faster than most strollers move and then, to my eyes, it was a tie between the neon orange shorts and the bizarre colored Gilligan hat. He was still too far away to see his smile and the sunglasses. The whole thing was just strange enough that I kept watching. He was nodding to some people and waving at others. Joy is obviously contagious, but the thing that I kept thinking was “When I run, I can barely breathe.”
It wasn’t until they were closer that I noticed the younger man. And the first thought through my head was “Why is he running behind the guy pushing the stroller? Just get out in front of him and pass him…” (Yes, not only do I people-watch, occasionally I people-critique, too…)
The younger man could have quite easily outrun the one pushing the stroller. The younger man could have run twice the distance in half the time on his own. Yet he just followed.
It took a few more seconds to realize they were talking to each other, and then I understood that there was a relationship between these two runners. I don’t know if it was father and son, the age gap seemed a bit wider than usual, but who knows. I don’t know how well they knew each other, but it was clear that they did.
If I can make yet another casual observation, the man in front was worth following. Exercise was important, but so was family and service. Unless he had stolen an occupied stroller, that is. He was safe and confident in his own skin. Because nobody wears neon orange shorts to blend in anywhere other than on a highlighter safari. If the shorts wouldn’t turn a head here and there, his hat was unique enough to do it, too. He values people, even strangers, enough to acknowledge them along the way.
The younger man may very well have done better for his body by running on ahead, but I am convinced that he could do no better for his soul. To follow someone worth following is both a choice and a gift. Not all who lead are leaders.
I am grateful for the unique leaders, safe and confident in their own skin, that I have known. I am grateful for Curtis Britcher and Jerry Horne. I am grateful for my own father and his unfortunately massive collection of bizarre fishing hats. I am grateful for my mother, who enables my father’s uniqueness and hat collecting. I am grateful for Mr. McGeehan, history teacher and mayor-extraordinaire. I am grateful for my aunt Tamara and Mrs. Archer and Dr. Jay Martinson and for so many others who I have been fortunate enough, and wise enough, to follow and learn from.
And as I continue on my path, my prayer and hope is that I, too, can be like the man who ran in front. To those who run behind and beside me, I hope we make the most of opportunities to serve others. I hope that I can live into my own uniqueness with confidence. I hope that I can value those that I encounter along the way, even if it’s only with a smile, a nod, or a wave.
But first, I hope that I can figure out how to breathe and wave at people while I run.