Each time I am at the start line of a running race, I feel a twinge of nervousness that lets me know my competitive edge, although softened a bit, has not completely disappeared. This feeling reminds me of where I came from and where I want to be. I share my story in hopes it will offer someone else a chance to let go and live in 2014.
It was a family-friendly 5K race that meandered through the streets of a beautiful Midwestern neighborhood. It was a crisp, 42-degree fall morning, which made for perfect running weather. Beams of sunlight illuminated the frost-coated grass, causing the ground to shine like a field of diamonds.
After a short sprint at the start of the race, my husband and I slowed to a comfortable, steady pace. For a brief moment the wind picked up, and I regretted not wearing gloves. But after bending my frigid fingers a few times, and taking in a long, deep breath, a warmth that could only come from gratitude spread throughout my body.
About a mile into the race, I noticed a small competitor, (around age six or seven), eyeing me. With David Beckham hair, big brown eyes, and slick athletic pants swishing at a high speed, I couldn't help but smile. Although he was approximately five strides ahead of me, he would periodically look back to see where I was. At one point, he slowed long enough that we ran side by side. I feared he was growing tired, so I offered an encouraging word.
Either the child was truly encouraged or he simply wanted to get away from the overly friendly lady in the turquoise cap; he suddenly burst ahead.
The child's temporary acceleration was short-lived, and I quickly found myself running along side him again. I threw out another compliment and told him how close he was to finishing.
As we neared the end of the race, I could see and hear my children and young nephew cheering from the street corner. Not only did they share the same hair color, but they also shared the same disheveled look from a too-early departure time. As they stood in the morning sunshine, their inherent beauty seemed more pronounced in this natural state.
Oblivious to the many runners who had passed before me, my younger daughter called out, "Are you winning, Mama?"
As my feet hit the pavement in a rhythmic beat, I considered her question.
If she meant was I noticing the beauty of the sunrise . . .
If she meant was I enjoying running alongside my love of sixteen years and exchanging fist bumps every now then . . .
If she meant was I encouraging a small child with a determined heart and legs that never ceased to tire . . .
If she meant was I swallowing delicious gulps of fresh air, feeling grateful to be alive . . .
If she meant was I seeing the world as if everything is a divine miracle . . .
Then yes, my precious girl, your mama was winning.
But I must confess, I hadn't always regarded winning this way.
Like other well-intentioned members of our competitive society, I'd always had a firm definition of winning. It was setting a record time, capturing the blue ribbon, taking a first-place finish, being the "best." And I, like so many, was caught up in the extrinsic rewards and public accolades that went along with grand achievements.
Never will I forget the days when I thought tasks must be accomplished with perfect accuracy and efficiency or they might as well not be done at all.
Never will I forget when I pushed myself to 110-percent output level despite the fact I practically had to kill myself to do it.
Never will I forget how a whole day could be ruined when one little thing on my master plan went awry . . .
Never will I forget when school projects had to be flawless . . . when kitchen counters had to be spotless . . . when the pursuit to get "one more thing" accomplished was endless.
Sadly, I might still be living such an unattainable existence today had it not been for the impact this approach to life was having on my children.
You see, all that pressure to be perfect couldn't be contained inside my own life. It often had the tendency to spill out and contaminate my children's day, their perspective, their psyche, and their joyful little world.
When I realized the underlying message that my children were hearing, absorbing, and internalizing was, "You are not good enough," I prayed for the strength to change. Through God's grace, I started to let go; I began to let things be as they were and stopped trying to control everything. As I strived less for worldly views of success and more for biblical views of success, I found myself saying the following phrases to my children:
"It was just a mistake; it's okay."
"I'd like to hear what you think about it."
"I love to watch you play."
"I love the way you use your God-given gifts."
"I love the person you are—exactly as you are."
And now here they stand today, on a crowded street corner with messy bedheads and joyful smiles. They are kids who keep singing despite off-key notes. They wear mismatched socks and know how to disguise mistakes on their paper by transforming them into hearts. They are kids who shrug and say, "It doesn't have to be perfect," and "I did my best." They are kids who cheer their mom across the finish line, celebrating her moment of ordinary achievement.
Ah yes, ordinary achievement.
It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
I've decided it's my motto for 2014—and it's also available to you if you'd like to adopt it.
2014: The Year of Ordinary Achievement
Capturing a sunset with my eyes . . .
Reaching out a loving hand to someone who needs encouragement . . .
Coveting precious pockets of time to spend with the people I love . . .
Knowing the peace that comes from putting complete trust in God . . .
Expressing gratitude for life's simple joys like fresh air, belly laughs, and worn-out treads on running shoes . . .
Just think. If we were able to experience and savor these ordinary achievements, wouldn't life be rich?
Wouldn't our hearts be full?
Wouldn't our time be well-spent?
Wouldn't our inner doubts be silenced?
Let our self-worth be based not on a number on a scale but instead on the feeling of our body as it glides through the water.
Let our joy be created not by being in the highest reading group, but instead by the story within the pages of a book.
Let our success be based not on the number of games won in a season, but instead on the memories made and friendships created.
Let our beauty be determined not by our resemblance to a Photoshopped image, but instead by our courage to have our own personal style and unique flair.
Let our wealth be based not on how much we have but how much we give.
Now that would certainly be a year of living "hands free," wouldn't it? To experience joy in the ordinary moments of life that are really quite miraculous when you stop and really think about them.
After the race, I found my pint-sized competitor. He was sucking down a bottle of water while waiting for his family to finish.
I leaned in and said, "Thank you for keeping me going. You helped me finish that race today."
Although he tried to keep his grin to a minimum, he simply couldn't. And what I saw was the most beautiful smile I'd ever laid eyes on. This precious boy, who was missing four teeth, confirmed everything I have come to believe about grasping what really matters in life.
Happiness beats perfection every single time—if you just let go long enough to let God guide your feet and lift your eyes beyond the finish line.
Rachel Macy Stafford is a certified special education teacher with a Master's Degree in education and 10 years experience working with parents and children. In December 2010, this lifelong writer felt compelled to share her journey to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters by creating the blog Hands Free Mama. Using her God-given gifts as a writer, teacher, and encourager, Rachel provides readers with simple, non-intimidating, and motivating methods to let go of distraction and connect with their loved ones. Rachel lives in Alabama with her husband and two children, who inspire her daily. Rachel's newly released book, Hands Free Mama, is an inspirational guide to transforming a distracted life into one of meaningful connection.