When I was a teenager growing up in the Midwest of the United States, my father put up a poster on the wall in his study. There’s an image of a lone runner on a rural road. The road is deserted except for the runner. We see him from behind, so that we share his view of the landscape. The road winds, climbs and dips all the way to the horizon, where it disappears over a hill.
The caption reads “There is no finish line.”
There are now many years between my teenage self and my current self, but the image and that phrase have stayed with me over all those years. And I’ve found that it’s provided some rich reflections on how we make our way through life.
As a reasonably ambitious young man looking for guidance, I suppose I was drawn to what the poster implied would be serious and important life lessons. Your journey will often be challenging. Persistence is important. Be patient. You will sometimes feel like you can rely only on yourself.
As the years went by and from time to time I thought about the poster again, I found that my focus was broader and the message I took from it a bit less Spartan. I realized that my teenage eyes had failed to appreciate the beauty of the runner’s surroundings. The landscape was green, the sun was shining. A few puddles on the road made it look as though the air might have recently been cleared by a good hard rain. With or without the runner, the picture was of a pleasant landscape on a beautiful day.
Yes, the road we travel in life rewards effort and persistence, I found myself thinking, but don’t lose sight of the fact that while some parts of the journey we’re travelling may be difficult, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things going on at the same time to enjoy along the way. Take it all in.
More recently I’ve found myself putting myself inside the runner’s head, wondering how he’s thinking about what he’s doing. While as a teenager I imagined that he would be experiencing dogged determination and possibly no little amount of fatigue, I now see that he might be experiencing the challenge more positively.
As difficult as each one of his steps might or might not be, every one of them represents progress. If there is no finish line, and his goal is “finish the race”, then he can’t ever win.
But what if as he’s running he perceives his goal to be “finish the next step”, or “make it to that next tree.” Now he’s defined a game he can win. And he can win it over and over again. Each goal achieved can be acknowledged as progress.
There may be no finish line. But that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate regularly on the journey.