As I work to reclaim my own, I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies and their appropriation for others’ use and abuse.
Ever have a moment when two seemingly independent activities in your life crash into each other with such force that it nearly brings you to your knees?
My wonderful friend Ben invited me to help him coach a middle school running club on Friday afternoons. I happily agreed, thinking this would be a great time for some good money.
My first time coaching, Ben couldn’t make it. I pulled on my Nikes and headed down Broadway toward the Great Hill in Central Park. It was sprinkling and for twenty minutes I reflected on my time spent in athletics and what I wanted to bring to my first coaching role.
Running sixth grade intramural track was one of the more humiliating experiences of my childhood. By far the slowest on the team, I always came in last during our mile runs and 100-meter dashes. My mom didn’t let me quit much as a kid, but I was so mortified she let me bag it after the first week.
After a tremendous growth spurt my limbs started working a little better, and I played high school and college athletics. These endeavors were always about the team, always about what the coach wanted from me, always about the fans in the crowd, never really actually about me, even though the experiences were often gratifying.
That’s not to say that team sports aren’t about teamwork and competition, but I realized that often I had been pushed to the point of injury, that no one bothered to teach me how to check in with my body, that drinking water out of turn was considered weak. My body wasn’t my own. This type of coaching led to needing a major foot surgery, a horrific ankle injury, and bouts of dehydration that sent me to the hospital. What troubles me is I sensed my body was being pushed too hard, but no one invited me or taught me how to be fully present to what was happening. The message I got when I tried to speak up was always “Suck it up, kid.”
On that walk to Central Park I realized many of the dysfunctional messages I received about my own agency over my own body came from my experiences in athletics. In athletics, saying “no” was tantamount to getting benched or cut from the team. Claiming my agency was unacceptable—my body and health suffered because of it.
It would be different this time. I wanted to make sure if these kids got any message from me whatsoever it would be that their bodies are their own and that they are entitled to taking care of them. There would be an invitation to push themselves as hard as they felt was healthy.
We talked about setting intentions for practice, about self-affirmations and about affirming their teammates in non-competitive ways. We ran drills that focused on form and everyone ran for the same amount of time, no matter how much distance we could cover in order to focus on doing our best and not coming in first or last. I coached each of them based on the intentions they set: to stay positive, to focus on form, to pace oneself, to get fit.
The following week, when I asked the team to set their intentions for our practice, the most pubescent of the boys said, “I want to stay in touch with my body during this practice.”
I nearly crumpled to my knees and wept. What would the world be like if every child were taught to be so conscious of the radical notion that everyone should have full agency over oneself?
Embedded in this notion is that one also cannot own anyone else.
How would my life have been altered if people—men, parents, coaches—did not behave as though they had agency over my body?
It took one hour to teach and coach five children to embody this simple lesson.
I’m learning that one of the most exciting prospects of ministry is this: the opportunities to teach and learn about love of self and other are everywhere—and yet they still catch you totally, breathlessly by surprise. I never thought that I would find an access point to healing our [rape, racist, etc.] culture in coaching a middle school running club. I could feel my own healing and the world’s healing in the sense of deep self-respect I saw sink into that child’s eyes. For the first time, I felt like a minister. And I am so grateful.