I was at the gym recently and saw utter chaos in motion. Utter chaos.
A guy was flailing like mad on the treadmill. Watching him run was like watching one of those cartoon fights between Wile-E-Coyote and The Roadrunner. It was just a blur, with an occasional arm or leg exploding from the center. He was spraying sweat and slobber in every direction. Hacking. Wheezing. Grunting. Words like “BLONK”, “SQUONCH”, “GLURP” written in cartoon fonts hung in midair. Then he would stop briefly, stare at the treadmill screen, grimace, and start the whole thing over again. He is the sole reason they leave paper towels and bottles of cleanser in every nook and cranny of those fitness centers. Nearly had to sanitize the whole YMCA when he finished.
Worst of all? The guy was me.
That same evening I was flipping through the channels and ran across the show on TLC called “My Strange Addiction” that documents the stories of people who have, well, strange addictions. Things like eating household cleanser. Ingesting couch cushions. Lifting weights. Tanning. Speaking as a ventriloquist. Wearing full-size fur character suits. They do these things habitually. 24/7.
You know. Everyday, garden-variety stuff.
While watching, I recalled my nutty run on the treadmill and I said to myself,
“Hello. My name is Scott. And I’m an addict.”
Here’s the deal. True confessions time. I’m addicted to the number seven.
“The number seven?”
Yeah. The number seven. Strange, right?
The whole treadmill debacle was a product of this madness. A normal person at the gym sets goals for himself. Like, today I would like to run three miles on the treadmill in under 22 minutes. That’s me. I set that goal. The trouble is, I have to do that while keeping as many mathematical “7’s” on the treadmill screen as possible.
Here’s how it works. Calories are displayed as a three digit number and one decimal point. Time is displayed in minutes and seconds. Speed is displayed in miles per hour with one decimal point. Distance is shown in miles with two decimal points. So, before I can stop running, each of these fields must either contain a seven, a combination of numbers that add up to seven, or multiples of seven… you get the picture.
So, for speed, 7.7 and 10.7 are particularly satisfying. I can also run 8.7 miles per hour (‘cuz it has a seven), or 8.6 miles per hour (8+6=14 14 is a multiple of seven) but not 8.5, because the brain power it would take to make those two numbers equal seven would make my head explode.
Much like yours is doing right now.
Now imagine the chaos on the treadmill. I am exhausted, slobbering, sweating, and flailing. All the while, I’m trying to add, subtract, multiply and divide my way to a justified stop. All too often, I’ll think I have found nirvana and quickly smash down on the “Stop” button, only to find that while I was watching the time field click down to 1:43 (4+3=7 7x1=7), my mileage ticked from 3.52 (5+2=7 7X3=21) to 3.53 (an unthinkable number, really). So… I gotta’ keep running.
It’s now to the point of laughable. Every time I drink from a water fountain, I must take seven gulps, no matter how thirsty I am, even if it makes me gag. Listening to the radio in the car, it’s OK to turn the volume up to 14, but never 11 or 12. That’s probably why I like dogs, whose age is figured as human years multiplied by seven, and am allergic to cats.
Nine lives? That’s two more than they need.
So, watching “My Strange Addiction,” I was very interested when the nut cases like me finally met with a counselor. It was like I was in therapy. Free with the purchase of a basic cable subscription.
As each person hit the couch, the core problem was the same. Whether they were eating foam cushion inserts, or dressing like theme park mascots, they all had issues with control. They usually had some traumatic event in their lives, and this was a coping mechanism. The addiction gave them some sense of regularity and control, which reduced their anxiety.
For me, my life has been pretty easy. Heck, The Cosby Show had more controversy than my childhood. And it’s likely for that reason when the numbers don’t add up on the treadmill, I am still able to function. Though, that could all change if I’m asked to go to a Maroon 5 concert and sit in the 6th row listening to their amps all turned up to 11, all while drinking a 12-ounce V8 juice, sneezing, and petting a 4-year-old cat. Yikes!
Make it a 7-Up, por favor, and we’re all good.
But maybe it is about control for me? Who knows?
A couple of days ago, I called a fellow missionary that Gabby and I met a few years ago. He and his wife live just west of downtown L.A. with their two small kids. They serve a population of Guatemalan immigrants who are trying to make a better life for themselves here in the states. Their ministry is to simply live in the community, make connections, and bring hope where there is often despair and brokenness. They encourage vandals to stop tagging, and instead make art to sell for the benefit of their community. They visit the elderly and paralyzed gang members in some forgotten nursing homes in the inner city. Stuff like that.
The couple is essentially a very upgraded, deluxe version of Gabby and me, and the guy has a cool accent to boot.
The reason for my call was to learn more about their ministry, and to see how we might fit in. Since our mission year in Guatemala, Gabby and I have been looking for ways to stay in touch with folks living on the margins of our society. We figure taking off a month every other summer so our family can get immersed in service in another culture is a good way to do that. Maybe we could spend that time in L.A. with Alastair and Katherine as our guides on this journey?
The more Alastair talked about their work, the more excited I got. Reconnecting with our friends from Guatemala who have now made it to “El Norte”. Being present. Finding the divine in simple conversation. Or sharing a meal. Or singing a song.
And then I got scared.
“Alastair. I have to tell you something.”
“What is it, Scott.”
“Well. We live a pretty sheltered life here. Lots of creature comforts. I wake up at 5:34am (3+4=7 7X5=35) and go to the gym. Then I come home and get the kids ready while Gabby goes in for her workout. Then, I work out of the house while Gabby takes care of the kids. We go to McDonald’s, visit the park, check out a museum, go to church. Come home to our nice, safe house. Honestly, spending even four weeks away from our little cocoon sounds tough. I like my material stuff. It’s all very…
Then Alastair chimed in. “Hmmm. I may be hearing something different. I don’t hear you saying that you’re looking for material comfort. It sounds to me like you’re really looking for routine. There is comfort in routine. We know what to expect. It grounds us. Even when we’re living on God’s time.”
I was silent for a moment, and then commented, “I think you’re on to something.”
I remembered back to our time as missionaries in Guatemala. It was a foreign land. We were stepping out on faith. We went from living as DINKS (Dual Income No Kids) outside Austin, Texas, to sharing a humble home with a Mayan family of eight in a small mountain village. No indoor plumbing. Just a hole in the ground. No shower. Chickens running through the house. No real jobs.
And it was the most peaceful, expansive year of our lives. We built a routine. There was comfort in that. Our new normal. But most of all, there was comfort that we had given up control and were living on God’s time, letting go of ourselves, and playing by God’s rules.
So, maybe it’s time we try it again? Develop a new normal. One grounded in service and faith. Same concept. Different venue.
After all, Guatemala was seven years ago.