It Matters

In January of 2013, this happened: 

I was running the rural roads around my house—miles of pastoral thoroughfares that, over the course of a decade, I had run countless times before. The afternoon was evaporating; I had just enough time to snag a handful of miles before the already drowsy sun dematerialized with the darkness of a winter’s evening. It was also cold and I had neglected gloves and I was not in an agreeable mood. 

It had been a rough couple of days. Weeks, really. Okay, months, but I was trying not to get too cozy with the idea of long-term disgruntlement. Life, like running, occasionally launches a war of attrition, and some battles result in more casualties than others. In this particular campaign, inspiration and hope were among the losses. Frustration and futility served as a petri dish for apathy and cynicism, and my attitude suffered for it. 

And attitude, sooner or later, dictates action. 

I have a habit, when I run, of closing open mailboxes that I happen to pass. There’s something about the indiscriminate gaping of postal receptacles that rouses irrepressible neighborly obligation: I must close the open mailbox. Fallen tree limbs that pose a hard-to-see threat to motorists also prompt a moral duty. For as long as I’ve been running—every run, every day—I’ve been closing mailboxes and dragging tree branches off the road. It’s just one of those things. 

Until that day in January. 

As I mentioned before, I wasn’t at my most pleasant. I was upset. I felt acutely aware of futility—my efforts were futile, my optimism was futile, everything was futile. In other words, I was swimming laps in pool of self-pity. 

And then I ran by a mailbox. 

It was open. 

I looked at it. 

I stared at it. 

I kept running. 

For the first time in my life, I didn’t stop to close it. 

I felt vaguely self-triumphant as I ran past the yawning mailbox, as if indifference somehow signified a measure of control. 

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it, but be sure to take it back to its owner. 

I heard the words in my head as clearly as though someone were speaking to me. I mean, it’s not exactly a catchy lyric, something that lodges itself in your brain like, say, the theme song to The Brady Bunch

It was, however, a portion of the Torah my friend and I had been studying. 

My friend Michelle and I used to meet every Friday at 6 a.m. for Torah study. Over coffee and copious notes, we’d discuss the week’s passage and practice our rudimentary Hebrew. This particular verse was from Deuteronomy 22. In context, it reads   

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it, but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it. 

This is what came to mind as I passed the mailbox. 

You can’t go around closing every mailbox, I reasoned, justifying my inaction. It’s impractical. It’s not your job. And, honestly, it doesn’t matter. 

I kept running. 

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it, but be sure to take it back to its owner, the voice said. 

I turned down a street I had run a thousand times before—easily. It is approximately two miles out and back, and it’s flat, so the allure of the route is obvious. Just before I hit the turnaround point, I passed a large branch that had fallen and was leaching into the road. The branch was hard to see—especially in the dusk—and was substantial enough to cause minor damage to a vehicle. 

Round Two. 

I saw it. 

I ran by it. 

I did nothing. 

It’s barely in the road, I thought. The chances are slim that anyone is going to hit it. 

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it, but be sure to take it back to its owner, the voice said. 

No! I can’t move every branch that falls in the road. Especially out here, I argued. I’d never be able to get in a solid mile!  

Because the road was an out-and-back, I got to pass the branch twice. The voice, again, spoke.

By this time, I was irritated. I blasted my music to drown out the voice and kept moving forward. I wanted the run to be over. Plus, it was getting darker. And colder. 

A half mile later, I sensed something—or someone—nearby. Instinctively, I slowed and looked around. My hand brushed against something soft. 

“Whaaa…?” I screamed, jumping back to discover an unknown companion. And then I stopped screaming, and I stood there—dumbstruck—mouth open as wide as the mailbox I had neglected to close. 

There, standing next to me, was a sheep. 

You guys, I have been running the roads around my house for over a decade. There are chickens. There are horses. There are dogs and cats and possums and deer. There are even a few buffalo. But not once have I ever spotted a single sheep. Not. Once. 

For a solid sixty seconds I stared at my fluffy escort, incredulous. She stared back. (I’m guessing with the he/she thing.) I didn’t know what to do. 

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it, but be sure to take it back to its owner. 

This was not a metaphor.  

How am I supposed to return this sheep? I remonstrated (still). I don’t have any kind of… leash. I’ve never seen her before. I don’t know where she lives. Maybe she’ll just go home if I just keep running… 

I figured if I didn’t pay any attention to her—if I pretended she wasn’t there—she would go away. I started running again. She kept up. After running over a quarter of a mile with the sheep by my side, I knew what I had to do. I stopped and turned around. 

I had to take her back to her owner.  

In suburbia, homes are slathered across the landscape in a healthy layer; in the country, they’re spread pretty thin. Traveling door to door with my wooly friend would not be a quick errand. 

But she didn’t mind. Up and down meandering driveways we ran, side by side, as I knocked on a series of front doors and inquired, “Excuse me, are you, by chance, missing a sheep?” 

Finally, after nearly two miles of unsuccessful queries, a woman—whom, I inferred from the aroma wafting from the kitchen, I had interrupted in the process of cooking a pot of stew—offered a glimmer of hope: 

“Do you see that gravel road down that way—” she pointed toward the end of the street—“there’s a house about a half mile down that road. I think they have a sheep.” 

The sheep and I headed in the direction of the gravel driveway. By this time, it was quite dark, and I was growing wary of further exploration. But soon enough, the sheep began to recognize where she was. Just as the roof of a small farmhouse came into view, the sheep took off for familiar pastures. She was home. 

When I finally arrived back at my house, I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. I had been given a message. A very literal message. 

Did that really just happen? 

C.S. Lewis said that we have to be constantly reminded of what we believe. We will all be faced with challenges, at one point or another, situations that test our convictions—in relationships, in society, at work, in matters of principle or ethics, in commitments to ourselves and to others, in faith, among friends, and even at home. And when these challenges last longer than expected, we can easily become discouraged and disheartened. We can easily begin to feel as though our efforts are futile. That our actions don’t matter. That this thing or that thing will happen anyway. 

Resist that feeling.

If we say we believe in something, our actions should reflect that belief. We need to follow through with our convictions, even when it's inconvenient. Or uncomfortable. Or when we think no one is looking. Because in the end, what we believe is determined not by what we say, but by what we do. In small matters. In big matters.  

It matters.


Amy L. Marxkors

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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