I had just crossed the seven-mile-marker. Ahead of me was a woman wearing a t-shirt with two pieces of thin cardboard taped to her back. The first spelled out the words, “For Dad.” And, the second said, “I miss you”
“Wow,” I thought as the pack rounded a corner. “Touching.”
I looked at the course ahead of me, and the people. A steep hill was approaching—so steep that it was forcing nearly half of runners to walk.
This race was just another in a string where I had skimped on training. I had no business running 26.2 miles that day. And, as I looked around me, I wasn’t the only runner who probably shouldn’t have been pushing the boundaries of excruciating pain.
“For Dad,” I thought, noticing the girl slow as she approached the hill. And then I thought, “I can run this—no matter how steep it is.”
Step after slow step, I dragged myself up that hill, passing the girl and numerous other walkers along the way. And, when I got to the top, my pride swelled. At least for a second I puffed up my chest. I glowed in victory…
And then, pain enveloped my body. Sweat gushed from my pores. My feet felt heavy. My lungs felt deflated. My stomach was turning. And, a split second before I thought I would topple over in agony, the girl in the shirt pranced by. “I miss you,” I thought, watching her seem to float ahead. “Touching.”
Okay, so beside the fact that my strategy and ego were flawed—allowing myself to exert all my energy to sprint up a hill—I still couldn’t help but wonder if that girl was being powered by words. “Apparently, if you tape some words to your back then you can power on through,” I thought. “Can words do that?”
Pondering that question carried me another mile, and one more after that. Pondering that question, I slugged my way through the hot sun. I pushed through a cramp in right calf muscle. And, I winced through a few more hills.
Now, at mile 17, I had pondered this question up-side-down and inside-out. Yet, I still hadn’t found an answer. “Can simple words power a person through pain?”
That’s when I noticed the girl again. She was noticeably slower in her pace. Her left shoulder seemed to hunch as if she was experiencing pain. I was gaining on her quickly—watching those pieces of cardboard and wondering just how much impact a few simple words can have on the human psyche.
The wind had picked up—blowing in from over the Pacific Ocean. And, it had decided to catch the corner of of one of the pieces of cardboard—the one that read, “For Dad.”
Flittering through the sky the cardboard twisted and twirled. It then floated gracefully as it neared the ground—rocking peacefully before it finally landed on the pavement. A few runners ran past the face-down piece of cardboard. But, as I approached, I knew I had to pick it up. I knew there was more to the story. I knew that the words—without context—weren’t quite as meaningful. And, they surely weren’t as powerful.
I stopped when I reached the cardboard. I picked it up, and then picked up my pace to catch the girl. Suddenly, I carried those words. They didn’t mean anything to me. I had no connection to the story behind her words. And, I wondered if I was now making another big mistake by exerting so much energy—for a girl I didn’t know, and a dad I would never meet.
The thumping of my feet grew louder. The panting from my chest grew stronger. And, as I inched up beside the girl, I simply stuck out my hand to return those words, “For Dad.”
The girl seemed confused at first. She hesitated for second before she realized that it was her cardboard. They were her words. It was her dad.
Without saying anything, the girl reached for the cardboard. She quickly held that cardboard piece over her heart. She smiled at me, and then turned her face in the opposite direction as tears welled in her eyes.
I picked up my pace and ran on.
It may be a simple word like “For.” It may be a simple word like “Dad.” But when we stop to consider all the meanings behind those words—all the delicate emotions that would describe this girl’s intention in the word “For,” and all those definitions and meanings encompassed by the word “Dad”—we realize something bigger.
What may be just words—written on cardboard, spoken in passing, or planned for a next encounter—are a foundational piece this thing we call mankind. We are a linguistic species—where all words have meanings. They can lift people up, put people down, start wars, build friendships, initiate love, and segregate nations. Words can gain power, take power, build and crumble societies. They can entertain us, motivate us, stop us in our tracks, and change our behavior. Words frame our reputations, connect our relationships, define our past and establish our goals for the future.
And, just like the girl in the marathon, we all carry our words with us. Sometimes they get flung out into the wind. And, that’s when we hope that whomever picks them up will understand that in those words—whatever they may be—is a greater context.
They are just simple words. But they are you. Use them wisely.