Henry Brown '23
“Stride out,” yells Coach Ehrenhaft as I emerge onto the clearing. I’ve just completed hill loop number five at Tregaron Park, my eyes are blinded with sweat, and I’m just about ready to collapse. Yet, a voice inside my head urges me on, “Henry, you can complete one more lap. Hill workouts are the most important part of cross country.”
But are they? Pushing through pain instills a persistent mentality, one might reason. But maybe it’s the long-easies we do every Sunday to build our aerobic capacity. Or perhaps it’s the cultivation of comradery, of positivity, and of tenacity on the team. For decades, the STA cross country program has shown that a combination of these factors—hard work and a supportive team—is what leads to success. But neither of these would be possible without the grounding of something even more vital to participation in this sport: the shoes you run with.
Let’s go back to the summer before my Freshman year. When I stepped on the bus that would take the team to our camp in Vermont, my main concern was the sheer volume of running I would have to endure over the next few days. Whether intentionally or not, I had “procrastinated” my training over the summer and was pretty unprepared for the respective 6 AM and 4 PM runs each day. Pressure may make diamonds when it comes to school work, but certainly not for cross country.
But as I soon learned, running would actually not be the greatest challenge that week. Anyone who has traveled up to Camp Abnaki would tell you that Coach Ehrenhaft’s cabin inspection is the most rigorous procedure known to humankind. If your bag is not fully zipped, one point off. If there’s a single wrinkle in your sheets, two points off. We once got points off because someone left a blade of grass on the floor.
Knowing this, my cabin mates and I cleaned our cabin to perfection. We tucked in our sheets, straightened the clothesline, and even created a playlist with both Gregorian Chants and Bruce Springsteen to appease “Judge Ehrenhaft’s” music tastes. When Coach finally did arrive, everything seemed to be going perfectly—until he discovered that my running shoes, tucked neatly under my bed, were still tied. I was shocked. How could I, normally an organized person, cost my cabin a perfect score?
You see, in cross country, it is absolutely vital that you untie your running shoes before you take them off. Regardless of how tired or sore you are, kicking off your running shoes without undoing the laces can lead to disaster later in the season. Over time, the stress placed on the shoe’s inner structure by such an action essentially breaks down the shoe to a point where it cannot provide adequate support, leading to injury … or shin splints, every runner’s worst nightmare.
Upon realizing my error, I quickly adopted this habit and we miraculously achieved a perfect score later that week. And since then, I still untie my shoes a solid … 95% of the time.
Today’s reading offers a parable about how mustard seeds, which are just a millimeter in diameter, grow into massive plants and provide a sanctuary for birds and other types of wildlife. For me, the act of untying my shoes after a run is like the planting of a mustard seed. Such a small, seemingly inconsequential act can ultimately play more of a role in shaping your season than hill workouts or team support. Shoes often determine how your muscles build strength and how your cardiovascular endurance develops. And a shoe-induced injury may take you off the trail for the entire season. Never underestimate the role of the shoe.
Throughout our lives, even on a daily basis, we face challenges. These can be big, such as an approaching final exam or a conference championship, or they may be small, like a tough lunch table question. Regardless of their size, challenges occupy our thoughts, they govern our actions, and they determine our emotions. But too often in our pursuit of accomplishing these feats, we abandon the “little actions,” as I call them, like untying your shoes, that can actually be more consequential in the long term. Take schoolwork, for example. In my life, I’m quick to run upstairs the moment I get home so I can get started on my homework. Over my time at St. Albans, though, I’ve realized how little time I actually spend with my parents on weekdays. When they get home, I may say hello, but I rarely spend more than a few minutes with them. I, as well as everyone else, play a zero-sum game with time in my life. There’s no shame in focusing on the big challenges that face us. Parents seem like they will always be there, and not dedicating even fifteen minutes at the dinner table can seem like a low cost if school is getting really tough. But recently I read a statistic that opened my eyes—when we turn 18, we’ve already spent ninety percent of the time we will ever spend with our parents. Ninety percent of the memories have already been made, ninety percent of the stories have already been shared. … You can say the same of friends as well—once you graduate, apart from at reunions, how many of your classmates will you regularly see again? Five? Ten? We call ourselves a brotherhood. But are we truly brothers when, all too often, we are blind to each other? When, all too often, we fail to appreciate the stories of those who sit beside us? When, all too often, we say “Oh well, there’s always tomorrow.” And the days pass by, and soon enough, … tomorrow itself begins to slip away.
Now is the time; today is the day to sacrifice just fifteen minutes of studying to spend time with your parents or truly listen to your brethren. The bond you possess will be stronger for it. And you certainly won’t regret not studying fifteen extra minutes.
When I think of “little actions,” as I’ve been calling them, an Ernest Hemingway quote comes to mind which Mr. Robinson has used in the past. The quote reads, “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.” Twenty years from now, you may not remember anything that happened today. But your life will be unique because of the “little actions” you took today.
I used to find it difficult to grapple with how easy it is to forget entire days. You may remember really important events in your life—from family weddings, to performances, to the birth of a cousin. And you may remember what was for lunch last week. But I’ve lived over six thousand days on this planet. How many of these do I have no memory of? Returning to the mustard seed parable, if nobody knows who sowed the seed, who will the birds thank for the home in which they reside?
Over the years, I’ve tried to come up with solutions to this dilemma. I’ve dedicated several notebooks to recording one fact about each day, but have given up after two weeks. I’ve tried to take photos of mundane events, but it’s too much work and kind of awkward. I’ve also tried to take what essentially are mental snapshots of events in my life, but have realized that, as hard as you try, one cannot conquer fading memories with memory. Little moments, “little actions” are inclined to slip out of our fingers, and not even the strongest of will can fully capture the memories that fade as we move forward in life.
I’ve grown to accept this natural ebb and flow of “little actions” from our memory. We aren’t supposed to remember every conversation. We aren’t supposed to remember every time we untie our shoes. There is often no one to thank for the blessings in our lives, … and that is the nature of the world. “Little actions” are meant to be little. Their repercussions are meant to reap the attention the action sowed, not the past action itself. So let the memories fade, and focus on today.
Untying your shoes is hard. Not physically—of course. You just pull a string. Finding the willpower to not kick off your shoes at the end of practice—that’s the real challenge. And so is finding the willpower to untangle the knot of past, present, and future that strangles how we lead our lives. Sometimes a double, even a triple knot stands in our way of listening to the stories our companions tell and truly savoring the moments we share. But untying that knot is our duty to friends, to family, and to ourselves.
As we look forward, we need to stay true to the “little actions” that govern our lives. They are powerful, they are broad reaching. But do not dwell upon the past… and leave no room for regret. We live for the present and the present alone.
Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
For more chapel talks from St. Albans students and faculty, be sure to check out Grace 2022-23 at the culmination of the school year.