One chilly fall day when I was in the fourth grade, I decided to run laps around the driveway. I had obsessed about it all the way home from the rear-facing bench-seat of Mrs. Miller’s Volvo station wagon. It was penance. I had eaten a really unhealthy lunch involving bacon cheeseburgers and deviled eggs. Even in the fourth grade, I knew I couldn’t eat like that without paying the piper one way or another.

It was a crisp, deep-yellow late afternoon. The brown-orange leaves crunch-crunch-crunched under the frantic and determined steps of my dirty white Keds. I hadn’t changed out of my school clothes – just tossed my backpack through the front door and went to work. Our driveway was tiny, and so I easily ran over one hundred laps, which were really more like small circles (think swimming laps in a hot tub with Jim Carrey). The sun dipped over the horizon early, leaving a grey tint in the air. Around and around, crunch-crunch-crunch. My lungs felt sharp from the cold. I took that to be a good sign that things were working as they should, burning fat and whatnot. Tomorrow I’d be skinny. Tomorrow I’d eat better. Tomorrow. Every now and again I glanced up to the kitchen window, in hopes that my mom had noticed.

As a burgeoning adult, I still don’t think I’ve fully exited this relentless rat-race of self-salvation.

It seems I always got 99 problems and (in a way) worse than the 99 problems are the 99 possible solutions to those problems. I’m talking about that devilish space between life as it is, and life as it “could be” (and allllll it would take to close that bitch-of-a-gap):

Lose weight = Avoid refined sugar, gluten, grains, and dairy; exercise, Google “miracle weight-loss hacks,” etc.

Get energized = Get better sleep (Benadryl, memory foam mattress, ambient noises, etc.).

Keep calm = Work harder to be happy and stop thinking all the bad thoughts (go to therapy, alter medications, exercise, snap rubber band on wrist, take warm Epsom salt bath, chug glass of ice cold water, dabble in essential oils, chew gum, practice deep tummy breathing, engage in “positive self-talk,” journal, eat Whole Foods, cut alcohol, cut caffeine, etc.).

Heal illness = Do all of the above with more diligence and, for goodness’ sake, stop eating all the cheese.

Be invaluable at workplace  = Work harder until I receive desired affirmation.

Win a Pulitzer = Work harder to be brilliant.

Be a better mother = Try harder, love better, teach son to pee standing up.

Be a better wife = Listen with intention, tap into that long-lost fun girl I used to be and, forthelove, clean something.

Be a better Christian = Yikes.

Get a larger apartment = Be more patient. 900 square feet is tight but cozy, yo.

After the starting gunshot I’m looking strong, like a she-warrior. I put out fires here, employ some positive self-talk there. I successfully cut dairy from my diet, and even make it to Tuesday night community group. My kids are (for once) not sick; I’m feeling good rounding the track, and my husband is sa-tis-fied.

SHE COULD-GO-ALL-THE-WAAAY.

But just a few legs in I’m starting to think I might not have what it takes. My lungs begin to tighten, my legs want to give way, the burden is too great, and that bar begins to look awfully, awfully high.

To quote Jeff Buckley or The Smiths,

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.

The tricky thing is that my problems or #goals (likely comparable to yours) are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. But each of these endpoints comes with a how-to manual as long as my leg, and I feel winded from the outset.

St. Paul imparts in Romans 7, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” So the real problem we’re facing is this: the myriad big and little laws that spew from these “good,” life-giving things have us all at once bound and still running, the stench of the grave growing increasingly rotten with each crunch-crunch-crunch of the lifeless leaves beneath our feet. Everything inside us is shackled and beholden to these ideals (read: idols), their successes and their failures. Circle after circle we try to fix what keeps breaking. We are tired, yet strangely unwilling and suspect of stepping off this everlasting loop. Who would we be without all our noble efforts?

Yet I know deep down there must be another way. Because all the striving, the trying, and the positive self-talk feel less like my salvation and more like the hands wielding the shovel that threatens to bury me.

It might sound ridiculous, but this line of thinking gives insight into people like tanking celebrities. I went to college in Malibu, California, so I have some basis of knowledge when it comes to famous people (basically I’m BFFs with all of them). One rainy Wednesday in December, I ran into town to grab coffee at my favorite haunt. Malibu was all but abandoned due to the poor weather. But as I scurried through the rain back to my car, I noticed a horde of paparazzi outside of the pet store across the parking lot. I walked over and tapped one of them on the shoulder, “Who’s in there?”

The man’s eyes glowed ablaze with the hysterical glint of a rabid hunter, fixated on the scent of his kill. “Britney, Britney,” he said in a harsh whisper.

Just a few moments later, Britney Spears emerged from the pet store dressed in ordinary civilian attire and carrying a small bag of dog food. She wore a hat and sunglasses even though it was dim and overcast. She looked to the ground as she walked. I felt sad for her. The poor girl needed some dog food and could hardly leave her house without a team of flashing shutters waiting to exploit the toilet paper stuck to her shoe, or the mascara smudge under her left eyelid. My roommates and I were planning to throw a Christmas party that evening. As Britney walked stoically past, I was overcome with the urge to invite her.

“Hey Brit, I know we don’t really know each other…although ‘Lucky’ really spoke to me in middle school…But maybe you’d like to have just a normal night out with normal people. My roommates and I are throwing a party tonight. You should totes drop by! Bring some dip.”

britney-spears3

But of course, I let her go. I said nothing. She slid coolly into the front seat of her black Range Rover and disappeared into the thick layer of winter rain and fog. It was just a year or so later when she became unglued, shaved her head, and had to be forcefully dispossessed from her own home and children. I can’t help but blame myself.

And I also can’t help but relate. When there’s a rigid mold to be fit – a finish line that moves further into the distance with each ragged step toward it – when you just can’t seem to make it work, you bend and you bend and you pray not to break.

If I knew then what I know now about Britney, I would have quietly popped into the passenger seat of her shiny SUV, closed the door, and before she could yell for help I’d tenderly rest my hand on her arm. I’d look her right in the eye and say something like this: “Britney, I am not a celebrity. But I understand what it’s like to be anxious and self-conscious every time you leave your home, as if you’re being followed…a government drone always lurking just around the corner. You feel surrounded, and yet thoroughly alone. I know what it’s like to feel like a disappointment, wanting to lip-sync your way through all the hard and ugly parts. I know what it is to have, and the despair that follows upon realizing your ravenous thirst for satisfaction has still not been sated. I forgive you for driving with your baby in your lap. And Britney, you don’t have to cry-cry-cry in your lonely heart anymore; what you’re looking for is not further down the road. You can bail on that course. If you want to kick off your heels and slum, I’ve got a group of goofy people coming over tonight to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. I’d be happy to collect their flip-phones as they come through the door, although I don’t think that will be necessary. There will be cocktails. You like cocktails! There will be food. Who doesn’t like food?! You could bring your dog. You could take off your sunglasses. And girl, you’ve got some toilet paper stuck to your shoe…”

The hero/savior-shaped molds that have us so enrapt and constantly on-the-strive, are forged by entities like our parents, our peers, our culture, even our churches. Like addicts – and, let’s be clear, we all fall somewhere on the addict spectrum – we’re stuck in a cycle, obsessed with finding control, freedom, and peace in places that (no matter how charitable they may seem) can never deliver. Like The Beatles sing, “I want to split now, I just can’t quit now, you’ve really got a hold on me.”

But the message of Christ crucified confirms another way…

Had I the ears to hear it, I wonder what God would have wanted to say to me, the fourth grader running laps in the driveway (and what would He say to me now, stuck rounding the turntable of early adulthood)? Would He have applauded my self-control? Perhaps cheered me on and counted laps with me? “Two hundred and two. Two hundred and three. Two hundred and four…YOU GO GIRL!” Maybe He would have marveled at my spiritual maturity: “Wow. She really does treat her body like it’s my temple!”

But I think I know what He’d say.

He’d tell me to stop running.

Stop running.

Stop running, Charlotte.