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Finding Fulfillment After False Starts

November 19, 2013 By:
Joseph Kemp, Inside Magazine Feature
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Crossing the finish line of my first half-marathon in September, I almost couldn’t believe the time on the race clock. A half-hour later, my aching feet took me across the cool grass to see, in official black and white, that I had indeed finished 47th out of 141 runners, with an 8:15 per mile average. 

Had someone told me in January that I’d be not only running 13.1 miles in a row, but finishing respectably in a race of that distance, I’d have laughed at them from the comfort of my sofa, knowing for sure that it would never happen.

This unexpected success got me wondering: What does it take to not just discover a new passion, but to follow it and nurture it, no matter where it may lead or the difficulties encountered along the way?

In training

Two years ago in these pages, I wrote about the difficulties of getting in shape as a fairly sedentary 40-something. I’d tried many times before to become a runner, but I never lasted. I figured that if I wrote about the experience, I would stay with it at least long enough to finish the story.

My friend Roger had been running “barefoot style” for a couple of years and loved it. I tried it and, by the end of three months, the barefoot running style seemed to take hold, and I was running three miles on a regular basis. Then I got a summer cold that lasted a month, and that was the end of that. The next spring, I gave it another try. Running with a co-worker at lunch helped me get up to four miles. Then? Busy. Tired. My co-worker developed a nagging injury. And that was that.

If I continued to add a mile every year, I would be ready to run a marathon by the time I turned 72. Slow and steady, indeed. But that’s no way to get to the finish line, is it?

The Marathoner

Gene Hoffman knows a thing or two about getting to the finish line, no matter how long it takes. The former longtime long-distance runner from Maplewood, N.J., recently completed his online master’s degree in Jewish studies at Gratz College. Since he spent most of his adult life in formal and informal religious study, Hoffman’s achievement was not so surprising.

What was surprising: he got the degree at age 84, 10 years after starting at Gratz and almost 20 years after adding a bachelor’s degree to two associate’s degrees that he had earned by the early 1950s. In all, Hoffman’s college career has spanned seven decades, and he has matriculated at seven colleges.

Hoffman developed his slow-twitch passion for religious study during long-distance training runs throughout the 1970s and ’80s. “I had lots of time to think about stuff,” he said. “I thought about religion — about different religions and why we’re not all one religion.” While not particularly observant in those days, Hoffman was involved in numerous Jewish organizations. He donated books to Jewish Community Centers and, after a time, decided he should probably start reading some of them. “I found out what I didn’t know, which was a lot!” he exclaimed as he explained how each book would lead to another.

Did he ever think he might not finish? “Lots of times,” Hoffman said. “Personal life always got in the way. I’d ask myself, ‘Why am I spending all of this time doing this?’ But I never quit. I just kept driving forward.”

After a successful career (he owned a BMW and Chevrolet dealership), he was bothered that he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. His interest in religion was the catalyst to reaching that goal. He received a BA in religious studies from Seton Hall, but he still felt he didn’t know enough about his own religion, which led to taking non-credit online classes at Gratz. Retirement made it easier to study, but Hoffman’s intellectual journey didn’t take him down a straight and narrow path.

The most salient point gleaned from his decades of study? That it’s vital for us to understand religion. “Religion is such a central force in the world,” he stated. “Nothing has affected people’s lives as much as religion — positively and negatively. Religion will always be a critical issue throughout the world, yet it remains one of the least understood.”

Hoffman has led a religion discussion group at his Florida condominium complex for years, and he finally feels like he has learned enough to be on equal footing with the other members. But that’s no reason to stop studying. He’s rereading the Bible from the beginning and has applied to Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership — he hopes to enter its doctor of science program in Jewish studies.

And Hoffman wants to pass the baton to those still burning to learn: He has underwritten four free online courses at the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers. Check them out atbildnercenter.rutgers.edu/online-studies.

The starting line

In February of this year, my running partner signed up for the Broad Street Run — 10 miles through the heart of the city. He convinced me to sign up. It was my wife’s opinion that I would surely drop dead by Mile 5 without some sort of training schedule and, oh yeah, a diet wouldn’t be such a bad idea, either. So she asked the Internet, and the Internet gave her Fitness magazine’s “Couch to Half Marathon” training schedule and a book titled The 17-Day Diet. I printed out the training schedule and read the book and followed both as closely as possible.

On May 5, I reached my goal (a 9:00/mile pace exactly) and happily finished in the top 13,000 of the race.

That printout turned out to be my Rosetta stone. The diet helped, but the training schedule seemed to solve the puzzle. Until this year, as soon as I started a run, my body would say, “You can stop any time, you know.” And we’d often agree that now would be a great time to stop. But at some point this year, the question became, “How far are we going to run today, buddy?”

There’s no single point in time where the mental roadblocks were removed, just as there’s no good reason why my exercise plans never lasted before. Running, biking, weightlifting always just … petered out. The body was willing, it seems, but the mind was weak.

Can it really be that easy to erase years of failure? Just that one piece of paper? It turns out that Occam’s razor gets cited all the time for a reason. Dr. Fish says so.

Training your brain

Dr. Joel Fish is the director of the Center for Sport Psychology (www.psychologyofsport.com) in Philadelphia and author of the book, 101 Ways To Be A Terrific Sports Parent. He works with athletes of all ages and skill levels: youth, amateur, college, Olympic and professional.

I told him that I was interested in finding out exactly why I succeeded this time, after failing so many times before. Fish started our conversation by turning the question around: Why did I think I was successful this time? The only differences were a concrete goal (running 10 miles in a race) and a concrete (or copy paper) plan to reach that goal. And this time, when I got to four miles, it was pretty easy — so five miles didn’t seem so hard. And that was halfway and I hadn’t died even once.

I was probably right, Fish told me. A piece of paper with the daily and weekly small goals was a great prescription for breaking down the ultimate goal into workable pieces.

And did he often see people finding success at a later age?

“All the time,” Fish said. “Maturity can give us perspective. We may realize that mistakes aren’t so important and we might be engaging in a sport for the right reasons — to be healthy, to take care of ourselves — not because we think we should, but because we want to. Maturity lessens the pressure, and that’s really, really important. As we get older, through maturity and experience, we know ourselves and know what our bodies can and can’t do. We may have more patience and a better sense of perspective.”

Fish explained the psychology of athletic success as having three parts:

• Step 1: Understanding one’s attitude about winning and losing — and of what constitutes success.

• Step 2: Identifying mental blocks. Common ones are fear of failure; fear of success; the fear of performing in front of someone else; and perfectionism.

• Step 3: Developing a mental game plan. Setting mini goals (and achieving mini successes); staying cool and being positive; relaxing and letting go of your mistakes; having the courage to face your fears; communicating with the individual who causes your anxiety and getting on the same page; if you’re a perfectionist, having multiple goals and defining your success in five or six pieces.

Since I had him on the line, I asked Fish if someone (say, a hypothetical artist with a few too many projects begun and far too many unfinished) could use the tools he picked up on the way to sports success in other areas of his hypothetical life. “You developed life skills,” he said, “not just athletic skills: confidence, dealing with pressure and interpersonal relationships — I encourage people to try to do something they never did before. Tweak the formula and maybe that changes the result. That’s why I love sports so much — it’s an arena for practicing life skills.”

Fish says that the psychology part of sport psychology is being mindful of the goals we achieved and using them to reinforce us for the next set of goals. It’s the mental blocks that make us stumble. Remove those, and the race is on.

Three miles farther

Roger and I started the half-marathon fast. In the beginning, we chatted with some fellow runners (mostly about the toe sneakers) and passed quite a few. It was a beautiful, late summer day on the Delaware Canal tow path.

After the Broad Street race, I continued to run, though without the previously talismanic training schedule. Four-to-eight mile runs were the norm throughout the spring and summer. I’d lost 25 pounds and become a completely different runner. I changed from a person who wasn’t built to run into A Real Runner. In a way, I’d converted.

Off the beaten path

If Gene Hoffman is a spiritual marathoner, then Kami Knapp is a gold medal sprinter. The 29-year-old student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote has been studying Judaism for only seven years. In fact, she has only been a Jew for seven years.

“I was born and raised Presbyterian,” said Knapp, “and was active in the church until I was about 11, when my family kind of dropped away and only went on the holidays.” Later, as a student at Seattle University, a Catholic college, she started attending Mass regularly and embarked on an intense journey learning about Catholicism.

While in college, she interned at the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center in Seattle. There, she met three women whose influence would change her life. “They were all connected with Judaism in vastly different ways — I admired that,” she said. “I learned that it is possible to practice Judaism in different, dynamic ways that are specific to the individual. I wondered if that could be me, so I converted — I wanted to explore ways that I could connect to spirituality in my own individual way, but using the inspiration of Jewish tradition.”

That big step was followed by an even bigger one two years ago, when she entered the rabbinical program at RRC. Knapp said that, although two of the most-cited reasons for going into the program are the desire to be a spiritual leader and to follow a calling, neither applied to her. “I was hoping for a calling, but I still haven’t received it,” she explained. “I went through the process intellectually. I’d reached a point in my life where I felt most fulfilled with the work I was doing in the Jewish world. I felt I could be the most influential and make the most change while being personally fulfilled working in the Jewish world — that’s what we do in the rabbinate.”

As might be expected, Knapp’s rapid transformation did not go smoothly all the time. For her family, she said, “My deciding to become Jewish was more shocking than deciding to become a rabbi. I’d never shown that much outward passion about Judaism, but by the time I demonstrated my passion, it was only natural for them to see me in a leadership role. Now, my family helps push me along. They tell me, ‘This is what you’re meant to be doing.’ ”

While she never thought that the rabbinical program would be a cakewalk, she still sounds amazed by the workload and the learning experience. “Right from the beginning. rabbinical school was tough, and being a ‘new Jew’ only adds to the pressure.” For example, she said, “This year, we’re doing Talmud. I didn’t even know what that was two years ago, and now I’m expected to read it, translate it and understand it.” Confessing to one of her instructors that she wasn’t sure she could do it, the instructor responded by expressing her faith in Knapp. “The feelings are still there,” she said, “but with smaller successes, I think I can get there.”

It’s those small victories — reassurances, tests passed, papers submitted — that keep her going. And Knapp isn’t even sure where the finish line is. She’s exploring everything at RRC. “The beauty of my school,” she said, “is that it’s not a given that you become a congregational rabbi. We are encouraged to explore leadership in different venues so that we can meld our personal passions with supporting the Jewish community.”

Helpfully, she put it in terms I could understand. “Rabbinical school is like running a marathon. When I’m done with this marathon and I become a rabbi, I’ll decide what the next marathon will be.”

Back in the race

Raising a family is akin to a marathon. So is going to medical school. Maybe an ultramarathon comparison would be apt for those who do them both and then, after almost 30 years away from playing the violin, pick up where they left off and begin playing in a chamber music ensemble. Dr. Gail Greenspan Aboudi, 56, is a psychiatrist in private practice and at Family Practice and Counseling Network in Philadelphia. She and her husband, Robert Aboudi, have three children between the ages of 16 to 20. And for good measure, she has spent the last year with the Adult Chamber Players at Settlement Music School’s Wynnefield campus.

“I was very serious as a teenager,” Greenspan Aboudi said, “but then med school, residency, working and children made it so I literally didn’t have time to play. I may have picked up my violin once every six months, but I couldn’t play the way I needed to.”

About five years ago, she finally had enough time in her schedule to fit in lessons. “It wasn’t what I really wanted,” she said. “I wanted to play with other people. The lessons helped with my technique, though, so I was able to play regularly with people. I’m most surprised that my technique came back.”

The passion was always there. She recalled that as a student at Girls’ High, she had crushes on famous conductors and thought seriously about pursuing a career in music. “I didn’t really want to perform, though,” she said. Today, she can play for the love of the art with others who play for the same reason. “Settlement is about playing with people, not so much about performing,” she said.

Greenspan Aboudi practices once or twice a week and plays roughly every other week in different quartets put together by program coordinator Marka Stepper. All of the school’s adult players are returnees to music. Most are retired, but many, like Greenspan Aboudi, take time out of their work days. “Most of the adult players never perform,” said Stepper. “They’re interested in getting together with other people who love to play chamber music.”

Greenspan Aboudi said that there are pros and cons to returning to her musical passion after such a long time away from it. “It’s easier in some ways because I’m doing it for pleasure. Then again, being older, my shoulder hurts and I have to find my glasses to read the music. And chamber music is wonderful. Playing with just four instruments, you really have to listen to each other and echo each other — playing in an orchestra, you’re kind of drowned.”

The goal for Greenspan Aboudi is really the journey. “When you start expressing yourself,” she said, “it opens you up.” She added that as a psychiatrist, “I like what I do, but it’s not about me. My work is about helping other people; I’m there to guide them.”

What guidance can she offer to people like herself who still have a smoldering passion and are wondering if they can rekindle the flame? “I think there are a lot of people who did music or art and let it go. This shows me that you can come back to it.”

Not half-full yet

The student became the master when I beat Roger by 30 seconds in the half-marathon. It felt great — another goal attained. But we both agreed that putting a black-and-white 13.1 sticker on the back window of the car is a pretty lame move. Is 26.2 my next goal? My feet hurt for days after the race, and it takes a lot more training to run a marathon. It might require two pieces of paper. Roger, on the other hand, has started talking about the Leadville Trail 100 Run. Yes, the 100 stands for miles. I don’t have that kind of time, but you can never say you ran a marathon if you never ran a marathon. Maybe when my kids are grown…

Joseph Kemp is the art director for Inside and the Special Sections of the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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