we never catch the things we chase

I slipped out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom. I sipped cold water and stood barefoot on the tile, feeling the chill diffuse through me, top to bottom.

My master plan wasn’t working out so well. I’d be driving 400 miles through rural Colorado the following day, and I wanted to make sure I awoke well-rested. I figured that if I simply tried harder, if I really focused on dozing off, I’d fall sleep within 7 hours of my 5 a.m. alarm. That wasn’t the case, however.

I drained my cup of water and pressed the little button on the side of my Timex watch. It glowed with a dull green hue, informing me 11:30 p.m had already come and gone. I’d been lying in bed for 90 minutes, thinking about sleep, but not actually sleeping.

Feeling frustrated, I forced myself to yawn. Perhaps I could trick myself. People who yawn are tired, and people who are tired go to sleep, right? If A = B and B = C, then A = C? 

Well, neither cold nor yawning made me long to crawl back under my sheets. I dragged my too-awake-self back to bed anyway, stretching the comforter over my face to stifle a groan.

Understanding that by this point, only a mere 5.5 hours of sleep were possible, my craving for sleep intensified. But of course, trying to regain lost time only cost me time. The harder I tried to clear my mind and doze off, the more alert (and annoyed) I grew.

Have you ever experienced one of these nights? The more you try to sleep, the more awake you feel? Those nights are maddening, am I right?

Well, I can’t tell you how many hours I slept that night. Eventually, I resolved to stop looking at my watch. I’d already lost the fight for fast slumber, so I surrendered the urge to calculate how many REM cycles I’d complete.

As backward as it sounds, that’s when I finally fell asleep. I caught what I’d been chasing when I gave up the chase. By stopping the race, I reached the finish line.

My pursuit was the very obstacle I needed to overcome. Go figure.

The next morning, I had a lot of think-time. Four-hundred miles worth, to be precise. As I drove the two-lane highways curling along the Rockies like an eternal cement snake, an old friend from college came to mind, John. 

John met this girl (I’ll call her Carly) on a spring break trip to Puerto Rico one year. While a whole group of my friends also went, John and Carly really hit it off. She quickly became John’s “it” girl, if you know what I mean.

John was smitten with Carly. He’d spend days debating if he should tell her so. “I just don’t want her to shoot me down, and never hang out with me again,” he’d say.

“That’s reasonable. But do you want to stay friends forever?” I’d ask in reply.

“No. Definitely not,” John would concede.

“Then you know what you gotta do,” I’d coax him.

One day, he decided to tell Carly how he felt. After John spilled, she strung him along with statements like, “I really enjoy seeing you, John,” and, “Our friendship means a lot to me, John.” Then, Carly shared her plans to reconnect with her ex-boyfriend. Dagger.

John, for all the obvious reasons, was beside himself. He was desperate to win back Carly’s affections in the pursuing months, so when Carly re-broke up (to nobody’s surprise) with her ex, he was there. He took her to eat at her favorite restaurant. They went mini-golfing. He stood by her.

But you see, the more John chased love, the more he sabotaged himself. Carly not only learned to lean on John for emotional support when dealing with her baggage from other relationships, whenever John tried dating other women during periods spent away from Carly, it never worked. He always compared everyone to the abstract, idealized “Carly.”

I thought about a specific conversation I’d had with John as I drove. One day, I had answered my phone to hear him mumble in a slow, solemn voice, “Hey… dude.”

“John, what’s up man? Where are you?” I inquired. 

“Just driving. With a milkshake,” he added after a pause. 

“Oh. What kind of milkshake?” I clarified. It sounded like this particular dairy beverage was strapped into his passenger seat, instead of sucked through a straw.

“Vanilla. Gas stations only have two flavors,” John acquiesced.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Dang man, why are you drinking gas-station milkshakes?”

“Well, I was going to meet Carly to see a movie,” John started to explain before I cut in, “That’s a bad idea man. Besides, isn’t she in grad school now? Like, two hours away?”

“Yeah, she is, so I drove a ways to meet her,” he continued. “But when I got there, and it was almost time for the show, I didn’t see her. When I called her, she didn’t answer except for a text to say ‘I can’t make it.’ I didn’t even get a sorry.”

That was cold-blooded. “She’s the worst,” I offered John. “You just have to forget her man…” I started to press before deciding it wasn’t the right time.

“I’m really sorry man. The milkshake was a good move,” I added.

Since that vanilla milkshake, John gave up the hunt. He stopped chasing Carly. And you know what? Once he did, he was happier. It took him a few years, but eventually, he even stumbled upon a girl that he really loves. I think they’ll get married some day soon.

Before the days of Serta mattresses and gas-station milkshakes, a guy named Jesus Christ walked the earth and talked about this same concept — we never catch the things we chase. Except Jesus discussed it in the context of grace.

He said we never catch grace if we chase grace. He didn’t just preach it, either. He lived it. He gave away grace so people stopped foraging for it.

We have stories preserved in ancient writings about Jesus living and eating with people who were emotionally abusive, exploitative, murderous, chronically sick, and even the milkshake-drinking rejects to promise them all forgiveness, healing, restoration, joy, and a full life.

Standing in stark contrast to Jesus’ way of life were these people called “Pharisees.” Pharisees weren’t mythical creatures (although their name makes it sound that’s the case). They were real, historical, religious leaders who chased righteousness. They worked hard to follow the rules. They tried to live perfect lives.

However, the Pharisees’ chase prevented them from finding the very thing they sought - good standing in God’s eyes. 

While Jesus said people were free to have a relationship with God — they didn’t have to earn it by following rules — the Pharisees scrutinized other people’s lifestyles to appear “holier than thou.” Jesus described this when He said, “For [Pharisees] preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them.”

Basically, as the Pharisees chased righteousness, they ran right past the relationship with God that Jesus was offering to them.

Honestly, I think I would have been one of those guys. I think the Pharisees just liked the thrill of the chase, and I do too. Grace feels too easy otherwise.

I like conquering challenges and surprising other people with my accomplishments. So the idea that, “For it’s by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing… so that no one may boast,” (reference here) doesn’t really interest me.

I like the rush of the hunt too much.  

While it’s true, I do enjoy the thrill of the chase, in my more honest moments, I think I have a hard time accepting all of this for a much scarier reason.

Frankly, I’m scared I won’t be fulfilled by the things I’m chasing. I’m unnerved by the possibility that I’ll climb to the top of the mountain, and discover that the fog and mist prevents me from looking down on the rest of the world.

This could be why I’ve chased more and more challenging experiences before turning 30. With the advent of each new life goal I create for myself, the mirage of accomplishment continues. I get to enjoy the high of pursuing something new, and delusion is strangely satisfying.

I often feel like I’m playing one giant game of Whac-a-Mole. Do you remember the game Whac-a-Mole? Where you’d use a mallet to smack mechanical moles that randomly pop out of holes?

My life is like that, expect instead of randomly chasing (whacking) goals and accomplishments (moles) that show up in my life for a short season, I grip the mallet in one hand, and reach underneath the game board to force more moles to pop up faster with my other hand.

It’s my own avoidance therapy. As more things for me to chase pop up, I’m never sad that my last pursuit didn’t bring the satisfying, lasting sense of joy I’d hoped for.

My wife, Erin, can attest to this. After I released my latest book, I seriously considered taking classes to get my pilot’s license so I can fly airplanes over the Rockies.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this, because the smart business models count on this anxiety.

After every Ironman I’ve ever completed, there were people to register me for the next year’s race waiting at the finish. Ironman knows how depressing it is to conquer one of the longest races in endurance sports only to feel, “It’s over? What now!?”

Of course, there are many issues with believing you’ve conquered Ironman after once race, just like assuming climbing Mt. Everest is the same as Rock Climbing 101 at your local gym (see here for more on that topic). But, can you relate?

How did you feel a few days after your last promotion? Do you enjoy driving your car as much as you did when you drove it off the lot?

And how about this week? What’s the new or next thing you’re chasing?

Will it fulfill you if you catch it?

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