I’ll never forget the smell of the summer air. Or the warmth of the wind on my cheeks and the feel of my hair blowing out behind me.

My legs pushed the pedals of my lime green, rainbow-striped three-speed, faster and faster, until I was near intoxicated with the freedom of it all. In seconds the tires would lift up off the ground and I’d take flight. I was sure of it.

As a young girl, there were few things I enjoyed as much as riding my bike. We lived several miles outside a simple midwestern town. Corn and soybean fields surrounded us on every side, cut up into squares and rectangles by miles and miles of quiet country roads. They begged to be explored, those country roads, reaching like long satin ribbons to unknown sleepy towns and ancient orchards, abandoned schools and meandering creeks. We were explorers, my friends and I. During the school year, homework and chores and family buried us. But in the summertime? We climbed onto our bikes and darn-near learned to fly.

In all that summer bike-riding, freedom-loving, life-savoring goodness, there was only one thing I hated:

Being left behind.

It didn’t happen often. Most times we pedaled in unison, stuck close together. But every now and then something happened. I pedaled too slow. Or stopped to pluck a flower. Or popped a tire, busted a chain and needed a fix. When that happened, when I couldn’t keep up and dared to look up, my friends slipped from view. It wasn’t their fault. It just happened.

Still. Just that fast, the thrill of flight was swallowed up by the ache of aloneness.

Several days ago, a friend sent me a text message:

How are you today? 

A short text, four words. But I smiled when I read it. Because in the past five months—a long stretch of time that feels more like years than months—rarely has a week passed when she hasn’t sent me at least one such message. It meant the world. I texted back and told her so.

I’ve learned so much about the darkness and loneliness of suffering. I have a new empathy for those who endure …We can get busy and move on so quickly, and we forget those who can’t move at our speed … The fact that you’ve texted and prayed so faithfully has meant a great deal to me. More than you know … Thank you. 

She received my gratitude, even though she didn’t understand it. I attempted to explain:

It’s hard seeing everyone living normal lives, doing normal things.

Remember when we were kids and riding bikes with friends? Remember that feeling when everyone went faster than you and left you behind, and you couldn’t catch up? It was an awful feeling, seeing everyone up ahead and feeling you weren’t a part of the group anymore. Like something was wrong with you. 

But your texts are as if you’ve climbed off your bike and you’re waiting for me to catch up. Like you’re turning and seeing me there and saying, “I’m not going anywhere without you.” 

The past year has been far more painful than I imagined. It’s changed me, in deep and hard-to-explain ways. Difficulty and trauma do that, I know. I’m no different than many of you who have endured your own brand of grief or pain or loss. For each hardship endured, a lesson is learned. Often more than one. This time, the lesson that rings louder in my ears than all the others is this one:

There is something sacred about choosing to suffer with one another.

Not cheering from a distance. Not making vague promises of prayer or sending positive vibes. Not waving or smiling or offering up a “I hope it all works out okay for you!” Instead, slowing down. Sharing it.

To be truly invested in relationship with one another—the kind of intimate togetherness that pedals in unison and sticks together—is to refuse the safety of distance. Or disconnection. It’s not allowing one of the group to be alone at the side of the road, left behind. Instead, it watches for those whose legs can no longer keep up. Togetherness slows down, stops, and says:

“I’m here. And I’m not going anywhere without you.”

It’s taken a year of suffering for me to see how often I’ve pedaled right past the pain of others. It’s embarrassing to admit. How many tears have I ignored? How many wounds have I neglected to see? I didn’t mean to, of course. I never set out to bubble myself against the heartache of others. But I’ve done it just the same. Enamored with my life, addicted to the feel of the wind on my face and warmth of sun on my skin, I stopped noticing those who could no longer fly.

Until I was the one at the side of the road.

You and I, we have great intentions. I know this. We don’t set out to leave anyone in our dust. We aren’t trying to live blind. But it isn’t easy to slow down enough to step into another’s pain, to help carry their grief and share their sadness. It isn’t easy to give up the feel of flight in order to stop and suffer at the side of the road with another.

And yet, I’m learning that to live at arm’s length from the needs of those around us is to miss something sacred. When we move so quickly that we fail to see the faces and stories and needs all around us, we miss the most important gift we’ve been given all along:

The sweetness of togetherness.

How important is togetherness to you? Who needs that from you today? 

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