Earlier this month, with the semester over and an anniversary to celebrate, Susan and I headed to a mountain cabin for a few days. The weather was chilly, but mostly decent, so we managed to get in several good hikes.

Over three days, we hiked about 25 miles on mountainous trails, which may not sound like great shakes, though it’s not bad given our combined age of 129.

The last trail took us nearly 10 miles from the Fontana Dam to the Shattuck Mountain fire tower, with a climb of about 2,600 feet. It was a stretch.

The higher we climbed, the more often we had to stop and rest. The air isn’t really that thin at 4,300 feet, but it felt that way as we huffed and puffed the last few hundred yards.

But we pushed on.

Sometimes, we need to stretch ourselves. If we spent our leisure time sitting in recliners and watching TV, we’d be far less healthy and looking at shorter lives. We see a lot of people who are 20 years younger than us, but they look and act considerably older.

Physical exercise and a disciplined diet are outward aspects of staying healthy, but there’s more to life than physical well-being.

We need to stretch in other ways too.

This past year, we’ve been reminded again and again how many of us need to stretch our understanding of how our Black neighbors have suffered from systems of oppression through the years – and ways in which they still face trials and obstacles that many white people remain oblivious to.

It requires stretching to admit our shortcomings and to enter the hard conversations required to increase basic awareness of the vast sociological gulfs in our society – but this is necessary if we want to be more fit as compassionate human beings.

It’s a hard truth for me to admit that, while my ancestors came to America as devout Quakers helping to build Philadelphia, the second generation quickly backslid. Their two adventurous sons moved west, establishing separate trading posts engaged with the Iroquois in trading rum and guns for furs.

I could admire their pione ering spirit and be proud to know they learned the Iroquois language well enough to translate for the governor in negotiations with the Native Americans. But I must also consider that those negotiations probably resulted in the loss of tribal lands.

It’s a hard truth to admit that, two generations later, the Cartledge clan had slaves farming the lands appropriated to them in Columbia County, Georgia. I have no knowledge of how they treated them, but the basic notion of “owning” another person’s body is cruel at heart.

Though six generations removed, it’s important for me to stretch enough to ponder the length to which this makes me complicit in the struggles faced by the Black people I grew up near, close in proximity but living in another world.

Our celebrations of Jesus’ birth will have been a hollow exercise without the willingness to consider how the grown-up Jesus challenged us to live, loving others (all others) as he loved us.

A new year is coming. It promises to be a more hopeful year than the past one, but its prospects depend largely on how we behave.

As we consider ordinary resolutions related to diet or fitness, let’s not forget that there are other aspects of personal and community health.

The stretch toward justice may just be the most important of them all.

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