Pushing the Envelope

One of my favorite passages from William James speaks to the double nature of habit. He writes,

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. ... You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the 'shop,' in a word, from which the man can by-and-by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

I am past the age of thirty, and I can vouch for what James here writes. The gross outlines of my character have been largely set; it is too late to begin again. This is a sad fact. I wonder often about the beginnings that were lost, the other people I might have been. But on the other hand, to have these outlines set is to have a starting point and a direction. It is to be someone, to have a project. Life offers no choice; we must trade a multitude of small beginnings for one large one. We begin as a scattering of seeds and end, if all goes well, as a tree, firmly rooted.

We have a habit of telling this story nostalgically, as if wild and luxurious possibility were the primary characteristic of youth. Adult life, by contrast, plays the part of all-too-determined, rigid and cold actuality. But we should be careful not to have the wrong conception of roots, or of the sort of growth that a tree undertakes. Perhaps an example from my running can help to tease apart the more subtle form of possibility that is characteristic of adulthood.

Running is one of my deepest habits, one set over the course of more than a decade. It is a habit that is deeply interwoven with the other strands of my life: friendship, work, love, health--the forms that these essential aspects of living take for me are inextricably bound up with the habit of running. Running is a deep root for me. Perhaps other aspects of my life are more important, but these aspects depend, perhaps strangely, on this simple and ordinary bodily habit.

This past year, more than ever, as I worked through the end of my Ph.D., I have relied on running. It gave structure and a sense of progress to a process that was frighteningly open-ended and full of new challenges. This reliance was reflected in the new attitude I took towards training. I became much more conservative and consistent, an every day runner for the first time in my life. I hardly ever pushed my workouts. I ran easy most days. I worked cautiously and carefully to strengthen and deepen this sustaining root. Consequently, I had the longest stretch of uninterrupted training of my life.

This recent training has given my running a whole new aspect. I'm strong as an ox. I can run ten miles with as little thought as I can make the bed. My running has become, strangely, as dependable as I am on it. I've built what we used to call "man-strength." Lydiard called it achieving "a nearly tireless state." It's the sort of strength that blends the human and the natural, like John Henry swinging his hammer, like the muddy Mississippi, it just rolls on.

And what this means is that my running is full of the richest sort of possibility. Not the sort of possibility that we think of when we think of youth. The scattering of dandelion seeds in the wind. This is heavy, ponderous, possibility. The kind that can float heavy grain barges without a thought. Or the sort of possibility that a tree has, once its tap root has found the water table.

I'm looking at this sort of tree outside my window right now. It is teeming with life. It's a whole world for the insects that live there. A resting place for birds, a romping ground for squirrels. It's cool underneath, and its wild and lush tangle of branches reach up, out, and down. A tree deeply rooted is not a static thing. Its possibility is the adult kind, complex, rich, and sustaining. Its habits have been set, so that when it does grow, that growth has the power to make a difference.

"The character has set like plaster, and will never soften again." That's okay. A hard edge is good for cutting. It's time to push the envelope.


  1. Through hard, consistent work you've built up a huge pile of capital...and now you get to decide where to invest it. I'm looking forward to seeing this.


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