Saturday, April 3, 2010

On Natural Conditions and Natural Inclinations

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks and the earth opens up to abysses.
--Blaise Pascal, 1670

Pascal writes here of the way in which life is a movement. We runners know this, I suppose. The logic of long distance might be defined precisely as "drifting in uncertainty." Running requires maintaining contact with uncertainty. This is a more difficult task than often thought.

As Pascal succinctly puts it, our natural condition is contrary to our inclination. We react to our natural condition mostly by trying to escape it. There are two commonly employed methods of escape. The first method of escape from uncertainty is called euphemistically the pursuit of knowledge. Encountering the uncertainty of life, we go about trying to find facts, principles, rules and aphorisms and other sorts of talismans that we can use to ward off the uncertainty. We plunge into scientific or mathematical endeavors, hold fast to religious or political revelations, or at least scour the internet with Google looking for pale shreds of certainty. It is the flight from uncertainty that funds the will to truth.

The second method of escape is more effective and ultimately the first method is a more sophisticated mode of this second method. It is the method of distraction. Being unable to endure the uncertainty of life, we distract ourselves from it by building the sorts of lives that permit only indirect encounters with uncertainty. We make a life of rituals: rising every morning at the same hour, travelling the same roads, working the same job, speaking to the same people about the same things, watching the same television shows, so on and so forth. In such a way the flow and flux of life is channeled and circled, the vast sphere narrowed. Through these routines we make movement stationary.

But even if we are successful at routinizing our lives quite entirely, to the extent that we do not feel or see the uncertainty that underwrites it, we ought not be fooled. Routines do not eliminate uncertainty; they only make it drop from direct perception by drawing the world down to narrow limits. An example from running will perhaps bring this point to light.

Runners are for the most part creatures of habit. We thrive on routine, and running is an extremely effective method of tranquilizing the essential uncertainty of life. I know that I use it in this way, marking the days off in my running log, creating a sense of a knowable and planned future by dreaming of future runs, making plans for future races.

But the runner, in order to maintain his habit, must be more than a creature of habit. The runner must be willing to face, head on, the primal uncertainty of life. Being a living creature, the runner will face moments in his training where his habits fail him. We categorize these incidents in a variety of ways: sickness, injury, loss of motivation, lack of time, overtraining, fatigue, tactical racing errors, bonking, aging, etc., but the common thread that unifies these setbacks is the ugly specter of uncertainty.

When faced with these sorts of setbacks, we can again resort to our two methods. We can go about looking for knowledge that will set us back on a certain path to improvement. The internet is fairly full of this sort of response. Folk finding solace in cures, fixes, secret workouts, plans, coaches, gurus, vdot calculators, and erudite screeds on the lactate threshold. We settle the uncertainty of running by latching onto the certainty of science or the ginned-up expertise of the message-board coach. We justify the meaning of the activity through the realization that there are others just as obsessed, and sometimes more so.

The other common method that runners use is to pretend that nothing is wrong--the method of distraction. We find ourselves denying our injuries, running ourselves down, repeating the same stale training that led us to be stale in the first place. Onwards, we hurtle ourselves down the road, fully enslaved to our routines, absolutely blind to the raging signs of the uncertainty of the effects of that routine. We runners are nothing if not tenacious, but the flip side of that tenacity is insensitivity to the changes that life brings.

So, what is a runner to do? Is there a third option? The best I can offer is this. Perhaps we can cultivate running as a practice of uncertainty. The beautiful thing about running is that it is safe enough to make real encounters with the unknown. The uncertainties of running are small and manageable, perhaps because the act is almost as elemental as uncertainty itself.

In the moments when we find our capacity for change hollowed out by the deep and ineradicable routines in which we enmesh ourselves, perhaps we can find some nobility in our ability to withstand the recurrent questions that running poses. Whether we will get faster is an open question. Whether it is important to be faster is an open question. Whether I can get through this training cycle healthy, happy, and faster is an open question. Whether I will run today is an open question. Whether this next race will be the race in which I do not fold is an open question.

In the grand scheme of stiff routine, these are small openings. But through small openings sometimes blow fresh breezes, enough occasionally to fill our sails as we drift along quite aimlessly beneath the vast and blue sphere.

4 comments:

  1. Wow, I'm genuinely impressed with that blog. Lots to think about. Thank you.

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  2. Nice

    Interesting - The Christian point of view is there is only 1 certainty ... all else in uncertain, not to be worried about or attemped to control.

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  3. Thanks, folks for continuing to read. I went through a bit of a dry spell, but trying to keep this thing going.

    MTP--Pascal, as you may know, is a Christian. The passage is taken from his Pensees, which is one of the best apologies of Christian theology--and a tremendous collection of aphorisms for living. Pascal ultimately justified his faith in God as the best response to uncertainty--"Pascal's Wager" remains one of the most famous traditional arguments on behalf of faith.

    What interests me is the role that faith and belief play outside of the religious context--seems to me that many of our most precious beliefs, religious or otherwise, are held on faith, as safeguards over and against the paralyzing fear that is the hallmark of uncertainty. So it is faith in a sense that frees us up for action--a working, experimental sort of faith.

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  4. Funny - I was thinking about your latest Blog as I lost myself in thought in last nights run.

    A world without uncertainty ... Why would I train?

    I think your Pascal assessment is accurate to why most Christian's think they have faith.

    If you truly believe it is not to hedge anything or explain anything. It is easy for Childeren to have faith - It is very difficult for an adult to have faith ... we want to understand and explain everything.

    If you have faith - Being saved is the one certain thing. The strength of that faith is shown in the ability to give your whole life and being over to God. It is giving up any desire for things of this uncertain world. Not just the "Sinful World" but giving God the top spot in our lives over all things of the world. Your family, your friends, your job and yes even running.

    Although I have faith - I am saved - I am weak ... I care too much about this uncertain world.

    Keep up the different thoughts ... I have lots of time lately (Running) to contemplate stuff.

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