Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sufficient Space

Human beings make a strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; close up they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space--space even more than time. --Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Ours is a hurried life. We seem never to have any time. This is what we tell ourselves: if only there were more hours in the day, if only I had more time to spend with my family, with my friends, out on the roads. We are quick to blame the anxieties of modern life, the stress we feel, on time. And perhaps it is true, perhaps life is moving too quickly.

If we had two extra hours in the day, what would we do with them? My guess is that we would fill them up as well with projects, use them to get started on things we will never finish, torment ourselves for two more hours a day about what we would finish if only we had 28 hours in a day. Our problem, it seems to me, is not a problem of time. Like Henry Miller says, it's a problem of space.

Einstein taught us that space (and time, for that matter) is opened and closed by the the objects that occupy it. Cars and planes started us down a path of acceleration, but now cell phones, the internet, facebook, and email have taken us to a limit point of travel. Making contact at the speed of light, we no longer cross space.

This elimination of space is precisely what has led to the acceleration of time. All of our friendships, our business contacts, our family responsibilities, our favorite websites, musicians, and television shows are with us at all moments. They pour into our minds all at once, immediately. There is no space. In reaction to this, we bustle about endlessly in search of a refuge from the torrent. We hurry here, hurry there, hoping for a resting point somewhere in sight, some sense of completion. We used to have one TV in the living room, and it was easy enough to escape its hollering and pleading screen. You would just go into the other room. Or turn it off.

Now we carry our screens with us, in our pockets. They are in the corner of every bar and restaurant. The wild world plummeting into every space, closing it up with the latest news from Washington, the latest sports score from Boston. Always, just before we relax and take a look around, there is a new interruption, a new thrill to be had, a new responsibility to be assumed.


Perhaps, then, what we need is not more time, but sufficient space. Seen from too far away, we teem like ants swarming on a spinning globe--moving, but without meaning. From too close, we are a bunch of hucksters and children, relentless in our needs, always peddling our wares, burning each other up with proximity. The fauna and flora of humanity are best appreciated from a proper distance.

The difficulty of life is in finding this sufficiency of space. I've reflected on the nomadic aspect of running before. A run can transform the crowded and angry city into a meandering path. It populates the morning commute with trees and birds, colors the hills with slight but real effort. It locates us in a world, but in its measured movement, it also gives us space. This space slows us down and returns us to a place where we are not measuring life in minutes, tasks, and a multitude of unfinished projects. This space is what we denote when we use the word "experience." We find ourselves here, for once, moving through a qualitative world, attentive and alive.

The hour spent running is a penumbral hour of the day, and the time of running is almost always a sort of stolen, hidden time. We run when others are sleeping, commuting, eating or watching TV. We are always squeezing the run into periods of time that are hidden from howling rush of ordinary life. I have done 15 mile runs that have taken no time at all. This is the thing that boggles the minds of non-runners. They ask: "How can you just run for an hour or two?" "How do you find the time to do it?" The answer is simple: if it did take time, running would be boring. If it took time, it would indeed keep us from our more important tasks. But runners know a secret: running takes no time at all. What it takes is space.

What if the problem of contemporary life were not one of making more time, but of finding sufficient space? That would mean that the solution to the hustle of life is not going faster or doing more. Instead it would be heading out somewhere, traversing terrain, and perhaps finding one's self in a world that is much more finished than one commonly imagines.

6 comments:

  1. space... the final frontier. HAHAH! ha. okay, this idea of space, it's really intriguing. fascinating in large part because it's something we can control a bit more than time.

    for a lot of people i know, their home is their space, and they spend a lot of time fixing up their home to be a reflection of their selves. i would have to say that if i were to be judged by my home, well that would make me sad because my home is not a reflection of me. the time others spend shopping for, fixing up their homes, i would rather spend that time running, sitting outside, drinking coffee with friends - real friends or fictional friends. (that is, reading a book, not imaginary friends!) pluswise, i have an online space which i fill with my thoughts and that takes time. so when people ask how i find the time to run or to blog or to read or to have a cup of coffee, well it's just the same time they spent cutting grass and planting shrubs and installing hardwood floors and selecting window treatments. not that there's anything wrong with that, but in the space of 24 hours, it's not what i choose to do.

    now, about YOUR online space. i really miss the picture of you jumping through the woods, but more importantly, there is something about your site now that makes it bog down on my netbook which of course has limited computing resources. i think it might be the amazon stuff and i wonder if you might explore to see if amazon has some tips about setting up the buy buttons for maximum portage to smaller systems.

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  2. Hey ace,

    Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I decided to experiment with the Amazon Associates thing. Maybe I will just pull the plug on it. It might also be the facebook button that is slowing stuff down. I am trying to make changes that ramp up readership. A slow-loading blog does not seem like a good change. I'll try to do something about that picture as well.

    I like your comment because it's a good reminder about how we all make different choices about the spaces we occupy. Having just bought my first home, I can see the way in which it fulfills this real desire to have a space that is reflective of me, my values but is also a huge time-suck and potential money-suck. Anyhow, if you look to the sort of spaces folks occupy, you can tell a lot about the choices they make.

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  3. okay, now i can really get on board with my home being a reflection of the choices i make. it's a solid brick place, comfortable, safe for children, unfragile. i choose for my home to be "this" because i choose for my time and money to be spent on "this". i like that way of looking at it.

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  4. Hey Jeff,

    Zach V's sister here - the one currently living in Iceland. I've been following your blog for some time and just wanted to say that I've really enjoyed your writing.

    This post really resonated with me because I just started running at the end of March after the birth of my daughter in February. I honestly couldn't tell you when I last ran before that. In fact, I always kind of hated running because I would always think about how much longer I had to run until I reached x distance, rather than just being able to enjoy the process.

    My initial objectives for starting to run were to get back into shape after birth, and also to have an opportunity to be by myself. On most days, the time that I run is the only time I get alone, since I am watching my daughter all day until my husband returns home from work. On days that are really difficult, I practically run out the door the minute he gets home. It has been a real adjustment not having the space to just think and clear my mind.

    Now that I've started to notice my tolerance has increased (I've been running 3-5 miles nearly every day, which is a lot for me), I have really started to feel the physical and mental benefits of running. I've been sleeping better and just feeling more energized and happier overall, but I feel great for having pushed myself and for trying on the days when I don't have much energy at all.

    Mostly, I just really love having the space to think. I now do some of my best thinking while running, and when I'm done, I feel as though my brain has reset. If I've had a tough day, I'm able to just clear my mind. We live two blocks away from a fjord where there is a running/biking path that probably goes on for over 200km, and I run along that path and breathe the cool, salty air and just feel alive. I haven't felt so great in a long time. I just registered for my first race ever -- a 10k in August -- so I'm looking forward to that! I never would have imagined I would look forward to running, but wow, it's really changed me.

    Anyhow, cheers!

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  5. Zach V's sister here - the one currently living in Iceland. I've been following your blog for some time and just wanted to say that I've really enjoyed your writing.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Jessie,

    Thanks so much for the comment. I apologize for not replying sooner!

    I'm so glad that you are enjoying running. It seems like it "runs" in the family. Hopefully one day Zach will drag me to Iceland.

    Thanks for reading!

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