The Loneliness of the Long Distance...

The loneliness of the long distance runner is a metaphor for the loneliness of life as such. Runners or not, we all travel paths that cannot be retraced or fully communicated. The image of the lonely runner speaks to us because it reflects a broader fact of life. Even among friends, spouses, parents, pets, and children, a life is always lived alone, from beginning to end.

William James puts the thought like this in his Principles of Psychology:
It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned. Neither contemporaneity, not proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together when are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute in nature.
What James writes here is true; the breaches between my thought and your thought, those streaming and ethereal flows which we denote as mine and yours, can never be crossed. I can speak with you; I can write to you; I can walk with you; I could kiss you or hold you; but there is a part of you with which I can have no intimacy, no direct knowledge. I can not experience what you experience, not at all.

This picture strikes me as representative of loneliness.
Each triumph requires a step out and away, even if one is in the center of a crowd.
Human beings are essentially lonely. We can cheat that loneliness by amplifying ourselves--by seeking out new experiences and hoping that the volume of experience that we share with other people will allow us to make connections. But experience is not additive: it is always transformative. Adding an experience to a life does not make it larger; it makes it different. We become alone in our multiplicity, too complicated, too diverse--octopuses who may make contact with one tentacle, but reach out with seven more into empty space.

Or, we can simplify, hoping to ease loneliness through the common currency of human nature. This path looks to ignore the culture heaped on top of the organism. So, instead of tasting our food, we simply eat it. We forgo poetry for prose, dancing for exercise, singing for speaking. We hope in this way to come to know ourselves as part of a deep history of human life, attempting to plunge our personal stream of thought into the general and deep waters of nature. This tactic, however, leads not to connection, but to self-annihilation. Loneliness can not be cured by generalities, but through concreteness. I do not want you to love my general self, but my specific self. And it is not you in your generality that is an object of my curiosity and possible love, but you, that concrete you, the you that is owned by you and not public property.

These thoughts on the unrelenting solitude of living came to me last night. I was thinking about this blog, about facebook, about message boards, about this new way of relating to the world. We take ourselves and our thoughts, and we hurl them out into space quite blindly. Then, we wait to see what sort of impact they make. It occurs to me that this behavior is bat-like, blind and sending out signals, hoping to make out a world by calculating the angles of their rebound. Bats are content not to see directly; they make their way forward, living their entire lives through indirection.

I have been studying the philosopher C.S. Peirce's theory of signs. He believed that each experience, the whole teeming world of thought and object, worked as signs--indirectly. One implication of his theory is that we have no ground, no resting place. Our lives bend and refract in response to experience. The challenge of life is not in knowing or understanding, but in continuing, in enduring. As Wittgenstein says, the most fundamental question that recurs is always: "Where to go from here?" Metaphysical questions like "Who am I?" Or "What is the nature of reality?" take their meaning and direction from the experiences that prompted the questions, and the value of the answers we give to them has to be taken in terms of the directions they send us.

If this is the case, then perhaps the remedy to the irreducible isolation of simply being an individual, is not so much in knowing the other or understanding him or her. This would be looking for a place to rest, for certainty among the flux of life. But certainty is not to be had, life flows on, and thus the task of life is not to share experience. Instead, the difficulty is in finding travelling companions--folks who are willing to travel the same stretch of road for a while, even if they can't or even don't want to peer into your soul. After all, loneliness does not seek knowledge; it just wants companionship.

There is a group of folks that I run with. Each of them is a strange bird. We all have different jobs, different talents, different politics, different senses of humor, different modes of intelligence. I cannot say that I know the inner life of these runners. I do not know them much at all. Come to think of it, I don't really want to know them. What I want from them is that they show up, that they join me for an hour or two a week. I want other people to run with me, beside me, not see through me.

This little squad of runners is not really a political unit. But I think it shows us something about politics. Community and companionship do not require many shared values. The requirement is that we move through our lives for brief moments in a common direction. This movement is made possible by the ability to live indifferently to the fact that you will never know what is happening in the mind of another person. We can do things with each other because we leave each other alone: at some point we are willing to say, "That person makes no sense to me," and run on. Though that person will never understand you, not fully, not completely, perhaps they will choose to accompany you.

In the abstract, our differences are final. We are each singular and irreducible to the other. The breach between my mind and yours is absolute. But in life the question is not how to overcome differences, but to live among them. Loneliness and togetherness is not a matter of knowing other people. It is a matter of living with them. The loneliness of the long distance runner is a condition of experience, and in a strange way, it is the embrace of this loneliness, the willingness not to live too close to others, that gives us the sufficiency of space to live together--and also, sometimes, to live on, despite being apart.


  1. Well-written.

    Obviously, there's linkage between this post and your last posts about space and lifestyle. I agree that we are all individuals, and this individuality creates a sense of isolation. I do think that people handle this isolation differently (think introverts vs. extroverts); I know that I prefer being alone vs. being with others to "recharge", and that I have few truly close friends. Other people feel the need to constantly seek connection with others. Neither is better or worse, both are just how we are.

    But even the most gregarious of people needs their space, their time alone, to rest, to relax, to do nothing more than BE for bit. And sometimes, that long stretch of lonely rode is the chance to be.

  2. Reading your blog always leaves me feeling very simple minded, which may not always be a bad thing.

    With all these thoughts tearing around your head all day, I would imagine blogging it out must help you quiet the voices so you can eventually fall asleep.

  3. Or perhaps those long lonely runs give the voices a chance to talk themselves hoarse so you don't have them harping you all day.

    Either way works, I'm sure.

  4. @BadDawg and Scout: Actually, I have always been a good sleeper, if anything too good a sleeper!

    This may be a case of misunderstanding difference. For the most part, I enjoy my thoughts. We have an image of the ruminative mind being a depressed or anxious mind, and I think there is some connection there, but there are many modes of thought--some anxious, some worried, some sleepless, some playful, some curious, some creative...

    This is related to the post: we guess at the mental state of others. Thoughts that would drive one man insane are ordinary fare for another. What's more important, seems to me, is not the qualities of thought (rapidity, volume, complexity or simplicity) in themselves, but whether or not one is habituated to those qualities.

    Anyways, I know these last few posts have been heavy on the academic/intellectual side of things, and too light on humor! We all have our blind spots. I'm just glad you are continuing to read.

  5. 1. I like your point that part of what is compelling about running is that running is about individuality. And that this is also what makes it lonely.

    2. Hurling communiques blindly into the blogosphere: Bats do this with sonar, but humans also do this with vision. We only EVER have indirect contact with the world! I'm nitpicking, but I think looking at things this way helps make some sense of what Peirce and Wittgenstein say regarding the essential fluidity of our (conceptual, linguistic) worlds.

    3. "Loneliness and togetherness is not a matter of knowing other people. It is a matter of living with them. The loneliness of the long distance runner is a condition of experience, and in a strange way, it is the embrace of this loneliness, the willingness not to live too close to others, that gives us the sufficiency of space to live together--and also, sometimes, to live on, despite being apart." Nice! You have a great knack for tying stuff together, and for smooth writing, and that was a really good passage. One critique is that dismissing the other minds problem makes it seem a bit like a straw man to bring it up in the first place, since of course you are right that this is ultimately not what loneliness is about. However, I really like your point that running can stand for individuality, which can both help with loneliness, and conversely give us space to deal with other people.

  6. Oh, I wasn't sure exactly what this caption meant by the way: "Each triumph requires a step out and away, even if one is in the center of a crowd." I could see how Ali's focus on Liston and the task at hand could interfere with his ability to relate to/connect with the crowd, even in the midst of their adulation. However, was this the point you were trying to make? It didn't seem like it to me because I don't see the connection to the general impossibility of relating to other people. Merely being at the center of a crown might dramatize this impossibility, but then I don't understand where steps toward triumph come into the picture...

    But your overall message was clear enough, so no worries. :) And of course sometimes clarity has to be sacrificed for engaging writing, a balance I think you strike pretty well.

  7. MM --

    Your second comment first. For some reason, that image strikes me as one of loneliness--at that moment of triumph, Ali seems to me to be quite alone. But perhaps this is an idiosyncratic take on the photo. I think the image also asks us to reflect on our position relative to Ali as a spectator, and it is hard for me to imagine having done what he did. Our inability to understand the great athlete seems to me part of the allure. None of this addresses your question specifically, but these were some of the thoughts that made me post the pic.

    Your first post is quite lovely, and it makes me happy to see that my writing is so well understood. Of course with vision it is the same. All of our actions are transactions and relations. You emphasize this quite well.

  8. Thank you for the response, and the kind words. I think I can understand now what you are saying about the Ali picture. I am able to feel the loneliness now as well, although perhaps this is merely association.

    Also, the other picture is epic.

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  10. Jeff, I am a new runner and somehow happened across your website, which I am absolutely delighted about. Your articles, particularly this one really touched me. I read your words and feel simultaneously, inspired, accepted and understood, despite being in different place in our journeys. How miraculous and positively awesome, that this world wide web interconnects our paths, sometimes with those anonymous eyes that see us more, than those we spend many hours in the day with, never do!

    Thank you for your words.

    1. Hey Sunnie -- good luck with the running and thanks for the comment. It's funny how we can connect and disconnect. Have a good run today.


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