It is strange to think that all the libraries of the world were once white pages, but inside each book sits a florid and turgid world, a reservoir of meaning carved out of emptiness. Just as the whiteness of the page provides a stimulus to the meaning-making power of the human mind, so too does the simplicity of running call forth a multiplicity of interpretations. Running is many things exactly because it is so simple.
I think I can expand on what I mean by this by referring to the metaphysics of John Dewey. Dewey had a name for the basic character of all experience. The word he used was interaction. He saw that our lives were essentially built out of a multiplicity of interactions. We leave our marks on the world through the exertion of our forces. The world, in return, acts upon us. The basic challenge of every living organism is to maintain a state of equilibrium in its interactions, and through these interactions to grow and develop. At the beginning of his greatest work Democracy and Education Dewey describes the living organism as one that literally makes its life through the interaction with forces:
The most notable distinction between living and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal. A stone when struck resists. If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered into little bits. Never does the stone attempt to react in such a way that it may maintain itself against the blow, much less so in order to render the blow a contributing factor to its own continued action. While the living thing may easily be crushed by a superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into a means of its further existence. If it cannot do so, it does not just split into smaller pieces (at least in the higher forms of life), but loses its identity as a living thing.
This is a very profound paragraph, it seems to me. It takes us to the heart of why a simple task like running can come to mean so many simple things. The reason is that meaning of the activity of running taken in isolation is indeterminate--it only gains meaning as an interaction. When we go out to run, we engage with forces that reflect back upon ourselves. Like bats sending out sound waves in order to dodge stalactites, we use our running to make out the contours of ourselves. The meanings of the run are found in these reflections.
The difference between us and bats is that the cave in which we fly is internal as much as external. When it comes to knowing ourselves, we are blind as bats. Our eyes look outward, not inward. Like bats, however, we can gain self knowledge indirectly, by reading ourselves through the interactions we make with the world. The better we are at this task, the more we can learn from the signals that bounce back. Out of the interplay of forces, if we pay attention, we can read a kind of topography of self.
|Good picture, but not only do knowledge and action take place with a world outside, |
but we also must learn repeat these same interactions with our selves.
Through the different intensities of training, through a variety of races, the failed workouts, the runs with friends, the daily grind, the hundred mile weeks, the first steps out the door after a long layoff--through each of these acts we send inwards a kind of radar-signal. This signal is what we mean by the vague term "effort." We watch how this effort bounces, how deep it runs, and we react and learn about ourselves through the forces of resistance that this effort encounters. Effort is the name we give to internal vision; it is vaguer and less precise than the vision our eyes give us--perhaps it is not healthy to know ourselves as well as we know the world around us--but effort is still an organ of perception. Racing, running, and training require reading what we find about ourselves through our efforts accurately and reacting to this information intelligently.
I began this post with the thought of a run as a kind of unblemished canvas, a spur to multiple free creations. My thoughts have drifted now to running as a type of uncovering of a pre-existing self through the organ of effort. How free are we to create the runners that we are? Which of our capacities are predetermined, which are the ones we have created? These are not easy questions. The the space of the interaction lies between these two extremes--our selves, like the world, are concrete and open, not empty or decided.
Each run thus stands before us, and we before it. We do not know what insights it will yield. It appears blank, not unlike a canvas before the artist applies his brush strokes. But we fire up the interaction, first jogging, laying down broad streaks of effort, then the rest of the run follows. We are often surprised by, often familiar with, the selves we find--or is it create?--through the play and perception of the subtle and vague palate of effort. In this way, as living organisms, we maintain ourselves by renewal.