Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Running as Intimacy

"Modern man is well aware of the obvious forms of repression and social affliction. Poverty, prejudice, and violence take their daily toll. We are less aware, however, of more subtle forms of dehumanization, namely, those brought on by the erosion of a genuinely human environment in aesthetic terms. ... We refer here not to the world of art but to the drama of our doing, undoing, celebrating, and suffering that comprises the rhythm of everyday ordinary living. Too often this rhythm is submerged in a bland environment, rendering us insensitive to differences, horizons, and crises. In time, we drift through life without variety or intimacy."
--John McDermott, "Feeling as Insight"

I resemble this person.
McDermott wrote these words in 1973, three years before I was born. There are aspects of the expression of his idea that seem dated now. The notion of repression has fallen out of favor. We are perhaps more skeptical now of appeals to the "genuinely human," and it is even hard to imagine what might be meant by "everyday ordinary  living." Has a genuinely human environment ever existed? Are we really in decline as a culture--and who gets to make these evaluations? Finally, is the great threat to aesthetic experience blandness--or is it the hyper-stimulation of a culture that is stuck in overdrive?

Beyond these moments of difference between 1973 and today, what interests me about this small paragraph is the distinction McDermott draws between the more easily recognized but more remote problems of political life and more subtle and intimate problems in our personal environments that may go unseen but affect us just as deeply.

These are anxious times, indeed, and our anxieties are pitched at a national, even global level. There's the job market and foreign wars and rising gas prices. There's a presidential horse race that seems intent on dredging up every issue that has divided us over the last umpteen years just to see if it's possible to make every single American the enemy of every single other American. It's true that "poverty, prejudice, and violence take their daily toll," and I imagine that even if you are--like me--somewhat insulated from that toll, the ongoing fucked-upness of life bothers you and nags at you. Each of these issues affects us in some way, but it is hard to grasp exactly how and to what extent these huge and overwhelming problems are related to the smaller problems I have as a person just trying to, well, live.

What is a human being is supposed to do in the face of all this? Most of the time I content myself with the idea that I'm doing enough in life if I've got something to eat and something to do and I'm putting something away for a future day. But there come moments--like this one, I guess--when I start to wonder: is that story what keeps you drifting through life? Isn't there some deeper rhythm that I'm supposed to be grasping now? Have I grown indifferent to possible differences in my own way of living? Should the horizons of my life be shifted? Is there something more to life than eating and crapping and showing up for work and putting money away in retirement accounts? And if so, what the hell is it and how would I know it if I saw it?

There is something in the rhythm of life today--its highly charged, rapidly accelerating, frenetic attention span--that feels simply manic. It's as if we are trying to squeeze every ounce of energy out of our bodies and minds. We get on the internet, and it carries our minds from site to site to site, without ever offering the possibility of arrival at any single place. And so, we glance off of the issues of the day, ever onward: the economy, global warming, presidential politics, Greek debt, Whitney Houston, Jeremy Lin... tweeting and twittering and reading and processing and chattering and arguing without every really touching ground. Is it because if we touch ground, the persistent and kinda horrible questions of the preceding paragraph might rise up and grab us by the throat and demand an answer?

We used to worry that we would be annihilated by someone pushing the button.
Now we annihilate ourselves, slowly, quietly, and much less dramatically through the clicking of a mouse.

Um, maybe. I'll just kinda let that question speak for itself. At any rate, over time, after relentless clicking and moving from site to site, from meme to meme we find ourselves drifting through life without any intimate connection to it. Like the internet, we become everywhere and nowhere, distracted. The media becomes the message: click, click, click, reload. This sort of life is not bland because it is filled with infinite variety and infinite perspective, but the purity of that variety and the pace at which it comes strips it of intimacy. In the same way that a cup of coffee can cure your awareness of your boredom by amplifying your awareness of other things, this sort of life mutes the awareness of life by filling life with awareness of its infinite dimensions.

Perhaps, like all manias that do not end in insanity, this distraction is a transitional stage, a sort of wild release of energy that has been stored up for too long. It's as if we are daring life to come back to us, to make itself known. We want to see if it can still shock us and slap us. Maybe if we get shook down, something better, realer, calmer, more centered will coming down the pike. Let's hope.

Until then, we have to recreate intimacy with life in conscious practices of care. We have to fake it until we make it.

We runners know one of these practices. Our runs have beginnings, middles, and ends. We begin sorta tight and awkward. In the middle we are loose and flowing. By the end, we are tired and headed for home. It's a simple and aesthetically pleasing unity. The rhythms of the run are intimate. We feel them directly in our organs, through our bones. These rhythms gather our attention and hold it during that time, which is what allows us to notice the experience of running as complete and unified.

I can't help but be bothered, though, by one problem. Isn't the relief from distraction that the run offers us simply another distraction? Running offers aesthetic unity, but is the only consequence of that unity the ability to bear a few more hours of the distracted maelstrom of contemporary life?

What do the things I do as a runner have to do with the rest of my life? This is the sort of question that makes me want to browse my favorites, click reload, or, if I have time and energy, head on down the road for another, yes another, run.

9 comments:

  1. Nice post. By the way I read it in google reader on my phone while sitting on the can. TMI? But I'm in running clothes, having just run. So there's that. But here is my take on running's relationship to real life: rather than an escape from real life, running helps me make sense of it. It is a chance to create enough space to think and prioritize.

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    1. Hey thanks, Mike. I like that. Not to mention the friends you get to bullshit with and maybe figure some things out with.

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  2. In my old pre-kids life, when goal-setting in running wasn't as urgent, I'd say the practice was a pure one, and one that did nothing but benefit my life and complement its other aspects. This time around, with the social media component to it (my blog), my running isn't pure. Right now is a perfect example. I'm home sick and have some work for my real job that I could be doing. Instead I'm trolling through Facebook and reading blogs.

    I've actually thought of dropping the blog and the Twitter account altogether at points since 2010 when I started it all. But there's no doubt it's kept me accountable and focused too. My plan right now is to keep blogging etc. until I achieve the goal...and then stop the social media part but (of course) keep running. Many days I like blogging and reading others' blogs. But other days I want to hit my running goal *only* because I'm so sick of blogging. I feel like Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, "thin and stretched, like butter spread over too much bread."

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    1. By no means did I want to suggest that people stop blogging or reading blogs! (Though sometimes, yeah, I'm not really so sure what I'm doing with this thing and now that more people are reading it, the blog actually seems to exert some weird duty on me.)

      I understand that stretched feeling, fer sure.

      I haven't joined twitter, but I think that if I care about the blog, I probably should. Yikes.

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    2. Oh, no worries, Jeff--you didn't suggest anything like that. That's just my gloss on the question of fragmented attention etc. I've long been feeling overwhelmed by social media. There's a super popular blog called (ironically) "Shut Up + Run." I feel like I should do just that.

      But like I said, blogging also has had definite benefits--both for my goal and because I've made some of what (I think) are real friends through it, including local people I never otherwise would have met.

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    3. Whoah, that IS a super-popular blog. Cool.

      I started this blog as a way of procrastinating my dissertation. And, also, as a way of kinda wresting control of philosophy from the academic version that in my view is pretty played out. In the profession we are taught to write for a group of 12 people who might read a journal article, and it actually makes you a bad writer and (I think) a bad philosopher. So, what I like best about the blog is that it is a chance to try to do some philosophy with non-professional philosophers.

      Way more people read these little pieces than read my published articles.

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  3. Great post! From reading this, it seems that our "social media" age may have given us access to infinite amounts of information, but perhaps we are more disconnected from all of it than ever.

    Whether it is just another mindless distraction or not, running for me lets me feel life the way it should be in all of its bluntness. It's substantially more exciting than reading about running on the interwebs (while also tweeting, facebooking, blogging, and reading other stuff at the same time). The way I see it, running reminds me that I am in fact, still alive and not just some mindless drone staring into a computer screen 24/7.

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    1. Hey Dan,
      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that the big problem of intellectual life these days is figuring out how to organize information. That's why Google is the biggest thing going. They have an algorithm that basically organizes the universe for us.

      I also agree with you about running. I like what you say about the "bluntness" of it, and the reminder that we are still alive. I had a good 10 miler today, and yeah, it felt good.

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  4. 1) Put your router on a power timer (nuclear option).

    2) Use Leechblock or StayFocused to block time-waster sites for a period of time:
    https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/leechblock/
    https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/laankejkbhbdhmipfmgcngdelahlfoji

    ReplyDelete

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