Thursday, April 5, 2012

Anxious Reflections on Anxious Reflections

Anzaldúa was a chicana activist.
“Why am I compelled to write?... Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger... To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispell the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit... Finally I write because I'm scared of writing, but I'm more scared of not writing.”
--Gloria Anzaldúa

 Many of the posts I have written lately have characterized running as a practice of self-care, almost as a type of therapy. I have written running as a quest to regain intimacy, as a form of coming to terms with the self, as a way of gaining confidence in the self, and as a way of escaping the self.

As I wrote these things, I worried that the posts would betray a sort of middle-aged angst and narcissism. What would the 20 year old runner I used to be say about the runner who now writes these blog posts? Then, I did not think of running as therapy, I thought of it as an expression of passion, joy, and competitive spirit. I engaged in it recklessly, and my primary goal was not care of the self, but self-annihilation. Indeed, I used to dream, quite dramatically, of dying as I crossed the line, having run myself into nothing at all. That was the perfect race. I would pursue this in the middle of the race. Racing and running were not about learning something about myself. The idea was to destroy myself entirely in the noble dream of the "all-out-effort."

I guess what I am trying to say is that I didn't really have the reflective relationship with running that is at the core of this blogging. I was consumed by and in running. Maybe this is a false memory. Or maybe I wanted a reflective relationship but just didn't have the intellectual tools to develop it. But I don't think that's the case.

My memories of running as a young man simply took for granted that running was something important to do, something that needed no further justification beyond the fact that I was good at it, loved it, and wanted to do well for my coaches and teammates. My suspicion is that this young man would look at this incessant reflective need to "make sense" of running as a type of weakness because he knew instinctively that reflection in general is a sign of weakness. Reflection requires hesitation, and the great athlete, the great competitor, never hesitates. He twists the knife.

This brings me to the point that Anzaldúa made about writing. She says writing compensates for what the world doesn't give us. The reflective impulse arises, at least to some degree, out of dissatisfaction. It rises out of a kind of hesitation in our interactions with the world. If we cannot be fully immersed in the world, then we can at least dream it differently, and compensate for it in our imagination.

But writing is more than this. It is also a gesture to another. When we write, we bring that imagined world into a kind of precarious contact with the actual world. We make what we imagine real. And we hold it out to a possible reader, and we say: look, see. This is my dream. What do you make of it? Could it be reality?

This gesture requires a type of courage that is different from the alpha dog bravado that never hesitates. It's reflective courage--we hesitate, yes, out of fear. But then we take that fear and out of it we do something different. See, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the overcoming of fear--it is something different from bravado. Hesitation is the precondition of courage.

Thoreau's drive to live deliberately came out of a sense that he was alienated from the essential facts of life, that these essential facts did not come naturally and had to be re-discovered.

What does all this mean? I'm not so sure. I guess one thing that I am figuring out as I live my way into middle age is that there are two ways (at least) of inhabiting the world. We can inhabit it directly, almost animalistically, the runner intimately and without reflection piercing the skin of reality through direct effort. We can also inhabit the world deliberately, somewhat distantly, imaginatively. This type of consciousness is, perhaps, less satisfied because it takes its distance from the world as fundamental to its operation. It aims at intimacy, but only captures it occasionally and in degrees. Its task is something like coming to terms with a world that is hostile in certain ways to its own form of life.

The second way is how I live now. It's the way I inhabit my running, my job, my life. It is somewhat scary to live this way. Like Anzaldúa says, it's as though I am constantly convincing myself that life is real, that these things matter, that what I have to say is not a giant pile of shit. This is what Heidegger and Sartre called angst. They thought it was a fundamental condition of freedom and being-in the world. Angst, doubt, and hesitation is recognition that the world is not fundamentally reconcilable with your dreams. Recognition of the fact that life is fucked up in certain ways makes us nervous; it causes us to doubt ourselves, and even makes life feel unreal. It certainly makes us hesitate and reflect. And so, like Anzaldúa, we are scared to hesitate and reflect and write, but we are even more scared not to do it because that would mean succumbing to a reality that is not quite right.

Sometimes this fear makes us want to go back to an earlier stage of life, when the world seemed more like a partner than an enemy. But on reflection, I am not sure if I would like to return to the immediate immersion in life that I had as a young man. The joy I have now is in subtler experiences, in the hesitations, the interstices of life. All the rawness of then would be like drowning in a flood of experience. The pleasure I take in running is like a that of a connoisseur.  That word simply means a "knower" in French. I love running and even life as a knower of it, as not necessarily one with it, but as a reflection of it. I enjoy it in delays and hesitations and overcomings. Is this less satisfying? Perhaps, but it is what it is.

I suppose that I am learning now that hesitation and anxiety can even be a form of strength, pleasure, and joy. In the uncanny moment of reflective restraint, we do not disappear into life, but we do not disappear from it, either. Instead, in these irruptive moments, life can spread itself out before us in another dimension: still remarkable, still vibrant, still valuable. Living, still, once more, and in yet another way.

6 comments:

  1. Well, if this is your reflective mode, I like it. It's a wonderful essay. I may even write my own reaction to it.

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    1. Thanks Terzah! I like that you call it an essay. That sounds so much more dignified than a blog post. Ha ha.

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  2. This post really got me thinking. Are the life phases/cycles of a runner as compared to others, similar? Infancy, youth, adult, middle aged, elder. Thanks for putting into words.

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    1. Hey Dirk,

      Thanks for the comment. I find it hard to separate the running out from everything else in life, which I guess is why I find running so interesting. Not sure if that answers your question.

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