Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Runner's Cycle of Suffering. And How to Break It.

Runners are an impatient lot. The determination to get faster can quickly turn into dissatisfaction with what we have already achieved. One of the virtues we all have to develop in order to reach our potential as runners is an ability to control this determination and keep it from turning us towards self-sabotage.

I have seen in runners (myself being a prime example) a certain 10-step cycle of sabotage that is often repeated:

1) The runner who has been going through the motions decides to train harder and smarter and better.
2) Fitness and results follow fairly quickly, and the runner gets excited to be "in shape" and running well.
3) Out of this excitement, the runner sets an ambitious goal, usually hoping that his development will continue at the same rate that it has started with.
4) Motivated by both the excitement of being fit and the thrill of the ambitious goal, the runner begins to train even harder.
5) Now, training harder than he has ever trained, more ambitious than he has ever been, the runner starts to get fatigued and anxious that he will not meet his goal.
6) The fatigue and anxiety mount even further, as workouts begin to stagnate and the line of improvement decelerates.
7) By the time the goal race rolls around, the runner demands of himself a series of super-human workout efforts in order to achieve his ambitious goals, placing too much hope in a last-minute workout or in the taper to save him from his fatigue.
8) The runner finally races the goal race and probably doesn't run a ton better than he or she did way back in step #2. This runner concludes that he is simply not talented enough to achieve his ambitious goals because there is no way he could have worked harder or put more into a racing cycle.
9) After the race, the runner feels tremendous relief not to be training anymore and falls back into "just running" and going through the motions.
10) Eventually, maybe 3 or 4 months later, finally mentally and physically recovered from this brutal cycle, the runner finds motivation to return to step one.

Sound familiar? Story of my life.

The Buddhists call the cycle of suffering the wheel of Samsara. Enlightenment is release from Samsara.

How to break this cycle of suffering? The key is noticing that the main causes of the down-spiral of the cycle are the very things that are positive about it on the way up. The demise of the runner is almost never laziness or lack of motivation. The demise of the runner is caused by the very things that make us runners: our enthusiasm and ambition.

Yes, you heard me right. Enthusiasm and ambition are the primary impediments to intelligent training. That's because the very same forces that we call "enthusiasm" and "ambition" are what we later--towards the end of this cycle--call "overdoing it" and "stubbornness."

We need to turn enthusiasm and ambition to the proper ends so that they remain enthusiasm and ambition instead of turning into their bad news counterparts. The key moment to identify is early in the cycle, around steps 3 and 4. We are most dangerous to ourselves when everything is going well.

Let me explain by making an extended analogy to accelerating in a car. In the early stages of training, everything "sticks." That's because we are in first gear. We get faster very quickly, and the engine is happy to rev up pretty high. The enthusiastic thoughts creep in. Man, if I am getting faster this quickly...how fast can I get? There is a temptation to stomp on the gas.

However, if we do that, we don't accelerate much faster at all. Instead, we just send the tachometer to the red line. In order to get to second gear, we've got to take our foot off the gas and switch gears.

Whenever we shift gears in a car two things happen. First, the acceleration slows. Second, the duration of acceleration is extended. We essentially make a sacrifice in short term acceleration for long term improvements in velocity.

The same exact thing must happen in training. The very moment when the acceleration of training is the highest and most thrilling, when the engine is revving loud and strong, is the moment when it's most important to step off the gas and switch gears. We need to tone back the enthusiasm and ambition, get the tachometer back down to a sustainable level, quit trying to maintain acceleration and worry more about improving speed over the long haul.

If we don't make these changes, we get stuck in first gear, revving the engine high, but not getting anywhere fast. If we keep feeding the engine gas, we even risk blowing up the engine, either in injury or overtraining.

This is a graph of acceleration vs. speed for a Camaro in the different gears.
You can see that as you go up through the gears, acceleration is traded for velocity.
The ideal moment to shift is somewhere just before peak acceleration.

If this happens time and time again, we start to believe that we are "first gear" runners. We look at the guys who have it in third, fourth, and fifth with envy, as they cruise effortlessly on the highway. That envy can make us floor it, trying to keep up, hoping that if we rev the engine hard enough, we can go 55mph in first gear. That's false hope and misguided ambition.

If we do manage to get the car up to 5th gear, challenges still remain. Acceleration in 5th gear is really hard, and if you experience a setback, sometimes you even need to downshift for a while. We can only stay in fifth gear as long as the road is flat and smooth. Even then, advances are slow and take steady work over a long period of time. You never get to experience again the thrill of rapid progression when you are a first-gear runner. If you've done the right sort of self-work, though, you are able to find pleasure in the longer journey, in the small victories, and you are able to see that the cheap thrill of quick improvement is just that: a cheap thrill.

Okay, enough extending of the metaphor. The point here is simple. If we want to reach our potential as runners and avoid the cycle of suffering, we need to choose a sustainable approach to training. That's no great insight.

But sometimes simple things are hard to put into action. If you remember back to when you first learned to drive a manual transmission, shifting gears was the most unnatural and difficult act. Once learned, though, it becomes one of the joys of driving, as it allows us to smoothly and consciously control the transformation of power into velocity. Eventually, as we mature, we learn to appreciate our automobiles less for the loudness of their engines or their ability to lay rubber, and more for their responsiveness to road conditions. They may not sound tough or leap off the line.

But they get us more reliably where we want to go.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Don't Just Do It.

"Thinking men and artists have not infrequently described a sense of being not quite there, of not playing along, a feeling as if they were not themselves at all, but a kind of spectator. ... 'What does it really matter?' is a line that we like to associate with bourgeois callousness, but it is a line that is most likely to make an individual aware, without dread, of the insignificance of his existence. The inhuman part of it, the ability to keep one's distance as a spectator and to rise above things, is in the final analysis the human part, the very part resisted by ideologists." --Theodore Adorno, "After Auschwitz," Negative Dialectics

It is common for intellectuals to wish that ordinary folks thought more about their lives and the consequences of their actions. It is even more common for ordinary folks to disparage intellectuals as being aloof or out of touch with reality.

These positions mark extremes. As individuals, we ought to avoid these extremes--we have to be careful not to become mere spectators of life, and on the other hand, we have to avoid the unreflective life. Thoughtful human experience is characterized by a gentle and controlled rhythm of reflection and action. Like positive and negative terminals on a battery, life sparks only when these moments are connected.

Our batteries are in danger of running out today. Folks seem always to be looking for more energy, whether it's in energy drinks, coffee, motivational sayings posted to social media, pharmaceutical anti-depressants. We try to cure this problem of lack of energy by reciting the Nike mantra, which is essentially the slogan for our manic age: "Just Do It." By just doing, we hope to escape the point of view of the spectator and plunge ourselves back into reality, lived and vibrant experience.

My sense is that this way of responding to flagging energy mistakes a symptom for the cure. The reason we are worn down is precisely because we are constantly "just doing" without thinking much about what or why or to what purpose we are doing. The answer to the problem of finding more energy may not be to do more, but to hesitate more, to think more.

Though culture presents it as a dichotomy, there is no tension between thought and action. Action requires thought as essential to it and part of it. Doing is mere impulse; it doesn't rise to the level of controlled action. When we take the point of view of "just doing," we disallow thoughts that might make us hesitate and reflect on whether all of this doing is sustainable, whether it's leading us in a healthy direction, whether it's harming ourselves or others. The "just do it" attitude is essentially reckless expenditure of energy without regard for the costs. It's the attitude of consumer capitalism--"Just Do It" translates pretty quickly into "Just Buy It." Nike has a financial interest in unreflective impulsion. Sure, it can get you out the door, but it's also what gets their shoes into your closet.

The guy I quote at the beginning of this post, Theo Adorno, was a big fan of philosophy. He thought it was the mode of human culture that is explicitly charged with preserving thought and critical reflection, the negative terminal of the battery of human action. Though Adorno can be difficult, his point in the above paragraph is pretty obvious: "After Auschwitz" we ought to be very suspicious of the call to live less reflectively, to just do without thinking. Auschwitz is a reminder of what humans are capable of when they cease to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

I generally dislike using the holocaust to motivate thought because first of all I think the impulse to "draw lessons" out of horrible experiences is one of the primary ways in which normalize and condition ourselves to living with evil. Secondly, and worse, it makes us think that evil was something that happened long ago, in another time, to another people, at the hands of others. There are plenty of examples of atrocity and evil today that should give us pause. Also, this is essentially a running blog, and let's face it the subject of evil is a drag, and you don't come here to get bummed out.

So, let me put the point I am trying to make in a different way. As a professional [and, at least on this blog, just a plain old] philosopher, I find myself often having to justify the practical importance of philosophy and its relevance to life. This is always a challenge to me because at a very basic level I find the practice of critical reflection the most practical asset in my life. Giving a justificatory account of thinking is like trying to justify breathing or singing or dancing. The very attitude that thinking is impractical just strikes me as odd from the outset.

Be that as it may, in a "Just Do It" culture, philosophy is in a position of having to justify its existence. This is of course difficult precisely because "justifying" is pretty much the opposite of "just doing." However, in my recent and fairly minimal work as a coach, the practical value of reflection has become pretty dang obvious to me, in a way that I think allows me to explain (even if this is a somewhat odious task) the value of philosophizing and reflecting more generally. So, instead of appealing to Auschwitz and saying something like: "Look what awful things can happen when people refuse to hesitate in the face of experience," essentially guilting you into remembering that philosophy is important, let me talk a little about coaching runners.

My primary function as a coach has not been to motivate my athletes. I always find that the extent to which athletes are motivated to become faster to be quite inspiring actually. The problem that athletes face, from high school through adulthood, is not how to find energy to train, but how to control the impulse to train so that it can work effectively. The challenge of training is a challenge of intelligence.

A coach shows you how to put motivation to work in effective ways. He helps you turn the impulsive thought: "I want to work to get faster" into an organized and intelligent plan of action. For a beginning runner, this may mean something like slowing down and working on consistency. For an intermediate runner, this may mean learning how to balance stress and recovery. For an advanced runner, this may mean learning the very specific modes of response that one's own body needs for training. This means "doing," sure. But it means doing in the right way, at the right time, in the right measure. Figuring all the rightness of this out requires time spent running, but it also requires the skill of critical reflection and response. Being able to pull this off means that the athlete will always have energy and motivation to train. The most motivated athlete is the improving athlete.

The analogy to broader areas of life is straightforward. How often are our impulses rash and inadequately conceived? How often does life feel like a relentless, will sapping, treadmill? All effort, little action? Sometimes in order to start in a genuine way, we have to stop. And think. And then go again, but this time better.

I am probably preaching to the choir here; this is a self-selected hardy philosophical crowd. But sometimes it's important to say things clearly, even if they are obvious. Philosophy--the care and development of a habit of thinking--is important. It is relevant. It is practical. That's obvious to anyone who has encountered the discipline. But unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, there are forces on the loose out there that seem intent on disparaging this activity, opposing it to doing, and consigning it to the realm of fuzzy-headed academics. Sometimes even we philosophers get in the habit of doing this.

So, yeah, let's say it loud and proud: philosophy is a practical discipline.

Forgetting the practical value of thinking lands us in a world where the only possible action is reduced to "just doing it," with little thought about what the hell that little "it" means or where it is leading us.

Such a world is, unfortunately, not too hard to imagine. It's a world where business majors can't talk about morality, a world where moralists can't put their ideals into practice, a world where the mind can't interpret basic signals from a sedentary and unhealthy body, a world where the value of work is unhinged from its consequences, a world where the food we eat poisons us and the earth it comes from, a world where lawyers forget about justice, a world where doctors make us sick, a world where the primary form of action is consumption, the primary form of human relation is domination. In short, it's a world that gave up on that old ideal that life ought to be constructed from humane and thoughtful action.

Working to prevent such a world seems to me to be just about the most practical thing we can do. It's a task that will take some thought.

So, yeah. Give a philosopher a hug.

Just think.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Race Report: Sea Ray Relays 10,000m

The convention in track racing is to write out the distance of the event in meters, in order to distinguish a race run on the track from a race run on the road. It's not a 10k on the track, it's 10,000m. Obviously there is no need to be a stickler about this, and in fact the announcer at Sea Rays announced us as participants in the 10k and no one was confused or picky about it. Maybe it's just a matter of convention, but I think it also says something about the culture of track racing. The track oval is a space where distance is measured in meters and time in hundredths of seconds. It's the place you go to find things out. Everything is clearly marked; there's nowhere to hide.

My buddy Ted and I had driven over here from Nashville, lured by the idea of a good night race under the lights with solid competition. Conditions were going to be pretty much perfect, 60 degrees and no wind. We got there early and watched the steeplechase, 800m heats, the mile. Large men hurled blunt objects in the infield.  Eventually, inexorably, race time rolled around. On my warmup, I felt a little flat, both physically and mentally. I had been nervous all week, so maybe this was the final calming of the nerves. I didn't worry about the flat feeling. Ted's race hadn't gone well (he ran the 5000m), but he joined me for a few strides.

In track culture, everything has its place and time, and it goes by the book. The lines are clean, the surface level. The officials conduct themselves with dispassion and effectiveness. They have the demeanor of scientists, preparing the lab for an important experiment. Which, I suppose, they were. So, about ten minutes before the race, I went to check in, to get my hip number. As you probably know, you line up at the start according to the seed time you submitted, from inside out. The hierarchies are clear from the outset. Fast on the inside, slow out. The number, a big sticker attached to your hip, designates your rank. Mine was 13.

Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich

When the women finished running, the official called us over and lined us up on what's called the 'walk up line.' This is a dotted line that is a couple steps behind the start line. I found my place dutifully towards the outside of the track, peering down the line of runners. Twelve faster than me on my left. Two slower than me on my right. The starter raises his pistol and calls out, "Take your marks." We then shuffle up to the start line, carefully place a foot closely behind it, and lean forward, waiting for the gun. In my time away from racing on the track, I had forgotten about all of this, but I fell back into the rituals with ease. Like sacraments, all of these little carefully constructed practices get the mind straight and attentive. They tell the body and the mind that what we are about to do here is, well, something special.

The 10,000m draws the runner's runner. Even though these guys seemed perhaps less athletic than the guys I had met in earlier races--leaner, goofier, skinnier--they were harder.  These were the guys who couldn't break 60 in the quarter, but who could go on forever. They soaked up training and effort like a sponge. They didn't need fancy coaching, and probably wouldn't take to it, anyways. You just send them out to run 120 miles a week, hammer mile repeats, and hope they show up for the race on the weekend. There was little anxiety among these runners. They were very familiar with this small and unforgiving space. It was time, simply, to do what they had been training to do: run for 30 minutes straight at a withering 5 minutes per mile.

1980 Olympic trials--these guys can break 60 in the quarter.

My seed time was a couple minutes slower than most of these guys. I'm not running 120 miles a week, nor am I hammering mile repeats. Running with them would feel easy for 5 minutes, hard for 10 minutes, then I would simply be crushed and would not finish. I knew these guys were dangerous. So, when the gun fired, I let the peleton of 10,000m runners go without regret. Maybe another day. By a lap into the race, they already had about 4 seconds on me. This lead would multiply 25 times.

Fortunately, for the first two and a half miles there was a diminutive Italian kid running my pace. He was from Xavier and probably a freshman. He had a lot of fans out there. We traipsed along together, a smaller band of two that trailed the organized peloton. Every backstretch his buddies would yell, "Go Coniglio!" I knew pretty soon that he wouldn't last, since he just kind of limply sat on me. Occasionally he would make a half-hearted pass, as if to pretend to challenge the pace, but he would then slow down. He dropped off the pace after a couple miles, and the rest of the race I would run alone.

My buddy Ted was on the infield giving me splits. Normally, I am not a huge fan of splits, but when I found myself running by myself out on the open track, I was really glad to have Ted there. Maybe if I had been in the peloton it wouldn't have been important. It didn't really matter what he told me. It just mattered that there was someone watching. Otherwise, it would have just been me, running alone, on a track, round and round. Which is, of course, what it was.

Anyways, I was out easy, through the mile in 5:17, pretty much perfect. I kept clipping off 77s and 78s and felt really good. The breathing was easy and the pace did not feel hot. I bided my time and let the laps fall away without counting them, content to just hear Ted's splits. According to his watch, I was through 2 miles was even in 10:29. 3 miles in 15:47. I just concentrated on running easy, and I felt like I had a chance to run even splits all the way through. For a few moments, I allowed myself to reflect on the ease with which this 5:15 pace was just coming to me. I didn't catch the 5k split, but it must have been around 16:25. In January, I'd run an all out 5k in 16:22. Today, in April, it felt relaxed and smooth. As in the early moments of the marathon, there is time in the 10k to enjoy running fast.

This enjoyment turned into labor in the 4th mile, and I hit this split in 21:03. Shortly thereafter the main group lapped me, my solitude interrupted by a pack of sweating, straining runners who ate me up on the back stretch. You could tell that it was about to break up because some of the guys on the back looked grim. I tried to keep my rhythm, but after I was lapped it started getting pretty tough. It was as if the passing of the pack, the effort that they were putting in, woke me up to the fact that I had been running pretty hard for the last 20 minutes. It's funny how the pain settles in on you almost immediately, and you go from floating and flying to that deep sensation of effort. The end was coming, and it was time to reckon with it.

Only three laps or so removed from that feeling of strength and power, it got really fucking tough. I'm happy with my mental effort through this part of the race. I just tried to stay strong. I held my form together, but the laps slipped 78s and 79s to 81s. I thought a lot about the last six miles of my last marathon, about grinding, and I tried not to count laps, which was pretty much impossible. With 6 laps to go, my face got kind of twisted, and I tried to relax it, but it didn't work. The thought of giving up and dropping out passed through my mind, and I played with it a bit, just to pass the time. Every now and then I would get lapped by a straggler and do my best to hang tough. With 800 to go, I started to convince myself to kick. The winner of the race double lapped me, just before my last lap. I ran the last lap in 74, running hard to try to get under 33.

The only guy I beat was Coniglio. A couple other guys dropped out. I ran 33:04--an all time PR, since I never raced 10k when I was really fit in college.

Secretly, I had been hoping for 32:30 and even letting myself daydream of running under 32 minutes. For now, it was enough to feel like a part of that old quirky game, back with the guys who die by the second, count their races by the meter, and choose for their competition the only thing that never stops: the clock.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Five thoughts on how training for 5k can help your marathon.

It's marathon season, and many of you faithful readers are headed towards a marathon attempt after a long bout of marathon training. This is the perfect time to reflect on what you should do next, after that marathon is in the bag. Before gearing up for another long grind, I'd like to suggest spending a season working on your 5k time--and maybe even racing a bit on the track.

The advice I give here is not based in physiology, and I don't even want to say what 5k racing and training means for every person. But I guess these are simple reasons I have come up with just from being a member of the running community for a while and also thinking about my own experience.

1) The primary reason that I suggest working on shorter distances first is simply that this is the most common path that the best runners take; it's a tried and true path to success. There are people who have bucked this idea (some of them are my really good friends) and have run really well, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

2)Running fast requires developing a long and powerful stride. Running is a simple function of stride rate time stride length. There's only two ways to get faster: increase your stride rate or increase your stride length. Racing well over the shorter events requires developing a longer and more powerful stride and being able to control that stride, run it efficiently. This is probably the primary thing that new runners lack: the ability to put power into their stride, and concentrated work at shorter distances like the 5k (or even the 800 and mile) early in your running career will develop this stride and allow you to take advantage of it when you become aerobically stronger.

3) The 5k teaches you how to race. Spending a season on the 5k will allow you to run 5-10 races. Some of these will go badly. Some will go well. It is hard to learn how to race by beginning at the marathon level simply because you can't race a marathon back to back. You can't practice riding the thin line because it takes so much out of you and the consequences of falling off are really painful. In the 5k, you learn how to manage a pace that is aggressive and controlled.

 4) Training for and racing the 5k teaches you how to incorporate quality work. The best marathon training is a grind. You are tired all the time, and you pile miles on miles. The primary thing that makes you better is adaptation to volume. The best 5k training requires learning how to rest so that you can perform your workouts and practice running smooth at race pace. It's easier to learn your body, to feel fresh every now and then. Also, to race well at 5k, you need to balance training and recovery, learn how to target a race. When we marathon train, we train through our races. But since the volume demand for 5k is a little less, you can get away with "resting up" at several points during the season to run your best. Learning what it feels like to be truly sharp can really help you identify whether or not you are properly recovering from your workouts or at the right mileage level.

5) Finally, racing at the 5k distance teaches you how fast you can really be. Let's face it, running is a head game as much as it is a physical game. As long as running X minute miles is intimidating, it's going to be hard to have the confidence to run that pace in a marathon. Racing at shorter distances gets you comfortable running 5 minute and 6 minute and 7 minute mile pace, even if initially in short bouts. You begin to understand how to control these rhythms and bring them into your range.

I am a huge believer in mileage and, in running easy. These are still, all things considered, the most important variables for distance running success. However, it's also true that you can't get fast without running fast in training. Running fast is a skill that can be practiced; you can get better at it. Volume is a huge determinative of distance running success, but so is balanced and progressive training. Taking an occasional break from the relentless slogging of miles to really think about how you can get faster will keep you mentally fresh and also allow your body a different stimulus for training.

When you watch great marathoners like Shalane Flanagan or even a pure marathoner like Ryan Hall, you can see the track running in their background. You see it in the intensity of their focus, the dynamism of their stride, their responsiveness to surges, the timing of their moves. You can also see it in their training: they know when to run fast, when to back off, when to hammer. These are skills they learned as young runners on the roads, in XC, and in track, and they apply as well to the marathon. You don't have to be an elite runner for this to apply to you as well. Everyone can make improvements by taking the shorter distances seriously.

Not to mention, along the way: you might find that you enjoy the 5k more than the marathon. Or, you might even be better at it. Stranger things have happened.

Meanwhile, on a personal note and in the spirit of trying new things, I am headed out this Friday to the Sea Ray Relays in Knoxville to try my hand at my first ever 10k on the track. Wish me luck! And best of luck to all the marathoners out there, especially those headed to Boston on Monday.

If you liked this post, check out these thoughts on how to keep it simple and train from 5k to 50k... just try not to catch me in any contradictions!

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.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...