Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thoreau as Runner: Some thoughts on "Life Without Principle"

Here is the last paragraph of Thoreau's "Life Without Principle." It's a little long -- Thoreau takes his sauntering seriously -- but worth the attention:

Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics and the daily routine, are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body. They are infra-human, a kind of vegetation. I sometimes awake to a half-consciousness of them going on about me, as a man may become conscious of some of the processes of digestion in a morbid state, and so have the dyspepsia, as it is called. It is as if a thinker submitted himself to be rasped by the great gizzard of creation. Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society, full of grit and gravel, and the two political parties are its two opposite halves, — sometimes split into quarters, it may be, which grind on each other. Not only individuals, but states, have thus a confirmed dyspepsia, which expresses itself, you can imagine by what sort of eloquence. Thus our life is not altogether a forgetting, but also, alas! to a great extent, a remembering, of that which we should never have been conscious of, certainly not in our waking hours. Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.

It is easy for the runner to see the influence of Thoreau's habitual walking (or "sauntering" as he preferred to call it) on his philosophical orientation. I do not want to reduce his philosophy to the fact that he was a walker, but I also do not want to minimize the role that this simple human activity might have taken in developing his philosophy. There is wisdom in regular movement. I'll put it like this: the title of this essay might as easily been "Life Without Walking."

Thoreau's profession was surveying, but he made his living with the less precise great art of  sauntering.

Thoreau never really tells us what his Principle is. He simply notes the absence of principle in so much of living. The absence is noted in a specific effect: namely, too much remembering of the underbrush of life -- politics, routine, gossip. The unprincipled life is the life that lets its consciousness be dominated by things that might be made into unconscious habits. In other words, the unprincipled life is the life that wastes effort on things that ought to require no effort -- and therefore squanders this most precious of human resources.

A life of principle, then, is a life that conserves effort for the things that are worthy of effort. To be principled is not so much to be hardworking or to live one's life according to a rule. To be principled is to recognize the relationship between effort and choice, to deliberate on this relationship, and to take responsibility for it. We often confuse being principled with having a rule for choosing and applying it. But of course rules and values can be applied without any application of intelligence. The difficulty is not in possessing or acquiring a principle or values, but in being principled. These are two different things entirely.

I want to think that this notion of life without principle and the relationship between conscious and unconscious effort came to Thoreau as he was walking. As we runners know, the act of running itself is mostly unconscious. The habitual runner has trained himself to do a thing which would require immense effort and concentration for the non-runner. A ten miler for the well-trained runner is a chance for his mind to wander and reflect, a time for genuine companionship among a select crew, a time for escape from busyness and routine. We do not have to reflect on how to move our legs, on the pace we need to run, or even on the route we take. Such reflection would make the run worse, not better. Many a good run, even the best runs, have slipped underneath my feet without any consciousness at all -- the road simply stretching out, my legs simply churning, my feet lightly falling, my chest gently heaving, my heart beating as always.

It's paradoxical, but true -- the well trained runner can forget his body in ways that the non-runner must remember. Being in shape is a feeling almost like being disembodied. The body runs on its own; we reach the runner's grail: the tireless state, the unconscious body. This is such an exhilarating feeling because the mind is then liberated to float freely above and beyond. Having acquired the unconscious habits of the runner, we are in many ways liberated from the body.

My sense is that Thoreau knows this feeling from his daily walks and uses it as a critical threshold for this, his most concise and direct philosophical statement. A principled life would be one in which we have become well-trained in the underbrush of life such that we can perform the routine tasks of daily life almost unconsciously, saving the precious resource of effort for more noble endeavors. As the well-trained runner lives in his body, using his attention and effort only to keep it on the path and to get it out the door, so would the principled life save its attention and effort for its larger and wider vision, avoiding getting bogged down in the thistles and muck of petty politics.

In many ways the discipline of a principled life is the opposite of the pale shadow that goes by "discipline" in education -- where we teach students that discipline is about the effort of completing the daily assignment. The goal ought to be to produce the sorts of people who can handle the the daily assignment with little effort at all. Then, effort, the stuff of life, can be directed towards more expansive projects, like poetry, philosophy, love -- the things of genuine value.

Such discipline would look almost exactly like the discipline of the well-trained runner, who manages to smile and even laugh at paces that would make the rest shudder. This laughter is the mark of a principled life: not dyspeptic sacrifice but eupeptic joy.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Hard Memory

I want to talk about John Freeman today.

On a horribly beautiful April morning, not unlike this Monday, the top runner and team captain of the cross-country team that I coached was hit by a train and killed. Running had saved his life before he lost it. As a ninth grader, like many, John had been struggling in school. The running helped him with his attention, and it gave him an identity at the school. By his senior year, he was one of the school's best athletes, an honor roll student, and had been accepted to a top university in the Northeast. He was going to try to walk-on the team.

When I heard of the bombing at the Boston marathon, thoughts of John surged up from the deep places.

The memories are too clear. His family invited me to the hospital to say goodbye before they stopped the respirator. I stood there with his mother and his father and thought of how the runner's heart in his chest continued to beat blood through his damaged brain. Running had made me a part of his family. The next summer, the hottest summer I remember, his father and I laid out a XC course through the school. We lined it with flat sandstone that we hauled on a rickety trailer from Crab Orchard. It felt good to work and sweat, but not as good as running with John. This was almost a decade ago.

It's a cliche, but we repeat it anyways: we don't know what we've lost until it's gone. I didn't realize how powerful my connection to John was until my knees buckled when I heard the news. I didn't know how deeply I could be affected by an athlete until I tried to speak about him to the school in the days after his death and found that my voice could not sound.

On Monday afternoon, the running community felt some of the power of our connection. We all shared a common experience: that of the possible loss of our friends. Some of us experienced real loss. Those of us who avoided that real loss on Monday were brought to reflect, as I do now, on other losses that we have experienced.

As I sit here overwhelmed by the reception of the piece I wrote on Monday, its themes come back to me. Vulnerability. Exposure. Pain. Endurance. Love. Risking being open. -- and how those things are the essence of non-violence. One of the things that I love most about running is the feeling of moving with a stripped-down body across open ground. We do feel exposed when we run, and I think that's somehow wrapped up in the freedom we feel when we do it.

Acts of terror exploit this freedom. Their consequences almost always result in the erection of walls, monitors, checkpoints. These are physical reactions to basic human vulnerability and the way it exposes us to risk--and to each other, and therefore unfortunately to the possibility of violence.

The pain I felt when John died was truly awful. By becoming so close to him, by allowing our lives to intertwine, I unwittingly exposed myself to trauma. I don't like to revisit that pain, but sometimes it visits me. When it does, I try to remind myself that this pain is the mark of companionship, even though it doesn't feel like it. Not at all.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Bomb Is the Opposite of a Marathon

Runners are more than familiar with pain. It's our bread and butter. We love to hurt. We believe in endurance, in suffering, in brutal and soul-withering work.

But ours is not a violent sport.

See, there's a difference between pain and violence. Violence violates. You see it so clearly in what happened today. The morning showed pain as triumph and pain as failure. The suffering carved out on the face of Dulce Felix (what a sweet name) as her legs no longer worked, as her glory faded into defeat, as the marathon gods smote her for believing too much, for wanting too much, was noble suffering. The suffering of loss, but sensible loss, human loss. This sort of loss was not a violation because all it risked was victory -- such a small thing in the grand scheme. Sweet happiness led the race, and then faded. Such is life. It requires endurance.

With Jeptoo we saw strength overcoming pain. We saw her, after 24 miles of hard running, run harder. We saw the glory of a healthy body at the peak of its talent, at the peak of its performance. We saw what can be, sometimes, in rare moments: a life almost without limits. A picture of fragile triumph.

The Boston Marathon is, in many ways, a celebration of human effort. We come together on Patriots Day to remind ourselves of the joy and pain of work and effort. Everyone who has taken the marathon seriously knows that to make your peace with the marathon means learning to love the grind over the result, the pain over the triumph, and the hard push over the finishing time. Marathoners embrace these things because in a race so long, there are few perfect races. Doing well is always just that: doing well. We never do our best, but we do enough. That's what endurance means.

That would have been lesson enough. But when two blasts rung out around 2pm, running experienced violence. We were violated. Those two blasts introduced pain without effort. Suffering beyond endurance. A bomb is quick, thoughtless, grotesque, impatient, unfeeling. It's all externality, no internality. All destruction, no training. All noise, no silence. All damage, no strength. A bomb is the opposite of a marathon.

We opt for violence when we can no longer endure the difficulty of living with others, the difficulty of recognizing our limits, the difficulty of being vulnerable ceaselessly to pain. To endure is to keep going in spite of those limits and the pain of life. To endure is to expose ourself to the world, to others, to the ravages of time and effort. To endure is to risk loving, to risk being loved. A marathon doesn't always have to symbolize this. Sometimes it is just a race that runners run. But this year it is more -- it is a symbol of endurance.

A bomb is the opposite of a marathon.

Tomorrow, despite the bombs, we will be running. We will be afraid, but we will not fight. Or rather, we will fight by not fighting, by choosing flight, we runners, we believers in endurance.
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