The Body as Ethical Compass

A good friend of mine wrote me today that he is restless and uncertain of the value of his work, both in terms of its immediate effect on his mental health and also its larger effects on society. In a complicated world in which effects of most everything seem divergent and diffuse, few have escaped these sorts of thoughts. They come to us most directly in the early afternoon lag, when the third cup of coffee has no more vital effect but instead sends our thoughts scattering out wildly. Mostly, however, we avoid pondering these imponderables and know them only as, say, a growing waistline or creeping insomnia or an endless distraction that cannot be shaken.

For these things, we need renewal. There are times when I marvel at nature's capacity for renewal: how many barrels of oil could there possibly be? How many cucumbers can this world provide? How is it possible that all the worlds forests have not yet been cut and processed into paper?

The body as natural object, delicate as it is, shares in this fertile power of renewal. Like the world, it can be abused thoughtlessly and yet still give without desire for gratitude. There is no need to describe the particularly gruesome forms of bodily abuse that are a natural effect of culture in the 21st century. The evidence, like the evidence of environmental abuse, is so ordinary that it is almost invisible.

But still -- and this is why I was always an afternoon runner -- there is so much that even a damaged body can give us. After exercise we are refreshed and centered. When we use our bodies they envelope us within a field of intimacy and causality that is an antidote to the restless dispersion of 21st century life. Deleuze called this dispersiveness a kind of schizoid flow, and in his analyses always pushed the questions of ethics as the question of channeling these flows. The body has a non-dispersive flow. Its rhythms are regular and can be learned like a musical instrument.

When we say "the body" we refer to a lush flow of experience that we are able to tap into, habituate, and if not control at least find a way to flow along with it. The joy of regular exercise and training is the joy of mastering a type of flow, of being able to turn it on and turn it off, of being able to ride its waters even as they rush.

Any attempt to thoroughly organize the body is an attempt to shut down its flows -- to kill it. There is always an animal side to exercise, a side that is beyond reflection or control. If we are lucky enough to have a healthy relationship with our body, we are able to find a way of interacting with it that is vital, playful, and beyond questions of control. We develop trust in it and with it, and the body becomes a constant and reliable companion.

To return to my friend's difficult imponderables: the body's critical power can be used not only to endure difficult life situations but also as an ethical compass of sorts. Those of us who know the intimacy of the body, the power of its vitality, and the freedom and joy it can give cannot help but use that knowledge as a counterpoint to a life frittered away in small things. A run in a well-trained body shows us what life can be.

Training the body does not make one ethical, as the endless scrutiny into the personal life of athletes reminds us. That said, the question of how we respond to the fullness of experience that athletics gives us is an ethical question that continues to challenge the athlete, long after his best running is done.


  1. Gobbled it up.

    At first I thought, "Too bad I am not afternoon runner." But, then, I realized that attempting to "organize" my body's post-workday activities is exactly the problem. I take this as a call to go home and "exercise" the ethics of the body by "running around" like a wild boy with my children. My wife will thank you (maybe).

  2. I appreciate your well thought out musings on this matter. As a writer, I find that once my brain feels like it is running on empty, a good long run will recharge it better than anything else. Keep up the good work.

  3. Thoughtful essay. My body has given me some amazing experiences. My favorite - trails runs - as close to GOD as I can get!

  4. Jeff,

    After seeing this latest post, I just wanted to let you know that although this is my first time commenting here, I very much enjoy your blog. A high school running buddy of mine who now lives in Nashville turned me on to the blog almost a year ago, and since then I have read all your archived posts and re-read many of them as well.

    I love the two way lens of running as metaphor for life and life as metaphor for running, and I feel reinvigorated whenever I read new ways of thinking about each. Hence, your blog has provided me with great intellectual and spiritual fuel over the last year! What an enjoyable complement to running!

    Thanks so much.


    1. Thanks, Lloyd. A new job and child has left me with little time to write, but I hope to continue to update, even if less frequently.

      All the best,

  5. Jeff,

    Glad you have returned! This article is at least tangentially related but it appears we were not the first vain culture out there to connect performance, appearance, and ethics : Although I am not sure we can say in modern times we consider athletes "blesses by god" (although many certainly do)...I do see the argument that talent is a blessing directly related to performance. It is interesting now that folks are suggesting adjustments to competitive racing based on those who have lived at altitude vs. those who have not. Regardless,I agree I see training as providing an intrinsic value for the individual trainee so long as they have a healthy understanding of their own body...meaning its limitations, capabilities, expectations, and as you say rhythms. Like many other things the body seems to suffer when its value is judged through purely extrinsic means. Many folks still seem to conflate performance and ethics and to me this is merely a mistake of focusing on the extrinsic factors. I think the predisposition to extrinsic value in our society is driven by a social media culture focused on impressions rather than substance. I recall in an undergrad philosophy class reading about some female artist who as a form of protest underwent various types of plastic surgery to conform to the vacillating forms of western beauty over time...the result as you might expect was a mess. I think if we as individuals totally submit our inner values and workings to the extrinsic flow of modern society without using the body as feedback (or as you describe the schizoid flow) we wind up the same...a mess. Hope to see more!


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