Friday, March 14, 2014

The Running Bum as Sad and Admirable

There is a thread on the message board right now about whether running bums are sad or admirable. I find the thread sort of fascinating because you can't really separate out the sadness from the nobility of it. Most arguments against building your life around running in your 20s make an instrumental argument about that part of life. If you decide to become a running bum, the argument goes, you are sacrificing your future potentialities. You will wake up some day in your mid- to late- 30s with sore achilles tendons and nothing to fall back on except 15 years spent working stocking shoes in a running store. Many posters find this sad, and it might actually be.

But it's exactly this thought that is the nobility of the running bum lifestyle: the thought that life is not fundamentally instrumental in nature, that the present ought not be sacrificed to an unknown future. The running bum forsakes imagined possibilities of midlife success for all sorts of real immediacies: the feeling of strength in the well-trained body; the simple and ascetic discipline of the running life; the brotherly clan of training partners; the sensations that others will never have a chance to know: the body working at a level that others could literally never imagine: clipping off 5 minute mile after 5 minute mile, effortlessly, flying.

We wake again and again to ourselves in the middle of life somehow, bound to a contract of habit that we don't remember signing. This is the case for everyone. The running bum's contract is different than most. He seems barely to have a grip on life, a grip that is certain to fade as his body fades, as the miles rack up, as the tendons degenerate, as the muscles lose their elasticity, and the crows feet spread out from eyes too used to staring out at horizons to find their focus beneath the florescence of office lights. His plans only involve circles, outs and backs, open roads, open sky and lost dogs in the dead of night.

The running bum intuits what the rest of us also know: life is short and it will fade for us all. In the end all instrumentalities of life, all the best-made plans, lead us all into the ground. His choice is noble, as it honors the present. He throws himself deeply into it without regard for futures beyond his experience.

This point comes for all of us, not just for running bums: the moment when we cease to trade the present for hopes only dimly imagined and decide to throw ourselves into the life that has chosen us. The moment feels something like this: we wake up one morning and find ourselves trapped by the choices we've made and by the path that fate bore us down. Life forces us to choose to be who we have become -- the recklessness and singularity of this choice is our only chance at freedom.

The running bum makes this choice to become who he is early in life, long before most people even realize that life (or, to speak honestly, death) will force this choice. It is strange to see someone choose a life so young, when they are still in formation, when most of us believe that we still have many lives to live beyond the one that will inexorably happen to us.

The lives of others are always sad and always admirable. Singularity is like that. We are sad for the losses that others must endure. We wish that they had made better choices. We mourn for the futures they could not live and hope to make better choices than they did. But at the same time we also admire the lives of others because they chose differently. They took paths we did not dare to take, made choices when we lacked courage. They became who they are, and the otherness of that choice beckons us out of the narrowness of our own perspectives.

The lives of others always reflect the singularity of our own life: the fact that this life is mine alone, and I have chosen it. I chose it sometimes sadly and blindly, sometimes nobly and deliberately, and sometimes without knowing which was which until much, much later, and sometimes without knowing at all.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Parenting and Running Have in Common: or why joy is more essential than happiness

In the fascinating and perceptive All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior takes a look at the cultural expectations surrounding parenthood, adulthood, and childhood. The book is fashioned out of a lovely mix of psychology, philosophy, sociology and real-world reporting, and while the drama of parenting is her ostensible subject, she uses this drama to explore even more fundamental questions. The book is not a manual for parenting; it's a book about the way we frame our lives and the narratives that support the answers we give to the hows and whys that face us down as parents and even as human beings.

The most interesting claim that she makes in the book is that the pursuit of happiness at the center of contemporary culture, enshrined in the Constitution, and a central guiding concept in parenting--we want our kids, more than anything, to be happy--is deeply problematic and a threat to other, more important, more achievable, and more satisfying human goals.

She explains that one of the first lessons of parenthood is that happiness is superficial, vague, and ill-defined. Study after study shows that becoming a parent does not lead to happiness. The people she interviews in the book make this case in all sorts of poignant ways. It's also clear that trying to make their children happy leads parents more often than not into paradoxes and difficulties and failures. Anyone who has tried to make someone else happy understands what a frustrating experience that can be. In fact, when we take happiness as a goal for ourselves, we end up making our selves miserable, more often than not.

Senior explains that contemporary culture misunderstands the nature of happiness when we take it as a goal. She allies herself with the Ancient Greeks, who saw happiness as an effect of a well-lived life, as a consequence of flourishing, rather than as an end to be pursued (Aristotle said famously that we could not know whether a man was happy until after his death.) She notes that the most powerful thing that children give us is a sense of this Greek ideal: a well lived life, formed out of duty and purpose. This duty and purpose structures the experience of living in a way that satisfaction is possible, not in an absolute sense, but in a series of concrete senses. Further, parenting gives us structured life in a way that connects us with other people, our children, our partner, our schools, other parents, community. So, the satisfactions that we get from fulfilling our duties as parents are shared satisfactions.

Senior sees parenting as one of the only human activities in the 21st century that allows us to combat a contemporary narrative that says that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness, painted as an internal and psychologically complete state. On the contrary, it paints a picture of life as a matter of family and communal flourishing and downplays the idea that life is about the maximizing of a solipsistic view of individual happiness. It refigures the purpose of life in terms of external attachments and duties, which can be actually measured and achieved in concert with others.

Runners ought to understand Senior's argument intuitively. She helps us articulate why an activity which from the outside (and even from the inside) involves a great deal of suffering, discipline, and is fundamentally painful and tiring (yes, running and parenting have a lot in common) is something that runners continue to do and even identify with. Runners and parents have a lot in common -- those who do not engage in these activities find them fundamentally annoying, don't get what the big deal is, and see parents/runners as masochistic and self-sacrificing.

Runners and parents also do a poor job of explaining why it is that they identify with these activities. We too often pride ourselves on our pain tolerance or paint what we do as self-sacrificing or more noble than other activities. This is why others find us annoying.

Running, parenting -- these things don't make us happier or more virtuous in themselves. They are not a direct path to self-improvement. But, they are activities that frame human activity in terms of duty and allow us to share those duties, with ourselves, with our peers, with our families. I think this is why we do not say that we do running or that we do parenting. Instead, we are runners; we are parents.

We are these things because they provide the duties and framework that allows us to see ourselves as connected, as attached, as beings with purposes and goals and the means to attain those goals or to fail at them. These rich activities (playing music, being married, deep friendship, working a career, being a neighbor) give us the very threads out of which we weave the patterns of our lives. In comparison to this quilt of real and shared responsibilities, happiness is a pale shadow, a mere consequence, a fleeting state.

Senior reminds us that what we want out of life is something more akin to joy than happiness. Joy erupts and fades; it is a feeling of flow, a sense that the structures of the universe -- or at least of our local environment -- are in line with our own being, a sense that we are magnified and larger than ourselves, connected in dynamic ways with experience, with others. Senior quotes GE Vaillant, saying that "Joy is grief turned inside out." Joy is the presence of what we grieve for when it is absent.

If happiness is too pale, inward, and controlled to be a life goal, joy is too vivid, outward, and wild. But articulating the value of life in terms of the one over the other says a lot about the types of experiences we frame for ourselves. The pursuit of happiness frames life as an inward mission towards a state of final internal satisfaction. Happiness is something we pursue and possess. The pursuit of joy frames life as a series of risks taken on behalf of hard-won, often lost, and mutual goals. Joy is never a possession: it's a celebration.

The runner, the parent, the human is never fully satisfied, but often experiences satisfaction. When we celebrate that satisfaction, for ourselves, with others, jubilantly -- when we grieve the loss of hard-fought battles -- we hardly notice ourselves, but for that very reason we are very much alive.
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