On the Smallness of Running

"As for me, my bed is made: I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top."  --William James, in a letter to a friend

The smallness of running:

  • the strike of the foot
  • the curve of the path
  • the agonizing second
  • the race remembered
  • the step out of bed
  • the moment of decision
  • the blinding whirl
  • the forward lean
  • the breeze in an ear
  • the flight of the mind
  • the common pace
  • the daily run
  • the irritable tendon
  • the lace untied
  • the rising strength
  • the return to weakness
  • and so on, so long as we run

The way to write about a practice like running, which has no larger meaning, is to focus in on the smaller meanings. It's easy to think that when we philosophize we ought to say something grand and large, as if the truth of life must somehow be bigger than life. We are always wanting life to live up to its reputation, perhaps not realizing that this desire diminishes life. 

Following James, I've found more insight going small -- into the overlaps and the lifted edges of life. It's there that the mind can actually grab hold of reality. We want our minds to be like trawling nets that capture everything at once, but the truth is that minds are more like scalpels and tweezers, better at slicing and mending and grasping the small than capturing the large. We think with a pincer-grip.

It's for these reasons that I drone on about running as an antidote to wisdom ill-conceived. Running brings us back to the small. It locates the mind inside a body, inside a brain, inside a skull. It localizes the attention, steadies the scalpel. When we run, we find ourselves to be contained within ourselves, smaller and therefore more capable, and ultimately more wise for the smallness.

Like any material, the larger the mind is spread, the thinner it becomes. With the internet and current events and politics and all, it feels as if our minds have been stretched to a sort of transparent film, like the surface of a soap bubble, upon which only impressions can be made. Our attention is repeatedly drawn to affairs much larger than we can comprehend, and our reflections threaten to spin off into other reflections, hardly skimming experience.

In contrast, the pleasures and pains of having a body are always local, immediate, pressing. While our minds can drift above and out of them for a while, in the end these smaller immediacies will have their way, like James' patient soft rootlets rending relentlessly the hardest monuments of man's pride. 

In this is the small wisdom the body teaches: in the slip, in the passing, in the sensed and forgotten, in the glimpsed and the fleeting. In these are something more stable and enduring than the monuments of pride, the Gods and Nations and Arguments and Identities and Truths. We run, we sweat, we move, composing ourselves again, packing ourselves back into the small beings we are, ready to lift camp and to travel. 

Might it be that in the end there is no larger meaning, that in the end life is measured in smaller meanings, themselves eroding away into sensations, overlaps, strains, and intentions? The world, perhaps, does not just orbit a sun but is also made of beetles and coral and blood, itself one of many worlds, teeming off into smaller and smaller multitudes. Can't we cast our lot with smallness? Aren't the multitudes more than enough?


  1. I've really enjoyed your last two posts, Jeff, as well as the paper on running and the ineffable. I'm glad you are blogging again.

    1. Terzah -- glad you still know how to find me. I hope I can keep the posting up, but the school year is about to begin... so we will see!


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