Monday, March 1, 2010

An ah-ha moment.

I don't know how this idea came to me, but it came in a flash of lucidity, rare for nights after a full day at the store. I'd closed up and drove home to an empty house. Steve had gone to Grass Valley to work on the house and I was left to my own devices to prepare dinner. It was odd being in the house alone. I think it was actually my first night alone in Tahoe since 2005-- now how's that for a record? Anyway, as I peeled cloves of garlic and de-stemmed kale for a simple soup, an answer came to the question I've been asking myself for weeks now: what drives a person to do something they don't necessarily gain any direct benefit from? Of course, this question-- for me, al least-- is framed within athletics. What drives an athlete to "perfect" their sport?

Before I go about the answer which came to me (smelling lightly of fresh garlic), I should first define exactly what sort of struggle I'm talking about here. I don't include athletes, for instance, like pro football or basketball players. I do not mean to say they work any less hard than a runner or a cyclist or a skier, but the rewards for success in the NFL are great. Even mediocre players are paid rather well by normative standards. Other sports, however, do not have such "lucrative" fairy-tale endings. To "make it" as an elite runner is, I imagine, quite different. Are they paid millions? Well-- if they win the right race and pick up a sponsor or two. But last time I checked, winning a major race (say, a marathon) is no easy feat. You're competing not just against fellow countrymen, but also the rest of the world. Plus, there's always chance for injury-- not just in the event itself, but the weeks, months and years which come before it. And so, what I mean by this is not to put on a pity-party for all us runners, but rather to point to what exactly I mean when I ask, why all the hard work with no apparent "pay off"? What causes us runners to be Kierkegaardian "knights of faith", in other words?

It seems to me endurance sports are a rather recent activity that have captivated (some) of us. Before them, what did people "obsess" about? Perhaps it's because I once TA'd a course called "Core Humanities" that this came to mind. Or perhaps I was just hungry. But the runner's endeavor does somewhat resemble that of the pious Christian. For both Christianity and long distance running, there is a "symbol" of perfection that a person tries to achieve. For Christians, it's Jesus. They study his teachings and his actions as models they can only aspire to (no one's perfect, after all.) A runner, too, has a "symbol" but one that, admittedly, is less tangible. For many, it's a "time" they'd like to run a particular race in. Or, a pace they want to hold for a certain amount of time. Or, it's a lifelong goal, consisting of running so many races or so many consistent weekly miles. Of course, there is a major difference: some of these goals ARE attainable and are by no means perfect. But there are a few goals I would argue runners make that are, in a way, unattainable and therefore approach that "symbol" I referred to in regards to religious belief.

Another similarity which occurred to me is the "etherealness" of both piety and a successful running career. It's the notion of "faith"-- or of doing certain things because of what one calls "faith." The Christian has no tangible evidence of the existence of God or the veracity of the Bible (and, ideally, needs no such proof.) Instead, s/he has faith. So too, there is no tangible reason why any particular athlete should follow the routines they do. Aside from being fit (which is a benefit), there is nothing immediately gained from devoted training. For the amateur athlete, there is no money made from running daily. In fact, there's often money lost: money lost from time spent away from work, from the necessary frequent purchase of running shoes, a membership to a gym, visits to various medical professionals. And yet, so many people are devoted athletes; runners. I think there is a certain kind of "faith" in adopting this lifestyle, especially if you want to succeed at what you do. You HAVE to believe that what you're doing is very real. You have to believe you can or there's really no point in moving forward. Without such belief, running really is a waste of time. (Unless you're doing it to get fit, but I'm not talking about those sorts of individuals.)

The correlation to writing is, therefore, obvious. Like running, there's very little pay off for someone who writes everyday, especially at first when s/he is unknown. Yet, there's a certain sort of faith writers carry around with them, too; faith in their ability to produce a text of interest or beauty that overwhelms doubt.

But this faith: what is it? It is similar to religious faith, but I don't think it's quite the same. For one, as I mentioned before, athletic goals-- or even writing/publication goals-- are attainable. They are not models of perfection (what would a "perfect" marathon even mean? Someone probably thought the first marathon ever run was "perfect"... but then someone else came around a year or so later and ran the distance faster. So... what's perfect? There's no "perfect" because, it seems, there are no limits. Will someone run it faster than 2 hours one day? I think so.)

So too with writing: some claim Joyce's short story "The Dead" is a "perfect" short story. I admit, it's quite good and among my favorites, but how does one measure perfection in what is essentially an aesthetic object? Isn't it also a matter of taste? What's a perfect poem? A perfect novel? If a reader is referring to mechanical concerns (the author's ability to use correct punctuation, for instance), there are many perfect novels. But what about the plot? The creation and evolution of characters? The voice chosen by the author? How can all these align to produce a perfect object?

At the end of this long rambling "ah-ha", I realize I'm lacking a conclusion. So what, you ask me, if athletes have a strange kind of faith in what they do? What does that have to do with your original inquiry: why people do what they do in the face of probable failure. Well, I have less of an answer than I thought I did, I guess. This small ah-ha is merely pointing to a part of what seems to be our human nature: people like to believe in things. And they like to work for what they believe in. It's a tendency that seems to exist in all parts of our existence. I've mentioned two examples, one dealing with spirituality and physicality. But emotionally: don't we pine and yearn for another person, not knowing if that person's affections are reciprocal? Perhaps the only element of our existence which escapes this tendency toward "leaping for faith" is the intellect, but that's by necessity I suppose. If we are so willing to jump, our survival requires a moment's pause of self-reflection. "Really?" we ask ourselves.

And if you're a certain breed of person, you say "hell yeah" and jump into a world of running, (or whatever) knowing while not knowing.

So now, I have to ask: do some of us have more of this tendency toward "faith" than others? And of us that do-- if it varies-- are those are great athletes, leaders, artists and writers?


elaine said...

That's a tough one... especially for a pragmatic ex-Christian like me. :) Also, I'm neither competitive (against others or against my own PR), nor am I trying to make money from running.

I think these are the top reasons I run:

1) Self-medication. If I don't work out, I get depressed.

2) Vanity. I always hope that running will transform my body, make me sexier in the now.

3) Health now. It gives me energy, regulates my appetite and sleep schedule.

4) Health later. I'm crossing my fingers that if I stick with it, I won't be immobile and fragile when I become an old fart.

5) Social. I love the camaraderie and energy at running events.

Those are my payoffs, and for the most part they're very tangible and don't require a lot of faith on my part... except for hoping that running will make me sexier (aesthetics), and hoping that running will prevent (rather than contribute towards) my needing a bionic hip replacement when I'm 70.

I guess I do have a little bit of Puritan faith in running though... hoping that by beating myself into submission, I will cure (or at least alleviate) some of my faults. It's like that quote from Born to Run:

'"I started running ultras to become a better person," Shelton told me when we first met. "I thought if you could run 100 miles you'd be in this Zen state. You'd be the Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world. It didn't work in my case. I'm the same old punk-ass as before, but there's always hope."'

I actually started running because I had to take a PE class in college. Then I continued running for vanity's sake. But since January, I've started running in search of that Zen state... in search of becoming a better person.

So maybe I have faith in running after all.

R said...

You're totally right, e. I think I run, in part, for those reasons, too. But there's a certain part of me-- especially now that I've set a very challenging goal-- that has to run "on faith." What I mean: even in my tempo workouts, I'm yet not fit enough to hold the pace I'll need to qualify for the Trials. In other words, I have nothing tangible which says "You can totally do this." At this point, I have to believe my body will respond positively to training and get fitter. But I don't know that.

Perhaps I have self-doubt issues (like, this is week 12 and I still think I'm a total fatty. Or, to be more accurate, as I told Steve: "It's like my legs and arms are athletic, while my middle is a stay-at-home-mom on a bon-bon diet." ) Yuck.

I wish I could claim I gain a certain social stimulation from running. Maybe this summer, when I'm outside more. Right now, running is solitary-- I run on the treadmill up here or I'm outside in Reno mid-day (trying to get as many rays as I can-- ie: vitamin D-- and so I"m usually out there alone.)

So-- for me , there's a lot of faith. Or whatever you want to call it: running but not knowing if there's anything waiting for me in the journey or at the finish line. Is that faith? Maybe I'm using the wrong word. But those are my thoughts, briefly.