It’s About Consent, Honey.

I’ll spare you the details of the various and recent instances where I’ve heard “the honey argument” come up in both vegan circles and pop culture, but suffice to say it has happened so often that I feel compelled to lay out my thoughts in an effort of finality on this matter. Where the conversation around vegans eating or not eating honey can rely on hyper-detailed concerns about the farming practice, complete subjectivity, or grey areas of concern, I will firmly undercut all the hemming and hawing by stating, HONEY IS NOT VEGAN.

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

That is, by the parameters of the vegan definition listed above, the ingestion of a product created by animals and the relationship to those animals is in direct opposition to the very idea of “use”, encompassed in the terminology of “exploitation”. It is really, truly, that simple. With that said, my gripes surrounding this issue aren’t confined to justifications by non-vegans (and vegans) in order to use bees and eat honey, but also to vegans who frame their arguments against honey on both disingenuous and insufficient platforms. It is the latter which I intend to address in greater detail, with the hopes that drawing the philosophical line with this issue will help clarify the most powerful promise of veganism in general, no matter the issue or animal or product in question.

THE GROSS OUT FACTOR

In discussing any issue regarding animal products, not just honey, vegans often rely upon being persuasive by appealing to one’s sense of visceral disgust. They tend not to engage in the seemingly abstract and more intense philosophical considerations of the issue and instead play to the low brow dynamics of the “gross out factor”. I have certainly been guilty of this approach for longer than I’d like to admit. The gross out factor involves detailing the presence of “puss” in milk, calling eggs “chicken period”, highlighting traces of feces in meat, and defining honey as “bee vomit”. The idea is that getting one to accept animal products as “gross” or causing one to develop a visceral rejection of these products will undercut all the important and necessary work of changing one’s mind, of shaping an ethical framework, or slowly eroding ingrained traditions, religious beliefs or cultural values. It seems much easier to “lift the veil” and just get one to feel repulsed by animal products, to view them not as food, but on par with non-ingestible substances such as feces and poisons.

The fundamental problem of this approach is that it is entirely subjective. Not only does trying to convince someone that honey is viscerally repulsive because it is “bee puke” go against the visceral enjoyment of honey precisely because it is sweet sugar, it also demands that one immediately reshape all their positive associations with eating and enjoying honey for as long as they have been consuming it. There is no fundamental truth in the subjective response to honey as repulsive, because subjectivity is entirely personal. Just as other cultures might try to convince the Western world that eating crickets and grubs and worms is NOT repulsive, that doesn’t change one’s attitudes about these creatures being unappetizing. All the same, just as the more extreme health foodies (too many vegans included) might try to convince us that sugar is poison and food colorings are repulsive, it changes very few minds (not to mention ACTUALLY changes visceral responses to these ingredients) towards these subjective statements. Personally, I am not repulsed by the flavor of honey nor the way honey is created by bees, but of course, relying on these subjective statements is not my reason for avoiding honey or using bees.

I would argue that most vegans are actually not viscerally repulsed by the experience of eating animal products, even knowing how they are produced. I have never met a vegan who accidentally ingested animal products and burst into uncontrollable vomiting, myself included. In part, that’s because we recognize that most of our childhood involved eating animals and that in our current lives we watch the eating of animals as normalized. We watch other people eat animals every day without having to choke them down out of duty. Further, vegans acknowledge the (tenuous) notion of a “natural order”, that is to say, a biologically determined set of eating parameters defined as herbivorous, omnivorous and carnivorous. For this very reason, no vegan would ever tell a lion that eating a gazelle is “unnatural” or “repulsive” or somehow abhorrent. For most vegans, and pretty much everyone, we view animals in the wild as biologically determined, as following a set of dietary parameters shaped by evolution and not to be messed with. So to watch other omnivorous human animals eat animals or animal by-products and make a statement that it is fundamentally gross is disingenuous. It is a subjective statement that isn’t applied to animals in the wild and holds little argumentative water. If I’m being blunt, to say that eating honey is gross because a bee puked it or whatever…is just being flat out hypocritical.

Even acknowledging, however, that one may have psychologically shaped their perceptions to view eating animals as gross or repulsive, (admittedly, this is part of establishing culture and acceptable boundaries of behavior) suggesting this repulsion to others is not only ineffectual, but philosophically empty. It is empty because subjectivity loses any argument to experience. If the opposition concretely states that they are NOT repulsed by the way honey is produced by animals and that they enjoy the sensation of eating it, not to mention its’ benefits to their health, than one has completely lost the argument. There is nothing more to say. If, to your best efforts, you fail to convince someone that eating honey is viscerally repulsive, you have no other basis to convince them otherwise. Subjectivity loses the argument. Just as someone telling you how repulsive brussels sprouts are, if you experience otherwise, there is nothing left to be said. Just as someone telling you that there are chemicals in the ground and dead insects in the dirt and that eating anything grown from those elements is repulsive, if you don’t feel the same, the discussion is over.

Further, relying upon the argumentation that eating an animal is gross or eating honey is gross is a purely selfish, human-centric perspective. In no part of that argument does it recognize the animal’s role in the experience, except as physical body. The argument essentially states that if one doesn’t see eating the animal as gross or doesn’t view the creation of the product by the animal as gross, then there is no problem. As in all issues related to veganism, by definition, the primary problem involves the exploitation of the animal. To rely on personal subjectivity is to completely ignore the perspective of the animal, which is central to our ethical framework. To say that one should not drink milk or eat honey or eat meat or wear leather because one doesn’t enjoy the experience plays into the anthropocentric perspective that puts human animals’ needs above all other needs, be they non-human animal or environmental. It reestablishes the hierarchy of importance wherein humans are on top and all others are subservient. Although tactically simplistic, the appeal to human experience when it comes to eating animals and animal products is deeply flawed in philosophy and just as selfish. As vegans, let us do away with trying to convince others that their eating habits are “gross” and rather appeal to a more fundamental and universal ethic.

VEGANISM AS CONSENSUAL RELATIONSHIP

What the definition of veganism intricately describes is a RELATIONSHIP. It acknowledges the “other” – all non-human animals – and then establishes parameters of behavior regarding those others. It, above all else, recognizes a relationship. In terms of relationships and acceptable behaviors for relationships, humans rely on an idea of agency, free-will, and most importantly, CONSENT. Between human animals, the parameters of consent essentially define all the ways in which we interact with each other and in which they shape the restrictions we place upon our interactions. We ask for consent in the physical realm and the psychological realm. Breaking these parameters of consent amount to rape and abuse. In an act of incredible hypocrisy or willful blindness, we have broken the sacred notion of consent when it comes to non-human animals. It is this acknowledgment of the agency of the “others” (non-human animals) and their emotional and physical well-being that comprises the vegan ethic and which lays bare all the weak and ineffectual arguments for not eating animals and their products (honey in this case).

Where all the subjective arguments against eating honey (and all animal products) fall short, it is the essential definition of veganism predicated on the relationships of consent that is inarguable. This idea of veganism as a relationship dynamic is what seems to get lost on most non-vegans (and vegans too). The value of veganism is often lost in the absurd discussions of plant-based diets (“dietary veganism”…blech) and nit-picky details about the treatment of animals, of which I’ll discuss in a bit, instead of the fundamental idea of an ethical relationship with animals predicated upon consent, of which we equally establish as our guide for relating to other humans. So when opponents start throwing around details about how bees are treated, or how they are “free”, or the health benefits of honey, or how bees aren’t killed, this matters nothing to veganism as an ethic, as a definition of a relationship predicated upon consent. In almost no producing relationship with animals do we establish a basis of consent, or assumption of consent in regards to a communication barrier. In all our conversations regarding animals, we must continue to cut through the “buts” and “what ifs” and reaching details with the unmovable foundation of consent.

To get into the specifics of consent itself, it is ultimately about allowing an individual to establish their own needs for the goal of personal safety, comfort, appeasement and agency. To be self-directed, whether human or non-human, is a right born through existence. To take away from one’s consent (grey areas of protection exempted) is to step immediately into exploitation and oppression. Veganism then, simply extends this consent to creatures also of consciousness and sentience. Whether it is males, females, cows, birds, spiders or bees, veganism demands an assumption of consent before proceeding with a relationship, and it is this consent that is the barrier to exploitation.

The understandable problem with relationships between humans and non-humans is the barrier of communication, and it is this communication obstacle that leads to relationships of great exploitation. It is often the justification for using and blatantly abusing non-human animals at all levels of engagement, leading to ideas of animals as machines and insentient physical bodies. Unable to communicate their desires explicitly, we write the stories for them and place them in our narratives as means to our own ends. Animals were “put here for us”. But this is just mental appeasement to do what we wish with others, as we all recognize animals as being able to communicate needs. They feel physically and emotionally and their communications with us are broken only by the specificities of human language. They are able to communicate pain, joy, fear, sadness and the full experience of self-directed existence. Although the experience of sentience and communication is grounds for an application of consent, even the areas of communication that lead us into confusion and doubt do not justify exploitation. Where doubt of sentience (or degree of) exists, our safest route for respect of one’s agency and experience is within consent. To use an exaggerated sexual analogy, we don’t assume a passed out inebriated individual is offering themselves for sexual use. We utilize the measurement of consent, of which non-communication establishes NO CONSENT, to leave the individual alone…anything else is sexual assault. In the case of bees, where our understanding of their emotional and intellectual experience is not as defined as, say, a dog’s, the value of consent inherent in the vegan ethic will still define our actions. Even excepting the very knowable sensory experience of bees in this consideration, the vegan ethic of consent can not be discounted. It is no matter that we choose not to recognize a bee’s attempt to communicate towards us (if they even do that), it is our responsibility to establish consent with all relationships, and in that responsibility we are to leave bees to their own activities. We are to let them create their own products and use them for their own purposes while we are to let the process take place and carry out our own activities for ourselves.

CONSENT AS A BRIDGE TO SOCIAL JUSTICE

Beyond the issue of honey, consent is our connection and bridge to all other issues, predominantly human-centric issues. Consent in all acknowledged and respected concerns of social justice (race, gender, etc.) is inarguable, and it is our responsibility as vegans to highlight our conjoining ethic. The terminology of consent is, unfortunately, tied into specific issues of social justice instead of applied throughout all campaigns for equality and a fundamental respect for other’s agency. It is rightfully applied directly to the issue of sexual assault for obvious reasons, but consent shouldn’t be viewed as a momentary application and rather as a consistent, all-encompassing ethic. Veganism as an ethic is predicated on this idea of consent and it should always be the first and fundamental consideration in all discussions and behaviors, but also as a connection to the many social justice issues that fail to embrace the agency of animals in their practice and perspective. When vegans rely upon relationship consent as our driving force, we immediately build bridges to other movements seeking a sense of equality, freedom, and social justice. Where consent is fundamental to an ethic, veganism can not be disregarded by other movements and individuals. Consent as an ethic is outside the parameter of species specificity, and exists as an ideal itself, therefore can and must be applied to all beings where applicable.

Consent as an ideal is fundamental to egalitarian relationships, and therefore also acts as a force of power on the side of the oppressed. Where one is gaining an advantage or forcing an advantage at the expense of another, consent is the force that not only establishes the disparity, but also levels the playing field. Viewing relationship dynamics throughout the looking glass of consent helps define where disparities lie and which player in the relationship is in need of assistance. This necessary exposure of power dynamics is critical when it comes to our relationships with non-human animals and consent tends to be an underutilized concept in our strivings for social justice for animals.

THE GREY AREAS

To bring this discussion back to the intricacies of the honey issue, it is worth acknowledging some of the absurd “grey areas” posed by the critics (proponents as well), while continuing to base our responses upon the ethic of veganism as a relationship. Next to the subjective “gross factor” argument by vegans, the TREATMENT of animals is often central to discussions around animal use, again both by vegans and non-vegans. The obvious problem with focusing our arguments for veganism solely upon the treatment of animals is that it has a limited endpoint. For instance, the argument posed by critics for honey is that the bees “aren’t killed for their honey” and are even perceived as being free and wild, left to fly and return at will. In that limited, uninformed argument it is worth pointing out that there is a degree of domestication and manipulation of bees for their honey, but also a necessity of killing in order to continue hive population and production. Beyond that obvious problem with honey production, for vegans, to concede to the idea that it is ok to consume honey because “they aren’t killed for their honey” leads to the necessary acceptance that it is ok to consume milk because the cows “aren’t killed for their milk”. If one accepts A then they also accept B, or if one rejects B then they must also reject A. But the bigger problem with relying SOLELY upon the treatment of animals to make one’s argument, whether they are cows or bees, is that the solution then falls upon rectifying the treatment of the animals. In these parameters, bees can still be used and their honey can still be consumed if we find a way to treat them well. Expanding this argument, we then begin to justify backyard chickens, free-range cows, anesthetized killings, etc., all under the umbrella that their treatment up to the point of death was acceptable. Veganism, however, doesn’t allow for acceptable treatments, because treatment itself is a negation of consent. It assumes the needs and desires of the animals, while veiling the end benefit for the human animals, instead of presupposing that an animal’s existence is to be conducted by it’s own agency, in it’s own environment free from imposed restriction. In the acknowledgement we give to our own agency and desires to live by our own accord, it only follows the same for all other animals, despite fair treatment, despite allowing bees to fly away and return on their own accord. Veganism demands not a kind life or an appeal to welfare on behalf of animals, but an ultimately liberated existence without our interruption.

It is worth pointing out here, as an aside, that in this discussion there is sometimes an interplay between the context of civilization and wilderness. It is a legitimate consideration to view veganism in the context of both, but I admit to working from the context of civilization, the dynamics of that context and the way it necessitates relationships with animals. There is an obvious sort of contradiction in dealing with animals in this context, namely via pets, domesticated animals, and similar situations, but in regards to veganism, we always seek to remove animals from our domesticated relationships while re-building and expanding the context of wilderness and/or wildness. I say this to keep focus upon the agency of animals when they are left to their own devices, in environments they have developed within throughout the processes of evolution, and not in forced confinement and alternative environments created by humans for human benefit. Specifically, in regards to honey and bees, there is absolutely no compelling reason to have a continuous relationship with them or use the products they create for their own benefit, lest that relationship is creating habitat that multiplies their populations against the concerns of colony collapse and other die-offs.

THE HIERARCHY OF CONCERN

Among the other reaching reasons for justifying the consumption of honey, by vegans as well, is an unstated recognition of bees as “lesser” creatures. In a very simplistic perspective, there is an understood emotional disconnect and hierarchy of care when it comes to animals of varying species. Probably due to evolutionary reasons, humans tend to favor human animals, and even humans of similar appearance (tribalism / neo-tribalism?), then non-human animals of close association (pets), those in close genetic approximation (primates), animals of intellect (dolphins, horses, etc.), animals of size (elephants, lions, etc.), and then the dissolution grows from smaller animals (squirrels, birds, etc.) to less attractive animals (snakes, moles, etc.) then into plentiful, nuisance creatures (wasps, mosquitoes, etc.) all the way to creatures so small as to be impossible to acknowledge (mites, bacteria, etc.). This sort of hierarchy is both understandable in evolutionary terms and practicality terms. I get this, and I do think it informs the care (or lack of) towards bees and honey. The sort of inherent apathy humans feel towards insects and bees, creatures they struggle to relate to, will drive a lack of motivation to consider them within their spheres of relationships, and bring them to discard any ideas of consent. This may be a sort of biological and psychological reality – to feel little empathy or concern – but by the ethical mandate of veganism there is no sort of loophole or tendency to accept this hypocrisy. The practicality of not consuming honey and / or not establishing a direct relationship with bees is so simple and easy as to be almost inherent. It takes more of an effort to become a “beekeeper” than it does to just let them exist. And to come back to our premise, the mandate of consent will still drive the relationship between humans and bees, of which that mandate is to allow them an existence free of our intrusion in any way possible.

HONEY IS NOT CONSENSUAL. VEGANISM IS.

While we should continue to assert, without reservation, that honey is simply NOT VEGAN, we should also continue to follow that assertion up with the explanation that veganism is about a consensual relationship with non-human animals and therefore there is no need to measure the treatment of the animals, no need to recognize the benefits to our health, no need to debate the subjective nature of how honey is produced, but to rather state that the relationship is fundamentally exploitive because it is fundamentally not consensual. In the majority of discussions I have about veganism, or hear about veganism, there is a shocking lack of consideration of the animals themselves. With the rise in plant-based diets and health conscious vegans, a confusion has developed which has muddied the conversation. This confusion is based in an anthropocentric consideration of veganism, of the intricacies of the lifestyle only in how they apply to humans. Considerations of veganism are subject to how the non-vegans feel, how veganism fits into cultural sensitivity, how veganism affects one’s health, instead of how veganism applies to the relationship between both humans AND animals.

In discussing veganism as an ethic of relationships, as a premise of consent, the animal is not made invisible or even secondary to the conversation, but is primary to the considerations. A relationship is not a relationship if there is only one individual involved. Veganism mandates at least two players in the discussion, dictating an admission of consent and so it establishes a baseline of understanding and acknowledgment for all creatures. Veganism doesn’t confine itself to subjective interpretations of what is gross or not gross. It doesn’t confine itself to the limitations of welfare. It doesn’t confine itself solely to the interests of human animals. Veganism demands a relationship of non-exploitation between humans and cows, humans and cats, humans and, yes, even bees.

It’s right to say honey is not vegan. It’s also right to say honey is not consensual. Veganism, fundamentally, IS about consent.

Beyond

I write this because I can, because I’m not superstitious. I write this, however, with an unavoidable trepidation, because coincidences have a way of lodging deep within one’s core, kinda like my cancer. Still, I want to write this.

I’m beyond cancer.

Obviously, I’m NOT beyond cancer, but right now, in some personally meaningful way, I am. It FEELS behind me, and while in the throes of treatment it felt like an eternity, in the present it feels like a significant, but somewhat momentary interruption in my life. To pretend as if there will be no more surgeries, no more chemotherapy, this whole experience lasted about as long as my time in college, which seems so incredibly distant and inconsequential. Maybe I will feel the same about being on the precipice of death in a handful of years. The necessary ability to move on works funny like that.

I had just delivered another bin of groceries to a resident doorstep when I got back in my truck to find my phone ringing. I looked at the display to see my oncologist’s name spread across the screen. I hesitated, not sure if I was ready to take the call, or if I should just get whatever news he had about my most recent scan via voicemail. Whatever it was – hopeful, dejecting or somewhere in between – I couldn’t change biology, so maybe I wasn’t concerned with receiving the diagnosis under the weight of conversational etiquette.

But I did answer the phone. Almost as if my fingers acted on their own volition.

I can’t remember what was said verbatim, but things were said.

“The scan doesn’t show much….I see what the radiologist pointed out…but I don’t see much…could be cysts…body involutes sometimes…even if I saw anything…we wouldn’t take any action…miraculous (I hate when doctors use such terminology)…another scan in 9 months…”

9 months. Another 9 months, from the previous 9 months after my last surgery. That’s what resonated with me as I got back to work, absorbing his diagnosis with a little more depth as I let the words sink in, drawing out a trajectory and expanse of my life going forward. The lightness I felt after the last post-surgery diagnosis lingered, and then expanded. The instinctual visual that develops in my mind with each diagnosis remained, an unobstructed view that stretches into a horizon, no walls or confines to navigate. Where treatment always drew a wall, an unmoving monolith that could not be seen through or past, I now look into a forever, a universe.

I am beyond cancer. I FEEL more beyond cancer than I ever have. I don’t occupy myself with concerns of surgeries, interruptions, halted perspective and objective, a world for my son without a father. I am more whole and less broken than ever. I have ambition and strength, a resurgence of focus on living one’s values and a new appreciation for developing the physical and mental capacity to do so. I feel more capable of living outside myself again, for others.

To remain grounded, however, I am not biologically beyond cancer. It remains, and I will always be, in some way, broken by the experience. Physically if not emotionally. Maybe broken isn’t the right word. Scarred is more appropriate, and visually apparent. It is immediate when I run. The effort is more strained and in a way I can’t understand. The sensation, though, is wholly felt and knowable. I can’t land my stride the same, or toe off the same, as the front of my feet are forever deadened from the poisons of chemotherapy, creating a subconsciously altered contact with the ground, but very real feeling of missing something. A difficult conscious intent is necessary to run with fluidity and form, that wavers as the accumulated fatigue takes its toll physically and psychologically. Even short jaunts in the morning leave my feet sore and burning with hot spots around my heel. I’m left wondering what my limits are again.

But I am not broken, unable to take advantage of my abilities and aspirations. I am just scarred, left with remembrances and impediments, but not obstacles.

I can breathe, physically and psychologically. I can let go of immediacy and plan for the long term, imagining process and progression, in all aspects of my life. And…that’s sort of dangerous. The slippery slope of running progression, of personal challenges, of absurd goals, of everyday accomplishment, of new frontiers still burns somewhere within. The flame never goes out. The light just gets crowded by competing interests, new walls restricting it’s shine, until the flame is just a dull flicker. But when the walls fall away and the oxygen is condensed into a singular focus, the fire grows. I can’t confidently say my fire is growing, but it’s getting fed from time to time and I don’t have many competing interests right now.

What I do have is 9 more months. 9 more months to remain beyond cancer until proven otherwise. This time though, those 9 months feel more like 90 months, and I plan to live accordingly.

 

No anthems. No nations.

Our Spanish II teacher, a woman we all knew was not to be messed with, ordered us into our daily ritual of citing the Pledge of Allegiance. This must have been our first class together now that I think about it, because it was on this day a moment of tension ensued. We stood, cited the pledge, in spanish I believe, and then sat, unthinkingly, as we always do. One of us, however, didn’t. The teacher addressed her at her seat towards the back of the room.

“Ms. Campbell. Why aren’t you standing for the pledge?” she pointedly asked.

In a response with no degree of excess, she replied, “It is against my beliefs.”

To be honest, I don’t remember my fellow student’s name, but I can tell you she wore skirts, had long hair braided down to her waist, and couldn’t have been anything else but Penecostal. She didn’t often speak to anyone and we didn’t often speak to her, keeping the divide between our cultures firmly established. I remember a certain air of superiority and judgement about her, that may have been true or may have just been my perception of religious moralism at the time.

The teacher pushed back. “And what exactly are your beliefs?”, more a dare than a questioning.

“We give obedience to our god, not our country.” she replied with no more convincing, as if this had all been scripted before.

The teacher could say nothing, though she could also not hide the tension of her authority being undermined. The rest of the class sat in the tension, waiting for an escalation by the teacher or some sort of relief to this interruption. The silence hurt. The teacher relented, I think, for the moment, maybe saying something about addressing this at another time, and then went about the business of pulling us through the struggles of a foreign language.

I remember sitting with that moment, feeling a sort of defensiveness, a who-does-this-girl-think-she-is kind of defensiveness, but also a camaraderie. In the instinctual battlefield of student versus teacher, we found our commonalities in odd places, so when this fellow student was able to override teacher authority and demand, with her physical body even, by citing a rational, untouchable ideology (even if it was based on religion) I couldn’t but help feel a sense of jealousy and even affection towards this individual. I think, even back then, I felt this resistance to external ideology, conformity, and groupthink, but lacked the intellectual, rational basis to explain it.

Along the way of personal development, into my college years and onward, I did begin to find that intellectual, personal, ideological, individualist basis for my feelings, to reject nationalism at its foundation, to reject groupthink, to be very very skeptical of authority. I was influenced by the screaming passions of punk bands and their introspective, politicized lyrics. I read into the words of Howard Zinn, Thoreau, and all the authors that broke through the abstract constructs of the human animal, both it’s mist of ideologies and it’s concrete borders. More and more I escaped the binds of the borders drawn by others, rejected the associations of nationalism, of having no other agency than the fortune of being born within pre-drawn boundaries. The very idea of drawing historical, immediate, and future cultural divisions between individuals became not only rationally and intellectually absurd, but downright bigoted and tragically problematic for the push towards freedom and cooperation.

These ideas of rejecting association to god or country or culture were, at this time, primarily intellectual. I had really not had my resolve tested as my fellow student did in facing the demanded Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish class. In a culture of demanded subservience, of a self-stated “greatest country on earth”, in the fervor of a continuously polarized world, that time would obviously come.

I told my girlfriend (at the time), “Just so you know, I don’t stand for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, or any of that stuff.”

We were going to a public 4th of July celebration, attended by thousands and thousands, watching the symphony go through a program of compositions related to history and nationalism. I was looking forward to the music, but not the patriotism and nationalistic fervor that defines our culture. I expected some degree of tension should I not stand, not fall in line, not “pledge my allegiance”, and didn’t fear it, but also didn’t want to cause tension for my girlfriend and her family with whom I would be attending.

I reaffirmed my resolve. “Just so you know, I don’t stand for any of that stuff. I don’t want to create any problems, but I just don’t. I’m just letting you know ahead of time.”

The symphony played really beautiful music and I enjoyed it deeply, but the brass and percussion would soon give way to celebrations of each branch of the military. As the conductor called out an individual force, everyone who had served in that branch would stand and be applauded deeply, followed by the next, and then the next, until after all four services were recognized, the national anthem was played and everyone was to stand and sing. The thousands and thousands, in unison, without exception, sang words of pride, intertwined with words of war, marked by unthinking obedience, and soaked in christian righteousness.

I didn’t stand. Respectfully, I sat, enjoyed the music, clapped for the orchestra, and said no more.

An older man in front of me, who had stood as an ex-army serviceman, who had leaned over to his wife after the conductor pointed out that the writer of the national anthem was a frenchman and said “Pshh…figures.”, and who had noticed that I was not standing for servicemen or the anthem, turned, while everyone sat back down, faced me, also seated, put his hands on his hips, stared me in the eye, and shook his head back in forth in absolute disgust. Saying nothing, he turned and sat. Unable to let that slide, I immediately leaned forward, got as close as I could to whisper and not make a scene, and said,

“Sir, if this is truly a free country, then it follows that we are all able to hold our opinions and be free to express them in any way we see fit.”

He turned to me, paused, and stated, “Yeah? Well, I FOUGHT for this country, so go SIT DOWN.”, as if to imply that his decision to fight in a war trumped a completely simple, basic argument of individualism and freedom of expression. To be honest, I expected nothing more. I assumed this sort of tension would likely happen, even through the most simplistic act, admittedly during a public expression of ultimate nationalism and patriotism. Maybe I was rolling the dice, holding a populace that expresses the idea of ultimate freedom to the test. But I also assumed they would fail, despite wanting no confrontation. More so, beyond this proof of assumption, I was affected by the aggregate nationalism, by the thousands of individuals standing in unison, reciting the national anthem, in a time of global tension and countries plotting war against each other. It wasn’t that I saw blood thirsty individuals, but rather a mass of well-intentioned people coming together to reaffirm the rightness of their position, of their place in the world, of their associations by least common denominator, by the chance occurrence of being born within pre-established boundaries. What I ultimately saw, were the good germans. I saw the premise for authority to enact it’s own interests, no matter how nefarious, no matter how short-sighted, no matter how violent, with the well-intentioned, but relatively unthinking subservience of it’s citizens, who can’t see to even question the validity of their nationalist declarations, of their pledges and allegiances, of where their pledges and allegiances might lead. To be honest, I saw how the Nazis were able to bring a populace to put their neighbors into ovens. I saw how Hutus were able to slaughter Tutsis. I saw how aggregate obedience creates a culture where dissent and disagreement is criminal and how even the citizens are brought to keep each other in check. I don’t know if I’d say I was scared…but I was truly affected.

Never have I felt the need or rationalized the argument for nationalism, for patriotism, and all it’s potential violence, all it’s immediate divisions. I stand on the line at running races and wait for the ritual of the national anthem, knowing this is an unquestioned part of any public proceedings. At its worst, it’s followed by a prayer, most insultingly “in jesus’ name”. I play my own role, quietly walking away from the line and giving everyone their space. Or if the option to walk away is not available, I kneel down, head bent, silently. I’ve never done this for show, as an act of conscious protest, but to simply live my values, to not continue unthinking patriotism, to not give false allegiance to borders and nations and ideologies. I do this in the same way I feel no need to bow my head to a god that doesn’t exist during prayer. I do this in the same way I avoid all other expected rituals to ideologies I do not harbor.

Kaepernick. Obviously, I’m writing all this in response to this current event. I stand with Kaepernick, or kneel, or whatever, almost fully. Almost. I’m adding one more voice to his act and his protest because in this cultural moment, the best leverage we have is turning up the volume on those of us that dissent, that don’t give obedience, that don’t follow ritual, that actually consider the words of what is being sung and said instead of just appeasing each other with our obedience. Personally, I find it laughable that people are LOSING THEIR MINDS  because an individual dares act his conscience, that an individual dares express the freedom that all the patriots and nationalists hold to the utmost regard. WE’RE THE GREATEST, MOST FREE COUNTRY ON EARTH! IF YOU DISAGREE, YOU ARE NOT FREE TO SAY IT! It’s truly, unreservedly laughable…if it wasn’t so frightening. It is this reaffirmation of nationalist identity, of self-righteous fervor, of unquestioning that leads to the most horrendous atrocities, that leads citizens to act unthinkingly, that leads to armies and red scares and black lists and good germans.

But still, people are losing their minds that Kaepernick, a publicly visible individual, a celebrity hero to some, is essentially “biting the hand that feeds.” They are losing their minds because he is not only expressing his resistance to groupthink and subservience, but is acting on it. He is physically not falling in line, which is the ultimate rejection of the processes of authority. Free speech is one thing. Free action is something entirely different.

But again, to Kaepernick, and my “almost” full support of his action. The problem with Kaepernick’s action, and I think another reason why people feel so offended by it, is that he is essentially “using” the national anthem as a form of protest. His act of not standing and respecting the national anthem is not to protest the national anthem itself, but to bring attention to the unjust treatment of people of color in the United States. His act is capitalizing on this important moment of the Black Lives Matter movement, of pointing to the hypocrisy of the United States and the expressions of some it’s most coveted rituals, in order to change the treatment of people of color for the better. This should, of course, be supported without reservation. If the expression “liberty and justice for all” isn’t being carried out through the institutions that claim “liberty and justice for all”, then there is no need to continue reciting these words, or paying lip service to the ritual. The problem arises, however, in that the interpretation of the national anthem by individuals, who stake their own claim to it’s fundamental meaning. For some it’s about unthinking obedience. For others it’s a support of the military. For others it’s about the sentiment to make the country better. The problem, then, lies in the varied interpretations and offenses people feel on an individual basis. Kaepernick is using the national anthem to bring light to the issues facing people of color by his own interpretation of the poem’s statements as literal. He is saying that until the words are carried out to their most literal extent, we should question their usage.

Kaepernick is also black.

This means that people are going to freak the hell out because he’s also rejecting the comfort white people feel in the statements of a national anthem that supposedly includes freedom and justice for all. He is pointing out white hypocrisy. The problem, for me, in fully supporting his act, is that his protest of the verses and verbiage used are a singular protest. They are related primarily to liberty and justice for all people of color, it seems, which leads me to believe that if he feels his grievances have been resolved for people of color, would he then stand for the anthem again? What about liberty and justice for everyone based on sexual preference? On theological ideology? etc.? In part, my resistance to fully supporting Kaepernick is that his act isn’t a rejection of nationalism and patriotism at its foundation, but rather it is a singular issue protest that is making the conversation difficult, because the majority of his critics are probably unthinkingly responding to his rejection of the national anthem (and their personal associations and interpretations) instead of the issues regarding people of color.

On the other hand, no matter his individual intentions, I fully support this act of openly refusing to take part in the ritual of the national anthem, if only because it is a rejection of group think, nationalism, and all their tragic outcomes. Kaepernick, right now, is directly experiencing the emotional and psychological pressure that comes with stepping out of line, of thinking for oneself, of rejecting the status quo, of spitting in the face of authority, of taking an action for justice and against oppressive authorities and institutions, but being admonished by those not in power and not of institutions. He’s being told by the good germans to keep quiet, do what you’re told, or else you might end up on the train too.  So even though he may end up standing for the anthem again, right now, he needs all the backing he can get.

For me and my friends, we don’t have the public exposure that a sports celebrity does, but I can tell you that we’ve been NOT standing for the pledge or the anthem all our skeptical, rational, thinking lives. We don’t stand for the anthem or pledge to anyone except ourselves, our loved ones and our self-created ideologies because we are individual, human animals at the core. We don’t live by abstract constructs of imaginary boundaries, by fabricated ideologies, by rule and guides not of our own making. We reject the national anthem and it’s ritual not just because we find it’s words hypocritical, but simply because it is a ritual, because it is an act of obedience, because it is an act of subservience, because it is part of a cultural aggregate defined by economies hell bent on growth, built on the backs of others, always trending towards war and conflict. We reject acts of nationalism because we reject nations, and gas chambers, and walls, and borders, and the willful obedience that makes them all possible.

We pledge allegiance to nothing and reject the anthems of nations because we know a world without them is not a vacuum of dignity and security, but quite the opposite. We know cultures comprised of free-thinking, rational, intellectual, and skeptical individuals are actually cultures of cooperation, justice and genuine freedom.

Untouchable

Growing up I was never a confident child. It took years and years of finding my way through moments that tested my idea of strength and confidence to get me where I am as an adult, but even then I often found myself subject to the opinions of others, wanting their acceptance, and diminished in their ridicule. I didn’t view my physical body as attractive nor my grasp of the world stable, which meant when the validity of either was questioned, I could not respond. I could only defend the insults with exaggerated verbal defensiveness and outward confidence, but really harboring an inward vulnerability.

At some point, however, I transcended both, through the understanding that neither mattered. Finally breaking from the idea that physical attractiveness has an external definition and that only experts are privileged with intelligence, I was able to find the confidence in myself to pursue living on my terms, to create my own definitions of attractiveness and to find a comfort in not knowing. To let go of imposed definitions, imposed parameters, morals and ideals not of your own making, is to offer yourself a blank slate with which to create your own guides, your own interests, your own defenses against a culture that demands not only subservience, but the insult that you must feel broken should you not meet their expectations.

To let go of all that is to become untouchable.

The weather had finally broke from it’s wet blanket of summer humidity and a cool air snuck under the covers, waking the morning with a refreshing bite and chill. I drank down my morning coffee slowly, enjoying both the wake and the warmth. I pulled on my shorts that are barely there and tied my running shoes snug. Going through the warm up motions of crossing arms and gentle leg swings on my porch, I gave the grey light a few more minutes to yellow the tint of the surrounding houses and trees. I started off down the street slowly, gently letting the pace increase by the tension of muscles letting go from the restriction of sleep and lack of movement. By the time I had made it out of my neighborhood, my legs were turning over easily and quickly, compelled to bounce off the ground and glide over the sidewalk more than pushing myself forward with intention. My lungs stayed at ease, no need to work against the gentle chill in the air keeping my body temperature stable.

A mile up the road I started passing groups of school kids waiting at the corner for the bus. Either too early for harmless, child-like mocking or I was too fast for words, they stared at me with an amusement displayed through the looks on their faces, something as fascinating to them as hilarious. A white dude in short shorts, running shoes, bright blue hat, and nothing else, running down the sidewalk on a newly chilled morning. I could understand their expressions.

Running, I found, has made me untouchable, in the same ways I consciously let go of everything that I allowed to injure me before. The opinions of others, while in the act of running, no longer matter. It is the focus that involves moving forward with considerable momentum, stabilizing the muscular effort of propelling 140 pounds with the measure of lungs inhaling and exhaling at a rate that pushes one’s boundaries but keeps you from going over the edge. There is room for little else in that effort. There is only room to be untouched, to move past it, and keep going.

It is also the recognition that most can not do what one is doing in the act of running. For those throwing insults and mockery, it is likely always the act of jealousy, of knowing they can only keep up with words, in that short moment, and never with their physical bodies. Legs and lungs would burst into flame just trying to begin the effort. To then add, personally, the awareness of my physical struggles with cancer, to know what I have come through, to know what I’m going through, to have the scars and implants bared out in the open for all to see, is to make any attempt at mockery, well, not even laughable…but just not even worth consideration. I run through them, untouchable.

But still, they try.

I continued down the sidewalk with a stable swiftness and fluidity I hadn’t felt in quite some time, over tilted concrete, ducking under branches like an elusive boxer, regaining the rhythm after each momentary break. Along the houses still dark with sleep or abandonment.

I passed by one awake. I heard the words, barely.

“Puh onna iir”.

Not breaking stride I continued onto the next block, letting the syllables form in my head.

Oh. “Put on a shirt.”

I kept running…untouchable.

A little context. I had heard this before, from this same house. And I hadn’t forgotten. I hadn’t forgotten because the first time it happened the altercation was a little more direct, with a response. The declaration to “put on a shirt” came from a man, a muslim, with a haircutting “business” he has established on his porch. He wears a white tunic that touches the ground.

Let me first clarify. The absurd delusions of believing in a god aside, I have zero problems with an individual’s religious associations…until those moral guides they have accepted for themselves are applied to others. Then, well, go fuck yourself.

So, when he told me, the first time, to “put on a shirt”, I was in the mood to respond.

“What?”

“Put on a shirt!” he demanded.

Going the intentionally naive, surely-there-is-nothing-wrong-with-this-so-what-is-wrong-with-you route, I responded with a simple, “Why?”

“Look at you.” he said with as much clarification.

I broke and taunted him back. “Yeah, look at me. You jealous?”

This altercation, by the way, was all done in movement. Me not breaking from my run, except to turn around and gesture towards my body in a “fuck your modesty” kind of way. So when he responded after my statement, I was too far away to hear or care. But I always marked that house in my mind, as a point of potential conflict.

This time, when he said, “Put on a shirt.” I won’t say it touched me, but the repetition of the demand sat with me and I had another mile or so to consider my response upon my return when I was going to pass by his house again. I’ll admit, I was sort of relishing this moment. I thought about so many potential responses.

I wanted to insult him, to shame and break his arrogance in dictating morality to others. I wanted to call out his belief and spit on his god. “Say it again you delusional fuck. Tell me to put my shirt on. Fuck your patriarchal, frightened morality and your embarrassing idea of a god. Go ahead, try and shame me you pathetic piece of shit. It will never work.” My adrenaline was high.

And I wanted to guilt him. I wanted to take the high road, calmly and kindly. “I’m sorry you feel broken and unhappy. I’m sorry you want to bring others down to your level, down to your sadness, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can let go and find happiness in your own life, so you don’t have to resort to trying to ruin others…because that won’t help.”

And I wanted to ignore him. I wanted to run right by, expressing just how untouchable I was in action, by that horrible sensation of feeling like no one even knows you exist, that tightened tension when your admonishments aren’t even heard, when you are a ghost, despite your best attempts to let the world know just how right you are. But you are ultimately nothing.

I wanted to let him know, in some way, that his delusion, his faith, his morality, his religion, his arrogance, could not touch me. No one’s can anymore.

I kept running, and with all these responses competing for space in my head, while I tried to keep the intensity and positivity in my heart, I heard someone else.

“Hey, runner man!”, a young girl called out from across the street, trailed by a group of her friends walking to school.

I smiled internally, threw out a hand for acknowledgment, and offered a “Good morning girls.”

I allowed to be touchable in that moment.

Another potential response grew. I imagined actually stopping running and turning to face him on his porch, “You know what? I run by here every day. EVERY DAY. And I run buy all sorts of people, in their cars, on their porches, walking to school, and you know what? No one says anything, except for some of the kids I pass, and you know what they say? They say HI. They say GOOD MORNING. They choose to say something nice and positive. Except you. You don’t say anything of value. You decide to tell me how to live my life, someone you don’t even know. So yeah, what does that say about you?”

I hit my turnaround point, feeling as strong and as smooth and as untouchable as ever, gliding over the sidewalk, powering up the hills, and sensing no mounting fatigue. Back across the intersection and down the hill with a longer stride, the air chilling the sweat beading up on my exposed skin. Running over stretches of grass precariously hanging on to the morning dew, my shoes absorbing the moisture and then letting go as I merge with traffic before bounding back up onto the sidewalk. I begin climbing another short hill while the lines of cars stretch outward to drop off their children at school. To the right I see a group of girls in uniforms walking up a hill. One of them calls out again.

“Good morning again Mr. Runner man!”

I am, apparently, a part of their morning routine now. I smile and shout back.

“Good morning again girls!”

The sidewalk levels out and I concentrate moving forward with the same fluidity as when I began, moving closer and closer to the man who tried to admonish me on the way out. I feel a flutter in my stomach as I get closer, an unavoidable fight or flight response. Quickly going through my options, weighing my emotional state of his words against the school girls, feeling positive and yet determined, I decided to be in the moment, to not script my response, to, well, see what comes out. To go with the honesty of the moment.

But I also had no intention of slowing down. No moralistic asshole is going to break my stride. Not on a day like this. I neared his porch, continued moving with intention and listened…but nothing. I kept running. Untouchable.

This morning, I ran by his house again, in the same chilled air, with the same strength and fluidity. I saw him sitting on the porch a few houses away as I neared. He was in his white tunic, slumped into a couch, reading a book. I set my eyes on him and kept running, as I got to the edge of his property he looked up and we locked eyes. I kept running. I kept my eyes locked on his and as I moved past I turned my head so as not to break my gaze. I was daring him. Say something. Go ahead. Tell me to put my shirt on.

He said nothing. I kept running. Untouchable.

Our Hen House

bit.ly/OHHEp348

My friend Jasmin hosts the intelligent, consistent, and passionate podcast, Our Hen House, (in my opinion one of, if not THE, best vegan podcasts available) and despite her best judgement she decided to have me on at the beginning of the show linked above for the “banter” portion, where we casually discuss a number of subjects related to my running, the Strong Hearts Vegan Power Ragnar teams, cancer, social media considerations and most importantly, veganism. I could go on with self-deprecation, but I actually think our short discussion was good and I hope you gain some valuable insight or broadened perspective regarding veganism and activism.

I have such deep respect for Jasmin and her turb0-charged work ethic, in regards to both her personal drive and the impact she has on building the culture of veganism. Do give the episode a listen, roll through the archives for past episodes, and keep checking back for new discussions.

Running Towards Nothing

Last weekend Laura asked me, “So, how are you doing without competitive running?”

Almost cutting off her last word I responded, “Good.”

And I am. Sure, if I’m surrounded by runners talking about workouts or watching an event on TV, I can get a bit longing for 800 repeats and progression runs, maybe even momentarily imagining a resurgence of dedicated training…just to see what happens. Of course, reality comes crashing in and the physical strains of my job, restrictive obligations outside of work, and the compromised ability to reach my potential wakes me from those daydreams abruptly.

That’s ok. I’m content with my running now…mostly.

Admittedly, I’ve been struggling the past four or five months, and it’s less a struggle with my running than it is something of an existential crisis and how that affects my motivations and behaviors to, well, everything.

Ever since my doctor gave me the illusory all clear, or maybe more fittingly, “go ahead” (I’m not MEDICALLY all clear…just enough to pretend I am until we discover growth with my cancer) I’ve struggled to find a purpose, but not just the abstract idea of a purpose, but a continuous, fulfilling, reliable purpose. Or reward. Or goal. Take your pick.

With the “go ahead” (and live your life as if you don’t have cancer…right) I found myself staring at a new start of sorts, in part because everything I had before cancer, that gave me this sense of daily purpose, was irreparably harmed. Namely, my running. I know I can’t rebuild my training anymore, especially with a job that leaves me more sore than a string of 10 milers, so that sense of purpose has been stripped away.

Running, for me, was a multi-faceted fulfillment. I genuinely enjoy doing it, so every time I was out the door for a run, I knew in some way I would start with a purpose to create an immediately satisfying reward and come back with a sense of accomplishment and calm. I would have completed a moment that was initiated by an initial purpose. But it wasn’t always fun. Sometimes the miles compounded upon miles. The workouts piled on top of each other. And the general creative energy that is necessary to continue on would be like a drained well, but, there was a greater purpose, a greater compulsion, that kept me going. If it wasn’t in the moment, it was that promise for the competitive moment months away, which compelled me to keep turning my legs over and over when my mind needed to rest. That interplay of immediate and long-term purpose and reward is unparalleled, and I think it’s something many of us seek to find in our lives.

I also think that purpose and reward is a direct expression of our evolutionary development, of our drive to survive through a sort of selfish benefit. The human animal has difficulty carrying out tasks of which it doesn’t gain direct benefit. We see this, probably most likely, in our work, which is interesting because our work is a benefit to the individual, but it’s a different sort of selfish benefit than what I’m referencing with running. In performing work for someone else, the labor itself is not often beneficial to the individual, but they still do it, because the labor generates the reward of a paycheck (our survival in a capitalist economy). But the labor itself, well, is not always so rewarding. It is a necessity to our psychological stability that we find value in the labor, selfishly, in some way, if we are to continue on doing this long term. Even with the paycheck as a sort of carrot and stick reward, the labor itself is more valuable to the individual than the reward. We can see this in the flood of individuals trying to make careers out of their physical activities and lives in general via social media platforms. As much as these people and the selling of their narcissism make me cringe, I also understand they are playing out this dynamic of sustaining themselves through a very personal reward, in both economy and selfishness.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of having this interplay between purpose and reward in something of pre-industrial, survivalist terms, of the CONFINED and DIRECT value to our labor (“labor” used loosely to mean most anything physical) existing for the majority of our time as developed primates. This is how we have most often lived, directly, for our own survival. Not through some sort of mediated, abstract labor that afforded us the privileges of survival based on someone else’s dictates, but rather a very direct existence. The purpose was / is to survive and the labor directly achieved that, whether it was securing shelter, forming social bonds, finding food, and so on. This dynamic is something many of us have trouble creating in the modern world of mediated relationships, labor for the objectives of others, and even physical activity for the sake of “exercise” and not purpose. Ask any individual who has spent time building…well…anything, with their own two hands, for their own needs, if there is a distinct difference in the value and reward and purpose of doing so against doing the same but then having their product or accomplishment serve the purposes of someone else in exchange for some other type of benefit (monetary, etc.). Ask them which experience feels more satisfying. The modern world of mediation has robbed us of a very primal connection to our lives, our survival, and our selfish enjoyment. The modern world has made finding purpose and reward tragically difficult. It is an insult to our autonomy.

All these considerations, however, haven’t erased my own existential crisis and the difficulty of finding a reliable sense of purpose and reward in the context of modern civilizations trajectory towards escalating chaos, exponential population growth and resource scarcity. (Stay with me, I’ll get back to running) I’m still struggling to regain a sense of grounding and purpose to my days, continuously feeling inspired to being one project or another and then discarding the attempt in frustration or a “what’s the point” moment of clarity. And that’s the question that really drives most all of us. WHAT’S THE POINT? For me, the mostly subconscious, evolutionary, biological recognition that SURVIVAL is the point poses the most difficulty, because in a social ecology where the individual has very little agency regarding issues that have now grown and become institutionalized and global, what’s the point of striving to create a more stable and cooperative social ecology when you recognize that the dominant forces have set in motion environmental mayhem.

This is not hyperbole.

I hate resigning myself to being a collapsist, but when you are more than anything else, a realist, how do you deny our trajectory towards collapse and the brutality that comes in moments of sudden social vacuums? History proves our rightful fear. And should this crisis drag on longer into the future, I fear the same difficulty my son or his children will have to face going forward. If this seems weighty and horrible and “why would you ever want to think about this stuff”…well, I wish I could stop.

This is my problem, that the distraction I once had from singularly focusing on competitive running is gone and has now opened me up to all the deeper considerations of how best to live in the face of crisis, and how to find appropriate purpose and reward in the face of such an ugly future. Evolutionary behavior has dictated that I have no option but to find purpose and direct reward in my daily life, and as long as a physical body is in motion, it will instinctually find that reward in even the smallest forms possible to keep moving forward.

Today I ran four miles and it felt fucking great. This was after four miles yesterday that also felt fucking great. Admittedly, my running lately has been dictated morning by morning, literally. I wake up, think I want to run, and go do it. Or I wake up, realize i don’t feel like running, and don’t do it (and then psychologically kick myself for not running the rest of the day). It’s weird to transition from running SO MUCH every day, without an end in sight, as if stopping running would mean stopping breathing, to then just not even worrying about it. It leaves one feeling disconnected, aimless, without purpose. But it feels like I’m getting ground under my feet again, not at all via my considerations about how best to live in the awareness of a building social chaos, but at the very least through the direct reward of running.

I know that for no matter how short I go out, I will play out the necessary physical release that has comprised our existence since before we could record it. I will, in some way, use my physical body as a survival mechanism, to remain strong and engaged, and maintain my ability to do physical work and provide for myself (and laura and august and the cats) as is physically necessary. I won’t be heading out to gather food (run commuting to the grocery story just wasn’t practical) or scout for enemies (not today anyways) or communicate with distant people…but the purpose of the run may not be as important as the reward of the run itself at this point. Right now, four miles run is just four miles run, because it feels good, it wakes me up, it affords me the privilege to watch a golden sun break the horizon and cast my shadow behind me, it surfaces deep thoughts and positive emotions weighted beneath the fatigue of a previous days stresses, and it reaffirms the conscious experience of just being alive and able.

None of this, mind you, eases my discontent with reading between the lines of our society’s messages, mapping the trajectory of a really ugly end coming our way (or our children’s way) in a handful of decades, and watching a populace dance and sing and cheer the spectacle while Rome burns around them, with only a handful of my friends gathering to express our sadness.

Yeah, this got dark. And I wish I could turn it off, I really do. But when the only thing that truly matters before your survival mechanisms fail is how you spend your days, figuring out the best way to spend those days, while ensuring the best possible conditions also exist for your children to spend their days, is definitely all that matters. So until…IF…we collectively see the trajectory of our civilization and start destroying the mechanisms of our subjugation and destruction of the land, there is no other recourse but to enjoy our days, simplistically, selfishly, and personally responsibly.

If for nothing else, there is still the unmediated, unweighted, directly rewarding act of running a few miles in the morning. It’s purpose may end when my legs stop moving, but that doesn’t take away from the moments of the act. Maybe there is a lesson in there for navigating this unprecedented tension in human history.

A Certain Victory

There is a certain victory in running. Though it’s not so much just in running as it is in being physically active, engaged, capable. For me, though, that victory shows itself specifically through running, and the opposition to those not. It’s not a position of compassion or empathy, but on the surface level, there is something very poignant and immediate about running down the street past nameless others, many in visible states of either physical or emotional struggle. In the area I live, it’s not always manifested as morbid obesity, as the usual narrative goes, but rather bodies frail and thin, bones visible and protruding from, most likely, a drug-induced distraction from eating. The sadness and dejection on their faces conveys the same struggles of their decaying bodies.

There is a personal victory in juxtaposition, of being able to run by these individuals with self-created capability. And yet, it’s not as basic as “putting in the work” versus a life that didn’t involve physical struggle, but instead the emotional foundation that leads one to see value in creating a life worth living. Before any physical degeneration takes place, an emotional one usually precedes.

For me, then, the victory is not just in the physical act of running, of being capable despite the odds, but that all the experiences I created for myself leading up to this moment in my life enables that physical capability. Running is just the physical manifestation, the physical expression of my internal emotional state, and my internal emotional state has been crafted through a lifetime of reasoning, consideration, and education. There is a victory in that.

I often weighed the values of the cerebral pursuits against the values of the physical pursuits, as if they were two separate entities able to coincide without ever crossing paths. One could, theoretically, engage fully in an educational or philosophical practice at the neglect of the body and reach a peak quality of life. Similarly, one could devote themselves to a practice of honing their complete physical selves, while paying no attention to intellectual considerations, and equally thrive. As my life circumstances tended to shift between these two seemingly separated dynamics, I definitely reaped the benefits of concentrating on one or the other, but as the excesses of each fell away, the interplay between the two became wholly apparent.

Specifically, when cancer came crashing in, the strengths of both were challenged beyond anything I had encountered prior. When I found myself facing down mortality in a truly immediate sense, the fear that seems to consume most wasn’t present, stifled by the reasoning and perspective I had developed over years and years of reading about evolution, religion, lives of quality, and the subsequent confidence that develops through an understanding of our world of complexity. The intellectual work I had put in faced what some would see as the ultimate test, but that confidence allowed me to absorb the experience and move through it with relative ease. There was, then, the physical obstacles of a body wasting away through disease and treatment, yet, the patterns of physical work and routine I had established leading into the surgeries enabled me to reverse the degeneration, get stronger and stronger, build back the lost capability, and enact the lessons of physical resiliency I had learned along all those countless miles.

The value of those coupled dynamics, however, is not simply in moving through this experience of cancer with perspective and relative ease, but rather in moving through life itself with perspective and quality. There is a certain victory in knowing that with or without the test of threatened mortality, the quality of a complete life, developed through both the intellectual and physical pursuits is experienced on a daily basis, against the constant reminders by the nameless others who visibly suffer in physical degeneration and, likely, emotional desperation. Or those physically destroyed individuals laughing away their abbreviated lives, alongside the physically primed, but internally depressed beings lost to the difficulty of our confusing civilized complexities.

There is a certain victory in, not necessarily “health”, but capability, of having the ability to navigate the physical stresses of our world, and being able to do so through the emotional and intellectual stability that allows us to persevere and find value and comfort in so much difficulty that is not of our own making. The greatest victory, however, is knowing the interplay between the two create a unique peak of quality that can’t be met through either alone. There is a specific value that can hardly be described, but really only experienced, when the psychological and physical mechanisms are working in concert, unseparated, as one. Others find that interplay by their own interests, but I’ve always experienced it through the act of running.

That is a victory, daily, that transcends all the absurdities of our lives. No matter how impossibly we struggle against economic schemes, structures of domination, the complexities of civilization….the discovery of a self-created, repeatable act of physical and intellectual interplay is our greatest victory over all the excessive, daily facades.