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.