Physical activity is the cure for intellectual stagnation.
I’ve been trying to get in the habit of running regularly. It started as a way to break the monotony of my days off; oftentimes I would find myself just sitting around deteriorating on days when I didn’t have to work. I tried reading, but I would always fall asleep. I tried writing music, but I was living in a house where such a thing was an imposition on my housemates. Running became something to do out of the house that would at least occupy my time for an hour or so.
You notice things more when you run, especially if you run a route that you’re accustomed to driving. When you’re behind the wheel of an automobile, there are too many fast-paced and long-distance things to keep in mind. You don’t think about what’s immediately around you, you think about what’s down the road, and only pay a fleeting glance to what’s behind you. The pace is much slower on a run, and you can get a real appreciation for what things look like up close, what they smell like, and their contiguous relationship to other things.
It’s a very pensive experience.
The run I’m about to describe was particularly meditative and moving. I had been running regularly for a couple of weeks, using Nike+ in conjunction with my iPhone to track my pace and distance. When I was playing soccer, I easily had a six-minute mile, but lately (since taking up smoking and a more lethargic lifestyle) I’ve had to set my goals closer to the nine-minute mile mark. So at around 8:30 in the evening I put my headphones in, set the clock to twenty minutes (that should give me about two miles) and set off on my run.
As I departed, I thought it might be good to start going uphill; this way, the most exhaustive part of the run would be gotten out of the way first, while I was still fresh. This is how I handle most hardships in my life; if I can see the difficulties coming, I’ll choose to do them first and then ease into the less challenging obstacles. I prefer to meet the tough stuff head-on.
I crested the ridge line and was greeted with the marvelous view of the Birmingham skyline. If I had chosen to start my run downhill, I would have been at the bottom of the basin looking up, but I was rewarded for choosing the challenging path. It seemed so easy to just dance along the path running adjacent to some of the finest houses money could buy in this city. I feel into a rhythm with the music I was listening to, Jimi Hendrix, and skirted the edge of the Jones Valley.
“Five minutes completed”, said the computerized voice in my earbuds. “Five minutes?” I thought, “I’ve only just gotten started!” Usually, I take the halfway point to be my indication to turn around and head back home. I time my runs because there’s only so far I can run these days, or so I thought. I decided that this time I would try to exceed my goal and really push myself beyond my means.
This resolution was invigorating, so I picked up my pace. I started to remember why I used to like running so much in the first place. When you spend all of your time relatively mobile in a relatively static location, your mind can start to stagnate. All of the greatest thinkers took walks regularly to stimulate thought; you could’ve set your watch by Immanuel Kant’s daily outings. The very literal change of pace is enlivening because it reminds you definitely of your own corporeality. When your brain is the most active organ in your body, you can start to fall back into the pattern of thinking yourself immortal and infinitely significant. I don’t mean to suggest that such significance is false, but merely that the notion is incomplete without an acknowledgement of the mortal finitude of the body.
Left to its own devices, the mind would gladly deny the body’s very existence, and assert itself as the ontological precursor. Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am,” but a far truer assertion would be, “I am, therefore I am.” Far from being tautological, I take the first statement as an active verb rather than a passive one: I am actively, that is to say, I will to be, and it is by virtue of this impetus that I know I am a being thing. My body, with its own needs, hungers, and desires, demands that I continue to exist, and to forget that fact ascribes too much authority to my thinking faculty that, in truth, merely wishes that I were and hopes that I am.
“Halfway point.” Stealing me back from my musings, Nike+ reminded me that I would normally turn back, but my inner conviction was still to press on further. I had a moment of doubt because I knew I was only fit to run so much so fast. If I kept going, I would have to run farther than I had in quite a while, and it was possible that I wouldn’t be able to. I consoled myself by remembering that there was nothing at stake in running the whole distance; if necessary, I could walk the way back. There really is nothing at stake in pushing yourself all the way to the limit in every activity; you can always slow down and pick up where you left off at another time.
Having passed the midpoint of my usual run, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. The city was still to my left, and I was pretty confident that I could find my way home if need be; after all, I still had my GPS-equipped iPhone at my side. I decided to abandon all notions of familiarity and throw myself whole-heartedly into the unknown. If I were to find a crossroads with streets I recognized, I would turn to the unfamiliar if given the choice.
To take the path less traveled by is a very human dream. We want to press ourselves farther and farther into uncharted territory, but the earth is so old, and people have been walking it for so long that very little of it is left unexplored. It was a very silly notion to think I could go someplace genuinely new in a world so civilized and occupied that I was running on a paved road dotted with great brick houses. I didn’t feel silly about it though, I felt that I was really exploring because everything I saw was at least new to me, and it’s my life-experience that dictates my own personal history.
I didn’t feel silly, that is, until I found the road I was traveling ended in a certain private school way up in the hills. When I was in high school, there were two main private schools in the Birmingham area, and they were bitter rivals. I went to the other one, but I spent a lot of time hanging out at this particular one for the sheer irony of it all. History makes fools of us all, and while I thought I was going someplace completely undiscovered and new, I ended up at the gates of a place I had visited dozens of times before.
This put me in a very difficult position, because there were only two ways out of this dead end: one was back the way I came (which would violate my intention of only choosing new roads to run,) and the other was a very dark road that had no street lights on it that I could see. To run back the way I came would be both safe and familiar, but the untraveled route would be very dangerous because I wouldn’t be able to see the terrain and cars wouldn’t be able to see me unless they were particularly aware. Nonetheless, I chose the path less traveled by.
Running blind was very challenging. I kept startling myself by planting a foot down much farther than I expected to have to reach or stubbing my toes on a sudden rise of the ground and having to save myself from faceplanting into the pavement. Nerves crept into my extremities and my heart pounded every time I heard an engine, worrying that I would be run down by someone who didn’t have a chance to see me coming. However, if I stopped doing something every time I was afraid for my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I reminded myself that nothing was at stake here, and that I was running for running’s sake, I was being for being’s sake, and there was nothing really to lose.
In fact, I’m not even sure dying then would have been so different from dying at any other point in my life. Ultimately, death will take me regardless of my preference for its methods, whether I’m ready for it or not. I can’t imagine that I would ever look death straight in the eye and say, “Yes, take me now! Now is a great time to die!” I’m pretty sure I will always be hesitant to pass behind the veil. This realization was strangely comforting; I would never be less afraid to die, so why should I worry about it now? Jimi whispered in my ear, “I’ve got my own life to live; I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
“Five minutes remaining.” I emerged from the darkness victorious! I was only five minutes from my original goal, and I still felt great! As I stepped out of the shadows onto solid ground, I laughed at my earlier concerns that I wouldn’t be able to run all the way back. Here I was, almost to the end of my scheduled run, and I was still going strong in a strange neighborhood with only the first inklings of an inclination that I should turn back. I felt like I could just run all night, and I again turned down streets I had never seen before, enjoying the downhill turn that fate delivered. “It’s all downhill from here,” I thought, smiling to myself.
Then I fell. A chunk of sidewalk protruded just a few more inches out of the ground than I expected it to, and I dove forward onto concrete, scraping the palms off of both my hands and tearing several inches from what used to be my knee’s epidermis. All I could think about was my pace, and how this would affect my goal of a nine-minute mile, so I wrenched myself up from the ground and ran on. “Just keep running,” I told myself. “If you keep going, you won’t notice it.”
I was right. I could feel that I was in pain, certainly, and every so often a streetlight would illuminate the trickling path my blood was taking to my socks, but I kept running anyway and didn’t really feel too bad about it. Nonetheless, it was decidedly time to turn back. I was at least a couple of miles from home, and running all night was no longer an option; I needed bandages.
When I was a freshman in college, I took a tumble down an arroyo over the handlebars of a mountain bike and suffered a similar fate, suffering several abrasions and gouges carved into my forearms by the little rocks of the bike path. I left my bike and hiked back to campus, seeking assistance from the school’s nurse to no avail. I was far more disoriented then, marching onward with a very single-minded purpose. The remainder of this adventure left me still strangely enjoying myself. I was still having a great time!
That is, until I saw the mighty hill that lay between me and the cool abode of my apartment. I must have gone too far in the downhill direction after my tumble, and as Nike+ told me I passed my goal for the run, I realized that I accidentally saved the really difficult part for last, completely antithetical to my intentions at the beginning of my route. Perhaps it was arrogant of me to think that I could do the hard work first and spare myself any real exertion later, or perhaps the Irony Gods simply consider me their chosen prophet.
At any rate, I decided that I was tired of listening to music on this run. My target distance had already been surpassed, so I didn’t need Nike+ in my head, mechanically reporting on my progress. Hendrix wasn’t nearly as keen on painting a picture of perseverance as I was, so I pulled out my earbuds and listened to the world around me.
My body had become a machine, and I grooved to the rhythm of my shoes hitting the sidewalk, synchronized with my regular inhalations and exhalations. The beat was punctuated by the occasional syncopated growl of an engine passing me and the accidental note of a car horn in the distance. The smells of cut grass and freshly-dug earth presented themselves to me and I powered on.
I reminded myself that nothing was at stake here, I wasn’t running for anyone but myself, and I could stop and walk at any time, but the machine of my body didn’t pay any heed. It just powered on, motivated by its own intention to be, to persist, to see it through to the end. The machine got me home with one thought left upon my mind:
I am, therefore I am.