Why I Run

September 15, 2022

I went to Disney with my family earlier this year, and it was not my best moment. There was some extended family drama leading up to the trip that need not be rehashed; suffice to say the trip wasn’t originally my idea and I felt a little forced. We were supposed to fly down. I don’t like flying at all and I haven’t done it in about ten years.

The week before the trip turned into a self-torture session for me. I was an anxiety-driven mess for a bunch of unrelated reasons, but my brain decided to build a downward spiral from all of them that crystalized into a fixation around flying.

I ended up driving. I was trying hard to force myself to just go, but my wife saw what was happening and told me to drive. She said it wasn’t worth it. I still hate that she had to make the right decision. And I hate that it was the right decision. It was the first flight that any of my kids would remember and neither of us wanted to put any of my own crap on them. They needed to try flying and enjoy it for themselves. Sometimes I think the most important part of parenthood is making sure you don’t pass on your own baggage to your kids.

So I drove. On the way back I made it from Florida to Maryland, door to door, in 12.5 hours. I love driving, but it was a pretty awful trip. I’m sure you can imagine the reasons: resentment, self-loathing, and anger. Fears are a senseless thing. I have no problem with the idea of safe flying - I know all the stats and numbers and I know it’s safe - otherwise I wouldn’t let my family go. It’s completely irrational.

The fears we don’t face, they become our limits. - Devon Larratt

My grandmother is in rehab right now after being in the hospital. She’s 93 and her health is starting to fail and her dementia is becoming much more noticeable. Her state is thankfully improving now but the first time I saw her she couldn’t move and couldn’t even look at me, she just stared straight ahead. We thought she might be very close to the end of her life. We talked for about 10 minutes before she was too tired to continue. It was hard.

The same day I saw my grandmother, I watched the last scene of Sing 2. It’s a great family movie. Clay Calloway (played by Bono) finally comes back from his self-imposed exile after the death of his wife and sings a beautiful duet of Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Clay lost 20 years just sitting around depressed.

Good music will get you every time, so I turned it up loud. I laughed and sung and had a cry and a moment. We’ve all lost time dreading what could happen or what has happened.

I was just talking to my 94-year-old grandmother and I was saying something about how it would be cool if I could be 94 one day, a really long time from now. And she cut me off and said “it’s tomorrow.” -Tim Urban

Like all humans, my grandmother is complicated. Like all of us, there’s a lot she’s done to herself to make things worse. I sat there with her and held her hand and wondered: what do you wish you could go back and change?

You can’t ask a question like that without asking it of yourself. I thought about my Disney trip a few months back. All of my fear and self-loathing seemed silly. Not wrong exactly, just silly. Like it didn’t matter. Like it was real but trivial. Like I should be ready to travel the world. And suddenly, with a shock that flew up my spine, I felt I was.

I’m sure when I hop back on a plane sometime soon it will still be hard and I will still be nervous. But I’m also sure that I’ll be fine and it will happen. Because it sure beats the alternative.

A few days ago, my wife and eldest daughter went shopping for new clothes. They came back with a few things, but a little disappointed as well. My daughter is 10 and lovely and growing fast. My wife is in her late 30s and spectacularly beautiful, but she’s going through the same struggle I went through a couple years back. Which is to say: keeping yourself in great shape is no longer the effortless performance it used to be. It actually requires effort.

When they walked in the door, they smiled and my wife said, “We couldn’t find anything to fit our hips.”

And like a complete idiot I thought to myself, “So do you want to get new pants or new hips?”

I managed NOT to say this out loud, which is why she didn’t grab the bread knife from the kitchen and flay me alive.

I swear it was in my head fully formed before I even realized it. I additionally swear that it was a comment directed at myself. Because I’ve been there. I think we all have. “Shit, these pants weren’t this tight last fall.”

So do you get new pants or remake your legs so that they still fit?

One of the reasons we think of youth as a time of innocence is because when we’re young we’re just so damn capable. Children can run forever, catch their breath, and then do it again. They can move and contort their bodies in ways that thirty years later would tear an ACL, achilles, meniscus, and three muscles. A child’s mind can contort like their body too, something we colloquially call imagination. They aren’t scared of much either. They’ll take all sorts of interesting chances without a care how it turns out or who’s watching. Only when they grow older do they have enough data to be scared or worry much what others think.

All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. -Pablo Picasso

We take all the miracles of childhood and wrap the title of innocence around it. As we get older, we start learning more about the world and our own limitations. And we start adapting our world around our limitations.

“I’m not good at math, so I’ll focus on the liberal arts.”

“I’m not as popular as they are, so I’ll just stay quiet, read a book, and hang in the corner.”

“I don’t know what the right thing to do is, so I’ll just follow that loud guy over there.”

“These pants don’t fit. I’ll buy bigger ones.”

When a problem comes up the first question we should ask - and the one we usually avoid - is “how can I change to fix this and be better?”

It’s easy to ask the world to change for us. But asking how we can change ourselves for the world is on a whole other level. The first is a material question. The second is spiritual.

If we all did the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves. -Thomas Edison

We build prisons for ourselves from the oddest materials. We build them out of our parent’s expectations and pets that we can’t leave and foods that we must eat. Some people build prisons out of their own bodies. Some make prisons, oddly, by surrounding themselves only with knobs and dials they can turn and control. Some prisons are made from office politics and PTO limits. Some are built out of loss and some out of schedule.

We all do this. I have a prison of my own, specially constructed for me, by me, and surrounded by a concertina wire of the very best intentions. I try to escape it as much as I can. The work of escaping it, in fact, is the entire spiritual landscape of humanity.

God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. -Eric Liddell

Running is one way I escape. It gives me a regular dose of freedom and difficulty. I’m not a particularly good runner - being hard is what helps make it a spiritual exercise. I’ve gotten faster with practice, but I’m over 200 lbs, I have plantar fasciitis, I’m over 40, and I can feel my back and knees creak.

But fuck all those excuses. Fuck the prison walls. When I run I can ignore the pain in my feet. And that work is kicking my ass. And that I’m growing older and slowing down and growing gray hair. For a few minutes I can be as free as I want and reject the entropy of life. I can reject the slow unwind of time. Reject all the things I’ll regret one day, because today I’m actually doing something to hold onto my freedom and myself. Like Dylan Thomas said, I’m raging against the dying of the light.

The things we run from are inside us. -Seneca

Running is a spiritual exercise. All sports are at some level. My fondest memories of playing sports aren’t the wins and the trophies. The best times are when I lost myself in the moment and rose above what I am to become something better than I was before. Sports gives a glimpse of transcendence, of something holy. We literally leave our old self in the dust and build ourselves back up with the help of nature, God, teammates and whatever else we have.

The whirling dervishes of Persia try to grasp this transcendence through dance. And when they do, their audience shouts out, “Allah! Allah!” God. There is God. This cry morphed over years and decades to the shouts of “Olé” used all over the world during soccer matches. I have memories like that, where I felt like one of those whirling dervish and I could do nothing wrong.

Finding the best in ourselves is finding a glimpse of the divine in the world. Running is one way I feel this, but it’s a journey that should spread through our whole lives. We owe it to ourselves, to those around us, and to whatever divinity created this world.

What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God. -Hans urs von Balthasar

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