I run for two reasons: I enjoy the exercise and, perhaps more compellingly, I usually learn something about myself. Fifteen or twenty minutes into my run, some alchemy occurs: suddenly, I’m smarter; things fall into place. I’ve read that this may have something to do with a morphine-like substance produced by the brain; if so, I’m glad it’s legal and free, because I like the stuff a lot.
It’s ironic that while I may ignore my feelings at other times — impatiently hurrying past them on my way to getting something done — when I’m running, I stop hurrying. Maybe it’s the chemicals, or maybe it’s like throwing my ego a bone: since I really am getting somewhere, I relax.
Down tree-lined streets and past high school kids waiting sulkily for the bus, across the sleepy university campus with its stately buildings and magnolias in fragrant bloom, down Franklin Street where the restaurants are serving breakfast and the gas stations are just opening up, I run. At first, I don’t notice anything except my own body, the sluggishness and stiffness and labored breathing. I’m meat. I’m not running — I’m just pure will, dragging my carcass along. But as my breathing deepens and I hit a comfortable stride, I feel lighter; I begin to see the world around me. After a couple of miles, if it’s a good day, I forget about both my body and the world; suddenly, I’m running through myself; running with an idea.
Aldous Huxley likened the brain to a reducing valve. There are, he said, too many sights and sounds and sensations — too much raw universe — for us to make sense of, so the brain reduces everything to a mere trickle, which we call reality. This is sometimes necessary; we can’t stay alive — gathering food, say, even at the supermarket — while lost in mute adoration of the swirling energies around us. It’s a survival skill to know how to reduce the whole to small, separate parts. The problem is, if we narrow our focus too much, the parts seem disconnected and without meaning; the world becomes joyless; we stay alive without much reason to live.
When I run, then, patterns emerge: what was separate is joined. I might understand that the emotions which seemed to me so chaotic the night before — like a wild growth of weeds choking my heart — weren’t chaotic at all, but that the chaos lay in my refusal to see their common, winding toots. Perhaps the roots lead me down to some long-buried memory, a gnarled taproot too deep to pull at or pry. But I prefer the pain of such a discovery to the sour exhaustion of running away from myself. So I run, to catch up with the me who’s always running, to find out what he’s running from.
I run early, as an interlude in my morning, a kind of intermission: between the solitary time I spend at the office writing — before the test of the world wakes up — and my day as an editor. Since I prefer to write, and run, on an empty stomach, I don’t eat until I’m done. Soaked with sweat, happily tired, I wind up my run at the grocery store down the block.
One day recently, as I was walking out of the store, a young man carrying a clipboard came up to me and asked if I had a moment to spare.“For what?” I asked. “We’re doing a survey,” he said. “We?” I replied. “Who’s we?” The store, he said, and a local paper. I knew the paper; it was an advertising shopper put out by a company I didn’t like. With its civic boosterism and marketing hype, it romanticized the community the way someone might romanticize a sweetheart — from an impossible distance, unwilling to see her without her make-up. Reckless development had made the town’s “village” image an anachronism, but it was still purveyed for profit, attested to by surveys. “Thanks,” I said, with obvious impatience, “but I’ll pass.” I turned to walk away. He didn’t say anything, but seemed surprised, his eyes widening ever so slightly, his face at once more boyish and vulnerable — and it occurred to me, since the store had just opened, that I may have been the first customer he’d spoken with that day. I felt a twinge of regret; had I been rude? No, I decided, merely honest: I hadn’t wanted to give him a moment of my time.
Yet, as I walked back to the office, something kept nagging at me — and whether it was the voice of conscience or that old imposter, guilt, I couldn’t tell for sure. I hadn’t been rude, I thought, but neither had I been kind. I remembered the plaintive line from an old Paul Simon song: “Just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.” But was it kind to do something I didn’t believe in, for the sake of someone else’s feelings? Of course not. Then why these doubts? What if I had been a little brusque? Some situations demanded it, didn’t they?
How murky my thoughts were now compared to the clarity I’d felt during my run.
I tried to conjure up situations that demanded brusqueness, in which kindness was out of the question; many came to mind, and each was momentarily convincing, but only if I ignored the fact that I always had a choice — not the seeming choice, to do or not to do something, but rather a choice about how to see. Could I see the other person as fully human, see their many moods and contradictions and changing faces, or see only the face that was turned toward me? If it was an intimidating face, a bully’s face, could I see the frightened child in it? If it was a tearful face, could I see the great joy behind the pain? How elusive we are, how grotesque, how beautiful — hidden from each other as the grown woman is hidden in the young girl, as the broken heart is hidden in the gleam of spite.
Might I have said no to the man in the store without impatience, without subtly diminishing him? After all, the resentment I felt toward his paper was that it seemed uncaring of the community, and the environment, and real people with real needs and sorrows and dreams. How ironic, then, to make my judgements more important than acknowledging what joined us, more important than showing a little kindness toward him.
I got back to the office and decided to stop thinking about him, so I could enjoy my breakfast, and read my newspaper — but I’d already seen the day’s headline in his face. Every story I read reminded me there’s only one story, endlessly elaborated, one illusion that gives rise to every heartache and fear. The myth of our separateness still has us spellbound. Over the centuries, what’s changed? Perhaps we join hands across America, or do something generous for a friend, but how many of us truly recognize ourselves in others and them in us, and’make no exceptions, even when an unwelcome stranger walks in?
I’d been given a chance that morning — to see through the illusion to our connectedness or to enhance the myth. It was such an unimportant incident, seemingly without consequence. Yet could I sit there reading about important things — say, terrorists killing innocent people — without asking whether their tortured rationalizations were different in kind or merely in degree from my own? Don’t I deny another person’s innocence when I see only a part, a very small part, of who he is?
It’s the unimportant things, the little incidents in our day that matter to no one but ourselves, that are the real news, and that teach us who we are. I knew I needed to apologize to the man at the store.
Obviously, our encounter had been more meaningful for me than for him, because he didn’t seem to recognize me. “I’m the guy who was here a little while ago,” I said. “I’m sorry I was rude.” He shrugged and smiled. “That’s OK,” he said. I stood there uncertainly, not sure what to say next. Oh hell, I thought, I may as well answer his questions. “Go ahead and ask me what’s on your list,” I said. He picked up his clipboard. “Have you shopped here before within the past year?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered dutifully. “That’s it,” he said. “What?" I replied. “There was just one question,” he said. I was incredulous. “That’s the whole survey? One question?” He smiled and shrugged again. Either it made sense to him or, for what he was getting paid, it didn’t have to. “Well, I’m glad I could help,” I said, and walked out of the store.
I felt a little foolish, but it didn’t matter. I knew that the real question I was being asked that morning had nothing to do with where I shopped. It’s the question I’m always asked when I get too busy, too impatient, too important to ask it of myself. Someone else asks it, then, and sometimes I hear it, and sometimes I run.