Monday, May 25, 2009

Shucking Selfiness

I drove to Knoxville by myself for the road half-marathon. The cool, breezy, threatening weather prompted me to fashion a headband out of a black and white checkered buff. I cut a circular section from it so that it was about two inches wide. When I put it on and tucked it above my ears, it curled around itself and looked like a string. I pulled on the Moeben arm sleeves given out at Western States in 2007. My hair curled around the headband. I still had a full beard. I ran out and back along the first mile of the course for a warm-up. A lot of other runners were around, none of whom I knew. I could feel their eyes follow me. I don’t compete in road races anymore. Running this event was part of my preparation to run Way Too Cool. It gave a benchmark to my training.

When the gun finally sounded, a group of young and fit looking runners shot to the front. I followed evenly behind, easing into the gap between the frontrunners and everyone else. Running on the road, and among others, made the quick tempo temptingly easy. I tried to gage my effort by the number of strides I took per breath of air. At three strides per breath, I figured I was running economically, and settled in to the fast pace.

As the front group began to string out, I passed one runner at a time. At three miles out, all the runners in front of me turned around to head back. Now I knew that they had all entered the 10K, run concurrently with the half-marathon. I would run the rest of the way by myself. No more ride, I thought, and no more distraction. I went into my legs, arms, and lungs to settle at the tempo that would carry me the distance. We were entering a river valley, and I noted the undulating rise and fall of the road into and out of the valley. I leaked into the countryside, the farms in the floodplain, the dog running into the road, the police cruiser at a distance in front of me. I played my part, like the baritone in a musical composition. I played at the rhythm that worked to coordinate us all.

The last part of the course was out and back. I was inbound, passing runners who were outbound. I was at about mile 10. As the runners cheered me on, I waved, said hello, or returned the “good job.” I wiped the dried spit from the corners of my mouth. My breathing became unsettled, maintaining my pace more effortful. I slowed somewhat, but maintained a strong pace to the finish.

I was generally shy as a kid, even painfully self-conscious at times. From an early age it was hard for me to just be somewhere, and just do something. I also had to see myself there, doing that. It’s an accursed capacity, self-consciousness, which puts a person at a remove from himself. Like the middle school kids with their backs on the wall at the Valentine’s Day dance. Everyone could have fun, mingle, move on, if only they could get over themselves. We know self-consciousness inhibits us. It keeps us from getting embarrassed, from committing social blunders. Maybe that can be a good thing. It also keeps us from fully engaging a situation. Self-consciousness keeps us from the flow that makes our best performances possible.

Self-consciousness develops into a more insidious adult condition I’m calling selfiness. I can get off the wall now. I can speak in front a group and not get completely muddle-headed. But I carry around a sense of who I am, and I fit the things I do into a story I can tell about myself. I take credit for the things I do well, and I (generally) take the blame for things I do poorly. Philosophers call this agency. There can be little doubt that personal agency is a central feature of accountability in social groups. In order to be rewarded, or punished, for our deeds we must presume the capacity to have chosen. The capacity to choose implies a chooser. There is a captain at the helm: a self.

Selfiness is epidemic. Individuality can be sliced in infinite ways, and we explore all the options. We identify with styles, trends, brands, vocations, religions, hobbies, groups, shows, movies, characters, activities, etc. We identify ourselves. For something as deeply important as self-definition, selfiness is pretty thin. We can change any of these associations, generally with little effort. We can say a few words, trade out for a different wardrobe, or find a new set of acquaintances. We can start a new sport… ah, not so fast.

Sport is another way that people identify themselves. I think sports features so prominently in our culture, though, because it is one of the few things we do that is hard to fake. Sports are set up to put an empirical test on every assertion. Individual endurance sports help to define real limits to human performance. When athletes run faster or farther than we thought possible, we learn something new, and assimilate the knowledge toward expanding our own capacities. We get to know what works, for us, as we strive to improve performance.

We find that selfiness doesn’t work. It is too sheer, too illusory. After several hours of running alone, drained of a ready supply of energy, we can’t just tell ourselves a story about what we are doing. We can’t fall back on the captain we imagine somewhere behind our eyes. When the narrative is stripped away we have an organized, buzzing, mass of tissue that has to propel the oversized orb on top that used to pretend it was calling the shots. What works is to embrace our bicameral nature. We our ourselves, and we aren’t ourselves. We are a coordinated and mechanized set of cells, and we are a lineage. We are a mind, and we are a body.

The selfiness will accumulate like rime on a ship. High level performance will require some means of stripping the selfiness away. My thru-hike on the AT gave me a good overhaul. Long runs in the woods feel like regular maintenance. Marriage and family put a check on selfiness. For some, religious experience helps shed the temptation of the transient. Spiritual enlightenment comes in many forms, but they seem to share a transcendent connection with something bigger than oneself.

It’s hard to imagine that we’d go to all the trouble we do without a reason. All of our reasons (that I can think of ) are ascribed to the self who provides them. This is a central, and to my mind, unresolved paradox. We work in service to a self who we must deny to work at our best.

1 comment:

  1. I must say I thought that headband looked ridiculous.

    I'll have to let the rest of your post soak in a bit before further comment.