Friday, July 15, 2011

Puzzling Pieces

“Man…sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
~The Dalai Lama (when asked what surprises him the most about humanity)

It's been a strange week for me. On the face of it, nothing particularly extraordinary happened, it's just the way I'm putting together the pieces of the puzzle. I don't really know how the pieces fit. I'm trying to work it out.

So, here are some of the pieces floating around, rearranging themselves just as I get them in place...

Puzzle piece #1): A few days ago I was interviewed by Charlie Butler from Runner's World about a piece he's writing on Grete Waitz. His questions forced me to dig deep into the recesses of my memory. This digging dredged up a lot about who I am and how running, for as long as I can remember, has been a central part of my identity. For some reason women runners, like Grete Waitz (for more on this see: "For the Sake of Our Daughters", June 26th), reached me, touched me, changed me and influenced the direction of my life in ways I could never have anticipated. Different things change each of us. We pay attention to some things while others go unnoticed.

I grew up in New Jersey, a distinctly unremarkable place to grow up. Several times I traveled into New York City with my father on the New Jersey Transit trains to watch the NYC Marathon. When I was in high school, I remember watching Grete Waitz run by in Central Park, and feeling an irresistible urge to jump into the street and run with her, just for a moment. I can still feel the sensation of my nerves jumping under my skin, pushing me forward and pulling me back. Today I would try it. But my shy teenage self remained firmly planted on the side of the road. But I realize now, that something happened to me at that moment. A breeze (of sorts) blew past me and opened a door to a life that I can look back on now with a different understanding. There are those moments that change us, and we may not see it at the time. I see it now and it has made all the difference. Yes, I did wear pigtails like Waitz, and I wanted Adidas running shoes - but more importantly, she showed me that it was okay to be a girl and run, even if that made me different from 99% of my peers. She made me feel okay about me. This moment showed me a path and I noticed it and I took that path...

I found this difficult to convey to Charlie, perhaps because I'm still sorting it all out.

Which is where I find myself today - and this leads, in a somewhat indirect way to puzzle piece #2): I had a birthday this week. So, I ask myself: What does all this aging stuff mean? Well, unfortunately I am not moving up an age category. No, I'm just older in the same age category. I'm still holding my own, but it's tough. Each year I'm racing younger women. Of course the beauty of running and racing is that every five or ten years (depending on the race), you get to be the kid again - the young one in the group. Use it fast, 'cause it ain't gonna last. But, more importantly, I'm really only racing against (or with) myself anyway so age doesn't really matter. Ah, eternal youth. An age old problem solved through running!

But wait, the important question is: Am I creating a valuable life with/through all these years that keep piling up? Does running, remaining on this path, help in this effort? As we live life we make choices that close off other options. But what's often overlooked is that with each choice we also open new doors and discover new paths that we didn't know existed before. When I began running it never would have occurred to me that it would remain so rewarding even as the years march, relentlessly, on. The philosopher Nietzsche presented an interesting thought experiment called Eternal Recurrence. Here Nietzsche asks us to think about whether we would wish to live the moments of our lives over and over and over, for all eternity. Difficult to do, but an interesting idea to keep in mind.

This whole aging thing (#2) and paths taken (#1) leads to #3): My mom is not doing well. Her battle with cancer has been an arduous 3 month long (and nowhere near over) roller coaster ride of fear and hope, improvements and setbacks. We are all feeling weary, and (on the bad days) she is spending much time looking back with regret. It's hard to watch. It's painful to be part of. Has she lived "as if [s]he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived”? One never knows how they will face a life threatening illness until they face it themselves - though going through it with a loved one is close second. I am unwilling to say that I will face it with courage and no regrets. My greatest hope is that my mother will get better. My wish is that this experience will open a new, more fulfilling, path to her, and perhaps help me be mindful of how I live my own life.

But when I put these three puzzle pieces together what picture do I find? I have to say that I try to live in the present, and I make every effort not to sacrifice the things I most treasure. I have spent my life trying to balance the money/time challenge: Give up your time for money - Sacrifice money for more time. It's a compromise. Don't give more than your willing to lose. I am a college Philosophy instructor. I teach at a community college. For many academics, I work in the slums of academe. So be it. I don't really care how others define a successful life. I'm working on my own definition. And how I set off to define that successful life began, in part, on that day in Central Park. I know what I love. I can honestly say that I've passed up jobs because they would interfere too much with running (and other things that I love). Some would say I'm immature, irresponsible, and silly. I can't make a living running! True enough. But I can't make a life without the things a love - running, my family, nature, beauty, time to think...


  1. " I don't really care how others define a successful life. I'm working on my own definition." such a good statment. It is often hard to define your own definition but you seem to be working it out!

  2. Thanks Jen. I wish I could say that I've got it all figured out, but I'm not even close. Twenty mile runs help though ;)


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