Walking Far Enough To Find Our Way Back To Ourselves

In ‘Running Through Fear,’ an extended excerpt from her memoir Running Home, ultra-marathoner Katie Arnold writes of the aftermath of an assault she suffered while out on the trail:

Afterward, in the disorienting fog of sorrow, everything scared me: my babies, so small and vulnerable and precious; my own body, once so strong but now ancient and aching with grief….My anxiety lasted more than a year. I tried everything, but the only remedy that worked was the one that had always worked: running. On the surface, it seemed like the least logical choice. I lived in constant terror of my body breaking down, but I pushed my limits every day, clocking long miles alone in the wilderness. I didn’t know the first thing about training for a 50K ultramarathon, but deep down it made sense. My father had raised me to find solace outside, on camping trips and bicycle trips and river trips, on long rambles through the Shenandoah Valley, up mountains in Maine, in musty tents in Nova Scotia. Maybe, I reasoned, if I ran far enough, deep enough, into the trail networks and hills, into myself, I would find my way back to the fearless girl I’d once been.

Arnold’s final sentences above strike a deep chord within me. I’ve always been anxious and fearful, and for such a person the ‘great wide world outside our doors’ is full of reasons to be anxious and fearful. But walking in the outdoors always made me less anxious, more calm, more inclined to sleep deeply at night. (Except when I was alone but that feeling has changed.) Indeed, when I stayed out on a trail, I was possessed of a curious vision, one that came to me in my other physical exertions, and which I imagine, must be shared by many: it was a feeling that if I did this long enough, every single weakness and impurity and imperfection, whether physical or psychological, would be swept out of me, flushed out by the relentless flood of physical exertion, of perpetual movement. The trails I walked on, whether flat or downhill, or uphill, all seemed in one important sense to head ‘upwards,’ up toward a zone of deliverance and clarity where all the  muddled thoughts and feelings of the ‘lower’ regions would be made more distinct and pure. The feeling of being cleansed–internally, even if not on the ‘outside’–by the walk was euphoric; the simplicity of the solution was stunning. All I had to do was keep walking; my steps would take me closer to that state of mind and being that I so desperately craved. This was a ‘stairway to heaven’ that seemed real, not fantastic, right here on earth. Just put one foot in front of the other; repeat.  For as long as it took.

Things don’t work like that, of course. But to possess this powerful vision for change, for relief, was in itself empowering and relieving. It is one I carry with me every time I leave the city, head to the trail, and start walking. Always upwards.

God as Therapist, Existent or Non-Existent

In ‘When God is your Therapist‘, (New York Times, 13  April 2013) T.M Luhrmann suggests that the evangelical relationship with God often resembles that between client and therapist:

I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.

One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals…. the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones…..Warren….spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.

In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them….[F]or [evangelical Christians] God is a relationship, not an explanation….What churches like these offer is a way of dealing with unhappiness.

Luhrmann’s observations on the practice of evangelical Christianity are interesting and instructive. They show how the truth of the various existential claims–about God or evil–that might be made by the faithful in the groups she observes is besides the point: what matters is the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship that is set up with the entity referred to as ‘God.’ This non-realist reading of evangelical Christianity suggests that what grants its doctrines and practices their particular resilience, accessibility and popularity is not their correspondence to some transcendent reality, but their success in catering to the felt and expressed emotional and psychological needs of its adherents.  The ‘faith’ of the evangelical Christians that Luhrmann studies is not a set of epistemically evaluable claims made about the theological domain; rather, it is a set of visible practices and utterances directed towards achieving definite outcomes like greater equanimity in the face of life’s uncertain offerings.  This faith is a set of tools, tactics and strategies that orient the believer in this life; to inquire into its ‘truth’ would be to make a category mistake; its evaluation lies elsewhere, in an instrumentalist assessment of its success in providing a new self-recounted narrative. The imperviousness of the evangelically inclined to the demonstration of the falsity of a substantive theological claim becomes comprehensible; that refutation cannot be accepted so long as the need underwriting the claim continues to be met by practiced belief in its truth.

The Pleasures of Running, Part Deux

The good folks at WordPress have been nice enough to put one of my recent posts ‘The Oft-Missed Pleasures of Running‘ into their Freshly Pressed selection. This has resulted in an overwhelming number of new readers and some very nice comments. I’d like to able to respond to each one individually, but it is looking extremely unlikely. In lieu of that, let me just offer a collective ‘Thanks very much – your words mean a great deal to me’ and some more thoughts on my running experiences.

One of the reasons I developed what might be described as a ‘deep connection’ with running was that it provided aid and comfort through some difficult times. The summer that I referred to in my post, when I became extremely lean, was one such time. I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek.

For a few weeks, what kept me from going absolutely stark raving bonkers was running. I made sure to run as often as possible, even if, given my generally gloomy disposition, stepping out for a run felt very difficult. I lived on 95th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan, and starting my six-mile loop in Central Park meant running first past Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues till I got to Central Park West. As I would run, I would second-guess myself: Did I really want to do this? It seemed so tedious; my body felt stiff and lethargic; six miles seemed very long and the park very far away. At every light, I would consider turning back.

Then, magically, I was at Central Park West. I would cross the street, run across the lawn, and find myself on the paved road of the loop. At that point, everything faded away. All I had to do was keep running till I came back to this starting point. The simplicity of it all was refreshing; my actions acquired definition. Some fifty minutes or so later, I was done. Reinvigorated, renewed.

My favorite running story from that summer, unsurprisingly, mentions my grim financial state. Finding my waiter wages insufficient, I went looking for work as a bartender. I wrote up my name, address, and phone number on fifty index cards and starting from Soho one afternoon, slowly walked up Broadway (and later, Columbus and Amsterdam), stopping in at bars, inquiring about employment possibilities and handing out my ‘business card’ as I did so. Finally, after walking some one hundred and ten street blocks, I arrived at home, tired, sweaty, my feet just a little sore from all that pavement-pounding. Evening had set in, and the night lay ahead of me. My roommates were not at home, and I had no engagements to occupy me. No dates, no cold-beer-based encounters at bars awaited me. What was I to do, in this bustling city full of strangers?

I laced up my shoes and ran six miles.