As a former cross country runner, I thought that running the five miles from Boston College to the Mass. Ave. Bridge would prove no sweat—but when I stopped for the third time, less than halfway through the run, I realized that no sweat was the problem. I wasn’t really tired—my body wasn’t in pain—I just didn’t feel like continuing the discomfort of my run. I realized in that moment an uncomfortable distance between the effort I expected of myself and that which I had completed.
My high school cross country and track coach, Coach Kent, cared for his athletes’ performances from a holistic perspective, as evidenced by his often-quoted philosophy: If you walk, you don’t run. He didn’t mind if his athletes weren’t the fastest, but he expected them to push themselves. Those who succumbed to laziness were not allowed to compete in races. Kent required this effort for the sake of both the team and the individuals who composed it. In expecting and delivering full, focused effort, each athlete demonstrated respect for herself and her teammates.
I remembered Kent’s philosophy as I sat on that stone wall somewhere along the B-line. My fault lay not simply with pausing—he wouldn’t have pushed a runner past her capabilities—but instead with pausing when I knew I was capable of running the full distance. I lacked the discipline to continue when my breathing grew labored and my stride weighted. What I faced was a crisis of the individual arising from a fear of discomfort. I was trying to distract myself from the pains of my body as I exercised because I believed the pain too uncomfortable to tolerate. I was creating a pink elephant for myself, as I fixated with greater intensity upon both the pain and my apparent incapacity to handle it.
This avoidance of pain bespoke a deeper issue: my desire to avoid the discomfort of the present. I had already begun to notice a tendency that extended to other aspects of my life. I allowed myself to be distracted from even minute, daily discomforts. I was constantly distracted by thoughts of the past, future, and those portions of the present that were irrelevant to my current situation—in the process, I was absenting myself from my own life.
This same dilemma is exhibited to the extreme in the lye burning scene from Fight Club. Indulging in distracting thoughts and images of sex, spirit animals, and calming environments, the nameless narrator (Edward Norton) attempts to avoid the agony of the chemical lye burn. He attempts to avoid present pain. But Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who actually gives him the chemical burn, forces him to confront the pain at hand: “Come back to the pain. Don’t shut it out.” Norton’s character again attempts to avoid the pain, and Tyler finally snaps: “This is the greatest moment of your life and you’re off somewhere, missing it.”
We each demonstrate this weakness daily. We can’t focus on a Friday lecture because we’re mulling over party plans for that same night. We can’t focus on the party because we’re worrying about the school work that awaits us. We mull over the past and work to secure our future—striving, as Blaise Pascal explains, to “arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.” Part of this tendency is biological and necessary for survival. We look to the past to understand and learn from mistakes and trends, while planning (looking to the future) better secures present desires and/or comforts. We avoid the present most often, however, because “the present usually hurts” (Pascal). The aches and pains of sore joints, of a headache, of cold rain, of a dull lecture, of a long conversation. can all be ignored to some extent by distractions of the mind. We continue to avoid the time that designates life itself: the present. When we walk, we don’t run. Reducing ourselves to the most basic motions, we reduce our lives to the same. We cut ourselves short of fulfillment and enjoyment by hiding from pain and discomfort. In order to master our lives, then, we must master our pain and force ourselves into the present.
The next time that I ran, I focused on my pain instead of resorting to distraction. As I ran, I meditated upon the soreness of my legs, the cramp in my stomach, and the dryness of my throat. I discovered that, as I focused upon the pain, it became less prominent. Eventually, I even grew bored with it. I completed the run to the Mass. Ave. Bridge without stopping once. Even at stoplights, I jogged in place. I realized that the pain was an obstacle inferior to that of remaining focused upon the present. The pain faded in and out, whereas my distractions continued throughout the run.
“Best do it at a bit of a run,” Mrs. Weasley advised Harry Potter when he balked at the prospect of running through a solid wall. And she was right: on the other side lay Platform 9 3/4. In throwing ourselves forward regardless of the pain that we anticipate, we encounter our own Platforms 9 3/4—counterintuitive lives that harbor their own degree of magic and joy.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics