Opinions, Column

The Beginning of the End: Marathons, Goodbyes, and a Third Thing

“On a scale of one (completely doable) to 10 (doing that would be worse than going to the seventh circle of hell), what are your thoughts on walking a marathon distance in one day? Be honest.”

This is what I texted my boyfriend, Jack, three days after he graduated from college. 

“Like a 7. Maybe a 9,” he replied.

Exactly one month later, we set out into the damp, hellish heat of a New York summer to where Brooklyn meets the Narrows, and we started to walk. 

Our route followed that of the New York City Marathon, skipping only Staten Island (the Verrazzano Bridge isn’t accessible to pedestrians). We walked past Sunset Park, past Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg and Greenpoint. We dragged our feet through painful miles up the island—past Upper East Side moms pushing strollers and men in suits and tourists licking ice cream cones. We tried to name a city for each letter of the alphabet while entering the Bronx and argued about the desirability of the rain soaking our clothes as we exited. By the time we hit Central Park, we held hands for purely practical reasons, using each other as human canes as we tripped over cobblestones. 

After we finished, we sat sweaty and aching under the shade of an elm tree, and I asked Jack to share his reflections. He smiled widely and said: “My feet hurt. My legs hurt. My back hurts. But, I am more powerful than anyone in New York City.” 

In the months since our Marathon Walk, we reference it semi-frequently. The best food Jack’s ever had? Bodega soft serve from mile 17. The Brooklyn Bridge? Cooler than all the marathon bridges. How to measure if a distance is walkable? It’s less than 26.2 miles.

Shared experiences like walking the marathon are at the top of the list of my favorite things. They’re also why I’m terrified to be a college senior watching the biggest shared experience—the biggest “Third Thing”—in my life, Boston College, slip from present to past. 

I first encountered the idea of The Third Thing in Donald Hall’s essay of the same name. In it, he opines about his marriage with Jane Kenyon and the things that occupied their shared attention. 

“Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment,” he writes. “Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention.”

While Hall thinks of this in relation to Jane—sharing Ping-Pong and Henry James, among other things—I’ve adopted the Third Thing as part of my life philosophy in all my relationships, not just romantic ones. Sharing something outside of ourselves is what builds and sustains and reshapes our communities. 

Sharing BC is a wonderful Third Thing. It—and we—are made so much better for paying shared attention to this place and these people. I know that even strangers I pass on the Quad know the real lyrics to “Mr. Brightside” and the magic of the first fall day and the thrill of getting a table during rush hour at the Chocolate Bar. I know that the strides we make as individuals and the progress we make as a university are entangled in one another, with students standing on the shoulders of alumni and the authors we read to share new visions of what BC—and we—can be: A place that is more welcoming to those of different abilities, sexual orientations, faiths, and socio-economic statuses, to name a few. Men and women who are truly for others.

Hall acknowledges that sometimes we lose Third Things, but he does not offer any advice for how to deal with that loss. So, while I know that new institutions and experiences will emerge as foci of joint attention in my relationships, I’m going to hold onto this one a little longer. I’m going to hold on to unreasonably green grass on the Quad, hideous Superfan shirts, coveted booths on O’Neill one, and people going to absurd lengths to hold the door for the person behind them. And while I’m still sharing a gaze with all of you, I’m also going to demand we make BC the best it can be. 

Here’s to the final year of the column. A final look together at this place and these people. I hope to make it count. 

Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor

September 12, 2021