Friday, March 11, 2011

What Good Does Running Do?: Is Running a Selfish Act?


A climbing friend recently told me that she stopped running because she came to believe that it was a very self centered, selfish pursuit. This is a common perception, and one, I believe, many runners battle, from without and within. I think many of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances assumed that at some point I would have grown-up and abandoned this silly distraction/obsession. It takes so much time, attention, and effort - and - for what end? As someone who has dreams, hopes, and aspirations for changing the world for the better, and who is committed to her family, the question today is: Isn't running just a huge waste of time and energy that could be used for better/more productive ends? This question concerns: a) Our relationships with friends, family, and co-workers, and b)Our larger actions in the world: Shouldn't we use our time and energy to help make the world a better place to live?

Now, first I want to state that most passions can be pursued obsessively and selfishly, it can be: climbing (most of my rock climbing friends pursue it with single minded abandon), yoga, painting, writing, reading, TV watching, spectator sports enthusiasm, gardening, house renovation, Facebooking, checking email, sex, eating/not eating - ANYTHING can be pursued obsessively. So, why are committed runners so often viewed as selfish and self centered just because they struggle to carve out a little time to run everyday?

Here's what I hear from many, many people: Running is a selfish act. Runners are self absorbed, obsessed, selfish people who really need to do something useful with themselves. When I tell friends that I ran 20 miles, I'm often greeted with a disbelieving shake of the head - Some respond that way because they don't know why I would do that voluntarily. Others clearly believe that I'm wasting so much time that could be spent: with my family, at my job making more money, cleaning the house, cooking nutritious meals, replacing the faucets in the bathrooms (yes, they all need to be replaced!), - whatever - anything is more productive than running. I've battled with this notion/reaction for most of my life. And this issue becomes larger, particularly for women, once children are added to the picture. How can I justify leaving my precious baby/toddler/preschooler for an hour or more to do something selfish like run? Add to that the fact that I spent hour upon hour pushing my daughter over mile upon mile, in almost all weather conditions, for the first two years of her life (beginning when she was only 5 weeks old). Oh, the horror, the abuse.

In her 2005 article "Racing: Sensitive to the Selfishness: Looking for balance" in "Running Times" Gordon Bakoulis claims that: "There’s a significant selfish component to our running...especially when race day rolls around. We need our pre-race pasta dinner, our morning coffee made just right, our hour or more before the start to warm up, stretch, check out the course, and adjust our shoelaces half a dozen times. We depend on other people—often a loyal spouse or significant other—to deal with transportation, parking, children, gear, and logistics, and we expect race officials and volunteers to stock the portable toilets, accurately measure the course, run the timing system, and deal with any medical issues. After the race, we take more time to warm down, exercise our bragging rights, and consume post-race refreshments. To a large extent, this selfishness is necessary too—we need to eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand on race day to make all our training worthwhile...[It’s] important that we all recognize the necessary selfishness of competitive running, and balance that focus with a generosity of spirit when and where we can. Many runners give back by volunteering at races and serving in the leadership of their local running clubs. They also, I’ve found, tend to be selfless in supporting the endeavors, both running and otherwise, of their self-sacrificing friends and family. Running is a great gift, and we can’t help but give back."

Of course when we pursue something with a passion we need others to work with us, to support us, to be there when we need them - and I think most people want this for themselves and they want to offer the same support for those they care about. It's a issue of give and take that all good/healthy relationships require if we are to become our best and bring out the best in those we love. This is not unique to running.

In the Lore of Running Tim Noakes discusses the "Selfish Runner's Syndrome" and warns his readers against succumbing to this milady. He notes that for the average runner, one who may be competitive but not elite, balance must be found especially with regard to work and family commitments. He seems to say that it's okay for the champion athlete to be selfish, but the mid-packers need to reel in the tendency to obsess too much. He suggests that serious running be limited, either yearly, or seasonally. That running should not interfere with family weekend and evening recreation, household chores and responsibilities - doing so, as Noakes puts it, "provides your family with a tangible reminder that they come second".

What does Noakes mean when he says that: running should not interfere with weekend and evening entertainment, household chores and responsibilities? I want to argue that everyone has a right to pursue something that may "interfere" with these things a little bit. Maybe I don't vacuum the house everyday - so what? Perhaps if I stopped running I could make more money. How much money do I need? If I'm a better person, for myself, my friends, my family, and the larger world beyond, then isn't the sum total beneficial?

As someone who has devoted much of her life to the study and teaching of philosophy, and in particular, ethics, I often challenge myself to try to justify my actions rationally, often applying some well tested moral theories. I've used this "thought experiment" method to sort out many questions, usually just for fun, though it has on occasion motivated me to act in a way other than I had planned:

For Aristotle: Does running develop my virtuous character as an individual and as a member of the community? Well, running develops discipline, courage, modesty, and good temper. Running has also offered me the opportunity to participate as a political animal/member of the community through raising money for worthy causes (many races benefit worthwhile organizations and I've raised money on my own as well). Now, for Aristotle moderation is key - Moderation in all things (except in moderation ;). So, if I go off the deep end, concerning any pursuit, then I am not living a good human life. For John Stuart Mill, the good utilitarian maximizes the greatest quantity and quality of happiness for the greatest number of (sentient) beings. I am allowed to count myself, but I can't give my happiness any more weight then the happiness of anyone else. Again balance is called for here - If I run and it makes me happy, allows me to be a better parent and partner and member of the community, then that's fine. If, however, my running becomes so obsessive that I neglect my other responsibilities (to the point where others are harmed) then this action fails to satisfy the necessary requirements. For Immanuel Kant: "Can I will that everyone do what I'm doing?" Again, balance is called for. If I wouldn't want everyone to run all the time (like my spouse for instance - because if he's always running, I can't because someone has to watch the kiddo!) then I shouldn't do it either. Would I will that everyone run everyday? Yes. For how long? Oh, I'd say perhaps an hour or two per day depending on the day and the desires/plans/commitment concerning others that day. So, on the basis of these three moral theories (which really are the Big Three theories in moral philosophy) running at a fairly intense level seems completely acceptable and perhaps even desirable.

Of course, we can all go off the deep end where passion becomes obsession - but I want to suggest, especially to all the women out there who feel guilty every time they do something for themselves, that taking care of one's self shows the greatest care and concern for one's family, contrary to what Noakes appears to argue. I take time for myself. My husband takes time for himself. We give our daughter a great deal of our time. We also give her her own time. At this point in my daughter's young, 4 year-old life, I can think of few other better examples I can provide her than to give myself time and take care of my needs on my own. My daughter is PART of the family, not the CENTER of the family. We are a FAMILY made up of individuals who each have needs independent of the others. And, we ALSO have family needs. When any one part of the family unit is absorbed into another part, then the integrity of the whole suffers.

34 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good post. Perhaps its not about THE runner being selfish, but the point of view of the individuals observing the runner?

    Perhaps the selfish ideas surface when people label an individual as the "runner Jack"; rather than "Jack the runner".

    I would argue (vehemently) that most/all competitive (non-elite and elite) runners are more balanced on average than non-runners, but non-runners perceive imbalance because running is so alien to them. Non-runners perceptions can influence runners thoughts so much we start internalizing these negative thoughts.

    This difficulty in seeing both the trees in the forest, as well as the forest the trees make, contributes to not only mis-interpretations about runners but also other areas in our society.

    Thank you for the interesting post.

    PS I am aware my the angle of my comment is slanted slightly away from your post, but I think it is still valid.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Danny, I completely agree with you, especially on your claim that most runners are more balanced than non-runners - or society seems to have problems with those who pursue something with dedication and commitment and discipline just because we choose to - not because someone is making us, or feel a duty to do so, or someone is paying us. We understand someone who goes shopping or watches football all day before we understand someone who run all day ;)

    As a women, I suspect that women get this more then men because there is this idea that women should give up everything once they have a family and always serve the needs of the family before any other needs. Where that stops, I don't know. I watch as so many women give up any time for themselves, and grumble about it, so that they can be a "good" mother and partner - and I don't think it works, hence the grumbling - Men do it too, but I think men are more likely to carve out some time for "outside" interests, often with the justification that they "work hard" and deserve it - Women, on the other hand, often feel guilty about working outside the home, so they certainly can't take MORE time for "themselves".

    Thanks for the feedback, and thank for reading!
    Caolan

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you so much for this post Caolan. It is exactly what I needed to read today as I have been accused of being selfish through my running. My running has and continues to make me a better person and a better mom. It is my time to reflect on life, apply running lessons to everyday challenges, and set an example for my daughter that women are strong and can run.

    Currently my running has taken a focus as I am committed to fulfill a life long dream to run a marathon. The first person I confessed this inner dream to was my father after he was diagnosed and I felt so guilty with such an ambitious goal that I even wrote it to him, not tell him directly.

    My dad's battle with leukemia was very brief and in memory of him and the great life he led, I feel I need to follow my dreams and complete my marathon, my testament to life.

    I strongly feel I am not being selfish but only committed to being a better woman, a better mom, a better wife, a better employee. From the male's perspective you argued, I could say I deserve my runs. I work full time. I take care of my daughter. I do household chores and prepare dinner most nights. I always pack my daughter's lunch. I put her to bed each night after showering her each night. After all this don't I deserve the reward of a run, especially a run I pull myself out of bed at 4:00 am so I can run before going to work and picking up my daughter from school on time?

    Thanks for the thought provoking blog and keep running!

    ReplyDelete
  5. RunningMom, It makes me very happy to hear that what I've written here has been helpful and thought provoking. All I can say is that often it's what we say to ourselves that has the most dramatically negative effect on our motivation to run. Other people may shake their heads in disbelief and incomprehension when they hear that we get up at 4 am to run, but it's when we start telling ourselves that perhaps they are right that the damage is done. I try as much as possible to shake those comments and insinuations off. I also realize that I'm probably hyper-sensitive to them.

    And, one of the most important examples we women can set for our daughters is to show them, through how we live our lives, that pursuing their passions is essential to their happiness. I love my daughter more than anything in the world. I would and will do anything and everything for her, to help her become a strong, happy, fulfilled woman - and I can only do that by being that myself. That's the hard part.

    If you've read any of my other posts you'll see I'm currently fighting the battle of continuing to pursue my dreams while my mother fights for her life. I just qualified for Boston on May 1st and I felt a little guilty telling her about it, and allowing myself to enjoy my success.

    Keep running. Pick a marathon. Make a plan and do it. If you need any support, ask. The running community is so supportive! Use it. I'd love to hear about your progress.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I love exercise and I'd do it everyday if I could, but I have a family who need me to be there, not all the time, which is why I exercise 3-4 times a week when the kids are at school. It's all about balance and doing what you can, getting that fix to last you til the next time. I tried getting up at 5am and running everyday so as not to interfere with the family, but my knees were really playing me up and by 8pm I was ready for bed because of the early start and therefore couldn't spend time with my husband. It's definitely about balance and what works for the family - not you! Compromise is a good word!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous - of course compromise is always a something to aim for, but not to the extent that you compromise everything you want and need. A family, to my mind, is still a group of individuals, and we each have our needs and wants. I am there everyday for my husband and daughter and I make sacrifices to do what I do, but we also work together to help each other. I think, as I've said before, that it's important for my daughter to understand that she is part of a loving and supportive family, but she's not the center of the family. And I hope that when she is grown and has a family of her own that she feels comfortable pursuing her passions while loving and cherishing her family. Every family and situation is different. This is just how it works for me. Balance is different for different people.

    ReplyDelete
  8. There is nothing wrong with pursuing activities you enjoy that contribute to good health for yourself, as long as it doesn't wear the cloak of anything other than that.

    I think what non-runners react to is the sometimes present implication that there is something admirable or righteous about the act of running.

    Those who constantly post on social media about their running, how long, where, how far etc. do tend to appear self-absorbed and to have a 'look at me!' need.

    Or course people running on a trail benefits no one except the runner. It won't help the community, animals or the earth.

    And that is just fine, as the majority of people spend most of their time on their own interests. But again, sometimes, runners (and cyclers for that matter) seem to seek out attention and praise for simply spending a weekend running or biking on a trail, as if they do it for the greater good.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  19. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  22. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  25. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  26. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  27. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  28. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  29. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  30. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  31. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  32. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I don't think I've ever read this one! Loved it. Especially the last section on taking time for yourself and that includes the children. I used to think I was being selfish but the fact is, I need time to enjoy what I want to do and not make my entire life about my child. At some point, that child grows up and then what am I left with?

    ReplyDelete
  34. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete

Any comments that could easily fall under the definition of "Cyber-Bullying" are promptly deleted.

Cyber-Bullying is a crime punishable under Federal Law and in some cases Individual State Laws. By posting a comment to this blog, you acknowledge that you understand and accept these laws and are aware that you will be prosecuted for offenses under the full extent of these laws. By posting a comment to this blog you also agree to waive your anonymity, and any rights associated with that anonymity, by having your computers I.P. Address tracked.

One Last Chance

  “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” ~ Paulo Coelho This will be short - not somethi...