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.
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