There is a trail that leads from the asphalt in my neighborhood to mountain peaks scattered from Phoenix to Scottsdale and comes within a half mile of my work. It is brutal, dusty, and rocky. I can climb and drop a thousand feet in a run and not peak anything. I have dodged rattlesnakes and been trailed by coyotes along this trail. It eats “rough trail” running shoes like M&M’s.
I love it, and I run it every week. Sometimes I enter from other neighborhoods or take other loops than my own regular turns. Sometimes I run the whole way, and sometimes I walk more than I run. Sometimes I heave. I have broken several toes and right after moving here got stung by a scorpion running in sandals.
It is my happy place, this little brutal stretch of desert. It is sand and rock, slate and sandstone, and broken concrete. It is endless sky, creosote, palo verde, and saguaro, barrel and cholla. It is where my soul goes for deep cleaning.
Sometimes the only time I can run is in the afternoon. Extra electrolytes, caped hat, long sleeves, and patience. When you live in certain parts of town you can watch the rescue helicopters pluck the stupid off the mountains. I have watched them pick people up while I was waiting for my GPS to pick up a signal before a run.
There is a purity to the hot run, a humility that is life and death. You cannot abide pride, or it will kill you. You have to admit and know your limits. You have to ignore what your habits are and still have good habits. It is not too much to say that these things are fatal.
So why run in the heat?
There is a part of every life that is hollow without the experience of the Real. The Real is that which actually matters. The movie Fight Club is an absurdist masculine search for the experience of the Real that matters, but it involves real violence and sex. And it shows the dangers of making a religion or a cult out of its pursuit.
I want to think that everyone wants to experience something Real, something that truly matters, but I am not sure. I know that many people do not seem to experience the Real very often. Take religious life. It can be a honest stripping of everything false that leads us to the Truth, and it can be a true-sounding reinforcement of the lies that lie between us and the Real.
Does everyone want an experience of the Real? There is an elitist view of the world that many of my favorite modernist writers held that basically said no, not everyone wants to or can experience the absolute.
E. E. Cummings is my favorite example. From his Introduction to New Poems (1938):
The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople– it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution.
I love the sentiments in this introduction about the courage to live a real life, but the other side of that is a snobbery (I know, irony.) That snobbery is directly related to how every human being relates to the world. On one hand there is a direct engagement with life and on the other is a writing off of every else. The Real which should be humbling and the real arrogance of pretense.
Pretense is one of the ways that we try to control our lives. We ignore, eliminate, or deny the existence of people that do not fit our needs or desires. It seems like courage to break away from the crowd and fly as an ubermensch of one type or another, but the reality is that break from most of humanity is the moment the feathers start to drop from your wings.
Every human being. As a Christian, we proclaim with the Bible that the cross is salvation for the world. As a Christ-less Christian, we proclaim that we are separate from some of the people in the world by virtue of their . . . (we could really insert all sorts of things here). But I have come to see that there is no separation in Christ. The cross is for all, or we don’t trust the God proclaimed in the incarnation of Jesus.
This sets us in an interesting place in the world, between a world that is riven by separations and anxieties and a God who loves the people in that world. We are called to be ambassadors to a suffering and struggling humanity, but instead we pull away to feel safe. Cummings says later in the same piece quoted above, “Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness.” Afraid to suffer, most people never get born again.
Maybe I run on some level so that I suffer in manageable ways, because otherwise I am a pretty blessed little dilettante in ministry to secure, safe, but still scared and separated people, and if I am not careful I can become a part of not-humanity, the false humanity of any one group.
Thomas Merton, that wonderful monastic genius of the religio-spiritual life, offers us a pretty full exploration of the difference between the false man and true man, or false human being and true human being, as we would put it today. The false human is the one I create around myself: the stories I tell of me, the lies I imply of me, the secure happy Instagram self I portray to the world. The false self is a lie, but one that I believe, so it is or becomes indistinguishable from me.
The true human being is the one beneath all of that. He, in my case, suffers and has joy, tells the truth or lies, prays and is. But we mostly ignore that true self until something touches us that strips away the lies. AA calls it “hitting rock bottom,” but the bottom here is the bedrock of truth, the moment you see your true self. It could be a divorce or lie that collapses relationships or simply a religious experience or the wilderness. It can be awesome but most of the time it feels like Icarus falling.
Staying with the truth is hard, even when we have experienced it. It is hard because when we are false, we don’t feel as immediately and don’t share deep truth, so we are less vulnerable to hurt or other people. We are not actually present to the pain, suffering, and death of life because we are not actually present at all. We may prop all of this up with alcohol or simply self-righteous judgement. But the distance between the false self and the real feels like a blanket of comfort.
The other reality of that distance is that people feel the disconnect. They know without always knowing why that the real is not present, but the false self is often more desirable or useful or agreeable to deal with. It is certainly less threatening. So we live this fundamental lie that is the sum and source of most deception, even though we feel fine about it because it is inseparable from “me.”
In groups we justify and prop us the false selves around us. We encourage them because that is easier than dealing with a bunch of true selves that might call me to truth and the Real of my life. We need the collective lie to feel safe in our lies. We need this to feel safe even when our collective lie includes fear of the other, xenophobia, mimetic violence, and depravation. It sounds terrible written out, but in reality it all feels pretty good. That’s why we keep tuning in. We love the lie.
So when I run, there is no one to lie to. There is no one to impress. There is only me and the rocks and God. I run because it puts me naked before God and my true self without temptation to be anything other that what I am, which in the context of nature is not much. Running keeps me honest.
Running for me, and maybe especially because I am not a competitor, is humiliation at its best. It is fasting and prayer and focus and a crazy pursuit of holiness. And it is more pure at higher temperatures, like so many things in life.
If I am going to embody God’s mercy and grace and love, I have to do so at the level of the Real, so that it can be trusted. “Christians either contemplate or they manipulate” was Ted Wueste’s interpretation of a quote this last week at a retreat. It is so true it hurts.
The real danger for me on the trails is not dying from heat exposure. It is lying. You have to be honest out at the edges of life. You have to be humble. So that you can return to the soft middle of things and not die all the time.
Running makes me a better human being, a e.e. cummings live person, but it also makes me more than that, it makes me a humble person, grounded in the humanity of every person. We all suffer. We all do what we can. And we all screw it up.
The cross and Christ’s suffering was not to separate out some group to save from all the rest, but rather to set aside some to save all. We are called to work of the cross, suffering with and not in spite, but in love for all.