The final, 25th piece in Trinity’s Reflections series, written during the pandemic, is by Thomas Graff, a third-year PhD student in Theology and Religious Studies.
A friend of mine recently shared an opinion piece by Alex Hutchinson from The Globe and Mail on how ‘COVID-19 is like running a marathon with no finish line’. But certainly not for want of looking for one. One persistent frustration of the pandemic, the piece goes on to explain, is not merely the absence of a clear finish line, but also the sheer inundation of false finish lines along the way. Hutchinson goes on to consider this basic human need, i.e. to integrate future expectation and present reality, via what physiologist Hans-Volkhart Ulmer has termed ‘teleoanticipation’: essentially, how we anticipate endpoints (for example, travel destinations, work deadlines, finish lines, etc.) significantly shapes how we experience the world.
2020 has not been a great year for ‘teleoanticipation’, to say the least. The November lockdown in the UK, not to mention the almost 1.5 million cases and over 17,000 deaths last week in the US, have only heightened the burden of constantly re-calibrating our expectations for public health and normalcy. We would like, to borrow a phrase from Frank Kermode, in a basic sense to arrive finally at ‘the sense of an ending’.
Thus, quite unexpectedly, my renewed interest during the pandemic in running.
This interest has been particularly focused during the recent Trinity Sports Challenge, which has inspired the Trinity community to map out runs, walks, hikes, bike rides, and yoga sessions on Strava like some obsessive fan art homage to the dotted-line-escapades of The Family Circus. A bit more seriously, perhaps, the practice of running has for the past few years, and most intensely during this pandemic, taught me how to embrace and inhabit time: not only how to pace (both literally and figuratively) my day-to-day life towards an uncertain and emergent future, but also how fundamentally to attend to the often simultaneous burden and beauty of the present moment.
Amidst COVID fatigue, zoom fatigue, and probably bread baking fatigue, running has taught me to get back into my body (rather than go out of my mind) and forced me to set and achieve discrete goals. Especially when there is no finish line to the marathon, so to speak, there may be one for the 5k. There are many rhythms and paces by which we move through a given day, week, month, or year of our lives. And central to running is learning, quite literally step by step, how to recognize, maintain, and hone these multiple registers of strength, fatigue, and recovery as projected against multiple distances and ‘finish lines’.
In and through attention to how the body converses with and slowly synthesizes physical growth, injury, and repair, running can even teach us something about the ‘pace’ of resilience in relation to the future. I do hasten to preface that running is by no means a kind of coronavirus panacea, somehow capable of resolving the trauma of the pandemic. The Trinity community alone has borne, and continues to bear, forms of loss and grief that are worth honoring in their own right.
However, self-care, no less than anxiety or sadness, begins in the body, and can even involve the often tedious, uncomfortable ritual of exercise. In this sense, running can teach the body to respond to pain not so much with sheer will-power alone (the hard-earned wisdom of most running injuries…), but rather with patience, recognizing that the body is neither invulnerable nor powerless, neither idol nor anathema, but rather finite gift, capable of pacing an uncertain future if not in clarity, then in hope.
Like a good Augustinian, however, to reflect on the future is paradoxically to ‘be present to’ the future (cf Confessions 11.20.26); and so we might helpfully conclude by considering running in relation to the present moment, and indeed running as a practice of ‘presence’.
Nothing jars the human person into the sharp immediacy of the present moment like pain. And like most sports, running, most especially at the outermost limits of one’s strength – wherever that may be – involves distended periods of bodily pain. In one sense, then, running can be understood as a practice of sustained attention to the present moment: a present that, if not immediately then inevitably will also involve attending to how the body negotiates difficulty, discomfort, and exhaustion.
My interest herein is neither to exalt running as some kind of herculean labour reserved exclusively for its lanky devotees – there are other, far more impressive sports and arts to pursue, besides – nor by any means to venerate pain for its own sake. Rather, running is ultimately one form by which I have learned to cultivate compassion for human vulnerability: to accompany, patiently and honestly, all of that which is ephemeral, contingent, and imperfect in human experience, from its greatest joys to its greatest sorrows. At its best, running is a practice of loving attention to human finitude.
It is in this light that running can even reveal to us something about the fundamentally embodied form of the spiritual life; and to me as a Christian in particular, something about the incarnate form of Christian religious life. The reality around which Christianity revolves, and commemorates in particular during the current Advent season, is the Incarnation: that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, whose vulnerable, swaddled infant body tells us something crucial about how and why divinity and humanity unify in love.
A bit obliquely, my favourite contemporary interpretation of the Incarnation comes from the naturalist and poet, David Whyte. Returning this often abstract and abstruse theological substantive to the context of the human body, Whyte defines ‘incarnation’ simply as ‘being here in your body’: in the deepest sense of the verb, to ‘embody’ the world amidst and indeed as the experience of flux, uncertainty, and even and especially, loss. After the death of a family member, a friend, a child, Whyte observes, our natural impulse is to numb, to avoid, and to insulate ourselves from the raw pain that accompanies tragedy. ‘Many human beings do that’, he notes bluntly, ‘for the rest of their lives’. But the tendency is universal; ‘all of us are struggling to be here’, ultimately. He continues:
One of the great theological questions is around incarnation, which simply means being here in your body—not anywhere else, just here with life’s fierce need to change you—the fact that the more you’re here and the more you’re alive, the more you realize you’re a mortal human being and that you’ll pass from this place. And will you actually turn up? Will you actually have the conversation? Will you become a full citizen of vulnerability, loss, and disappearance, which you have no choice about? (‘The Conversational Nature of Reality’, On Being with Krista Tippett, 7 April 2016)
Somewhere, in the running body’s conversation with reality, in the mutual exchange between foot and pavement, lungs and air, self and world, running can teach us how to inhabit our full humanity compassionately and honestly. It can teach us, in sum, to inhabit the burden-and-beauty of the ephemeral, incarnate ‘here’ against an uncertain future, as nonetheless a form of bodily attention that can even settle into something akin to contemplation (call it ‘peripatetic contemplation’, if you’d like). And, insofar as the body cultivates this honesty, it can be hospitable to and so narrate a unifying story of the entire range of human emotions – gratitude, fear, trust, anger, peace, uncertainty, lament, hope, restlessness, wonder, despair, joy, praise, even.
Of course, unflinching attention to reality in all its breadth and depth is fitful, to say the least. Fortunately, Whyte’s invitation to incarnation, to ‘being here’, is interrogatory, open-ended, and always extended: will you have the conversation?
Thomas Graff’s research explores the interrelation of theology and poetics in Dante Alighieri as informed by Augustine of Hippo. Among his forthcoming publications in 2021 are: ‘Reality Theater: Towards an Intermedial Essayism in Patrick Vassel’s Adaptation of Six Characters in Search of an Author‘, Pirandello Studies 41, and ‘Predestination in Dante’s Commedia in Light of Augustine’, Literature and Theology.