Art and Sacrifice — Hints from Life

Photo: Thanks to Patrick Hendry on Unsplash!

I’m in the produce section at Sprouts Market, meditating on my shopping list. I lift my gaze and see a wondrous thing.

An elderly Chinese woman is introducing a middle-aged Caucasian man to the wonders of eggplant.

Speaking with sweet enthusiasm, she isn’t merely giving him her best eggplant recipes. She’s being an un-self-conscious friend. It’s clear they don’t know each other, but their communion of feeling brings joy to my heart.

I think, “There are good people.”

How do good people get that way? Probably not by doing sports.

A 1970s study by psychologists Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko found that sports participation doesn’t make us moral. They summarized their findings in a Psychology Today article, “If You Want to Build Character, Try Something Else.” (Unfortunately, the article isn’t available online.)

I remember that when the article was passed around the Runner’s World office, we weren’t terribly pleased. We’d have loved to hear that running makes us finer, nobler human beings.

Ogilvie and Tutko were famous in their day. They were successful in helping NFL teams evaluate potential draft picks.

Their work in pro football was described in a Sports Illustrated feature by Joe Jares (January 18, 1971), “We Have A Neurotic In The Backfield, Doctor.”

Tutko and Ogilvie tend to scoff at the whole notion of character building in sports. They maintain that, to the contrary, sports do not build character, that when kids start in athletics – Little League, Pop Warner football, vacant-lot pickup games or whatever – “the youngsters who are tender-minded, a little less bright, a little less emotionally stable” are weeded out. The kids who stay are already emotionally stable, tough-minded, etc.

I wish it were otherwise. We runners spend so much time in healthy environments, improving our bodies, brains, and hearts.

Why not our souls?

Years ago, there was a small marathon that I loved. (Sadly, the race is defunct.) I won’t give its name, for reasons I’ll explain later. Let’s just say it was in a medium-sized city somewhere between Key West and Seattle.

The race had just 94 finishers its final year, but it had a relaxed charm – perhaps it was the wonderful trees that shaded many miles of the course as it wound through tranquil upscale near-downtown neighborhoods.

The first year I entered, as I passed the first aid station a young man pointed at me and said loudly, “That’s a bad guy.”

The aid stations were manned by volunteers from the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marine who stood behind the table in full dress uniform, to whom the speaker addressed his helpful commentary, didn’t appear to give it much weight. He looked solidly self-contained.

The year before, I’d had a brush-in with the young man. It was at a half-marathon where I finished in painful condition. I had misjudged my pace and was hurting all over. As I struggled to rise above my suffering, I was determined not to whine or let my pain be seen by others. I finished with my face set in stone, defying my body.

As I walked to my car, the young man yelled, “Deutschland über Alles!” As if I were a Nazi, for not being a happily smiling runner.

The director of that nice little tree-shaded marathon had lousy luck. There were no Porta-Potties along the course on race day – the contractors simply failed to show up. The runners were relieving themselves at construction sites and behind dumpsters.

The aid stations ran out of supplies before the 4-hour finishers arrived, and the showers were locked an hour before the slower runners finished.

I wrote the director a letter, hoping to make him aware of these deficiencies so that he could improve his wonderful race the next year. Unfortunately, I was careless with my wording. I said, “It only takes a little word-of-mouth to make a race fail.”

Poor-mouthing his race was the farthest thing from my mind. I simply wanted to point out that it would be important to fix the small things, or people would be bound to talk. Never, until now, have I told anyone about the marathon’s deficiencies. It’s why I’m not revealing its name or location, even though the race expired years ago.

The director took my words in the worst possible way – I was a bad guy who’d threatened to harm his race if he didn’t do as I suggested.

When he announced the names of the finishers the following year, he fell silent as I crossed the line. He was silent again when I finished another race he directed.

The first time I ran that marathon, I arrived at the start an hour early. I saw the director setting up tables and offered to help. Without turning, he brushed my offer aside, then screamed angrily at a helper about something they’d done incorrectly.

I finished the race in terrible shape. I’d hit the wall. My body was toast.

I knew about expansive sports and the inner freedom it brings. I was determined to stretch my awareness beyond my pitiful bodily self.

As I approached the final aid station, I saw the Marine, his dress uniform still impeccable, still helping the runners. I pulled my pathetic resources together and offered him the thanks he richly deserved. I said, “Thank you for coming out and helping today.”

He replied Marine-fashion, with impersonal courtesy and self-restraint, “You are welcome. I’m glad to be here.” I felt that he understood what the runners were going through, and respected us for it.

Existential psychiatrist Rollo May is the author of Love and Will. It isn’t a book I’d recommend for light reading, as it’s a fairly hard slog. But the point it makes is brilliant.

In essence, Rollo May says that when a culture begins to devalue qualities of self-restraint, and starts to drift toward self-indulgence, it loses its ability to love.

The book was published in 1969, when the sweet hazy promise of the Summer of Love still lingered. “If it feels good, do it!”

It was a dreamy, subconscious time, and Rollo May was troubled by the dangers it portended.

Sensory pleasures demand ever-stronger stimulation. May believed that when the usual stimulations no longer satisfy people’s jaded nerves, they will seek the amped-up thrill of violence.

Forty-five years after its publication, May’s book has proved prophetic. A disturbing swath of our culture wallows in violence. It’s evident in the arts: in violent video games, zombie movies, nihilistic music, soul-dead films such  as No Country for Old Men or The House of Yes. Violence is an everyday feature of public life, in Internet discussions, and “reality” TV.

Rollo May argued that the capacity for love demands a powerful will, joined with a clear-eyed understanding that happiness comes by sacrificing self-imprisoning self-indulgence. Disciplined feeling allows us to expand our hearts to include realities beyond our own.

At the conclusion of his book, Civilisation, the British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark expressed his belief that self-restraint is a prerequisite of civilization:

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology…. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.

After reading Civilisation, I wrote Lord Clark a letter. I thanked him for his inspiring book and enclosed a small volume by J. Donald Walters, Art as a Hidden Message: A Guide to Self-Realization.

Lord Clark

A month later I received a note from Clark, thanking me for Art as a Hidden Message. He said, “I find myself much in agreement with it.” When I asked if the publishers could quote his words in their advertising, he replied, “Certainly.”

Clark received more than 700 letters from viewers of the BBC’s Civilisation TV series. He answered every one.

Albert Einstein believed that the connection between self-restraint and happiness is built into the cosmic fabric:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

I suspect that Ogilvie and Tutko were right. Running doesn’t make us moral. But, surely, it can serve as a sandbox where we can strengthen our moral fiber if we choose.

As runners, we have many opportunities to expand our hearts, under conditions that may be severely taxing.

Bob Kennedy, the first American to run a sub-13 5k, described the monastic lifestyle he was compelled to lead in his peak competitive years. Every hour of the day was planned. Minor indulgences were sacrificed to exhilarating goals. Surely it’s no coincidence that Bob acquired a reputation, among those who knew him, of being one of the world’s good guys.

On any spiritual quest, whether athletic, military, or religious, there are two paths, the soft and the hard. The soft path is the pseudo-spirituality of hippies, offering pleasant, ego-gratifying stimulations. It loves outward means: sweet ceremonies, scents and sounds, intoxicants and visual delights.

The hard path is that of military men, saints, and caregivers – those who understand the rewards of forsaking instant gratification. The Marines don’t become “The Few, The Proud” by being easy.

In that marathon years ago, the Marine’s simple words meant a lot to me. They still do. I remember them clearly. That’s because they were spoken with tangible sincerity, born of his soldierly self-control.

Has running made me more moral? I doubt it. Thanking the Marine didn’t remove the pain of finishing the marathon in crawl-home mode. But it gave me a noble memory. And for that, I’d happily do it again.