Just as I was planning what and where to explore this year, running, I was asked if I should really participate in any such events, do anything like that. “So long, so far up and around mountains, so tiring – don’t you think it might be dangerous?”
It is an integral part of living to avoid those things which are uncomfortable, threatening, dangerous. Even the most basic forms of life have mechanisms for moving towards that which they require to live and reproduce, and away from that which would threaten them.
As we humans are beings with an awareness of ourselves and our mortality, this becomes all the more complicated. Not stronger, perhaps, but layered and manifold:
Awareness of our mortality has produced many a cultural practice and religious idea, in burial practices and notions of rebirth or afterlife. It drives us to produce works of art, to have and spread thoughts that will have an influence, or at least to reproduce and be remembered. Awareness of our very own personal mortality can make us retrench into conservatism or open up to more active, aware, engaged living.
And yet, whether it drives us this way or that, we will see dangers and have fears.
Most of the time, they are based on something that has been a danger during much of humanity’s history. Often enough, they are uncomfortable, but not as bad as to become phobias that leave us dysfunctional in some way. We don’t feel comfortable around wild animals (and are afraid of snakes but not of the electric cables that are, nowadays, rather more dangerous); we don’t want to be in front of too many people – or perhaps, with too few friends. We avoid certain foods because we don’t know them or had had them make us sick… It makes sense, or at least doesn’t hurt.
There is a special problem that we as human beings face, though: As our understanding of happiness is often misguided, so are our fears often focused on the wrong things.
Our minds are made to focus on the extraordinary and out-of-our-hands. So, we fear flying, but quickly become comfortable driving a car. We fear the sudden danger of shark attacks on the beach, but forget all about the slow and insidious danger of getting a sunburn and perhaps, later on, skin cancer.
As Oliver Burkeman writes in “The Antidote:”
“Seeing a television report of a terrorist attack on foreign soil, you might abandon plans for an overseas holiday, in order to hang on to your feeling of safety — when, in truth, spending too much time sitting on the sofa watching television might pose a far greater threat to your survival.”
Regarding my running, as I mentioned above, I’ve found resistance among relatives about all the things that could possibly go wrong. It’s not healthy, there may be an accident, maybe you’d get caught in bad weather,… It’s like in Burkeman’s example, except it’s not a terrorist attack, but a death during a run.
I love it when my wife sees me off on a run telling me to take care, I gladly tell her that I certainly will – but I also think to myself that going out for a run *is* the way I take care of myself.
After all, what isn’t feared is that not doing something “crazy” like an ultramarathon (and often enough, even just training runs and little explorations in heat or cold) may mean not having the motivation to train well the rest of the time, to eat well, to organize life so as to be able to do more, to live with passion and fulfilling potential.
The truth is and remains that: You will die.
The only choice is whether you will have lived fully and sensibly until then, or will just have existed and kept yourself cowering in fear. Funny thing about being human: There are some more things which we should, perhaps, fear – exactly those slow and insidious problems that add up over time and don’t push themselves into our attention. Most of all, those things that feel easy, good, comfortable while doing them, so that their negative consequences some time down the road are easy to deny. The vast majority of things we fear, however, are dangers – if not only just discomforts – we’d do better making ourselves more comfortable with.
Life lies in and beyond them, where we get to action, develop knowledge, skills, and perhaps wisdom, and come into our own.
The challenge, as usual, is to realize what is a warning to heed, what non-warnings (in fact, comforts) are actually dangerous (such as the comfortably easy life of fast food and the sedentary lifestyle), and what discomforts we’d better take on ourselves because they are necessary for our living fully.