Read Running with the Pack Online
Authors: Mark Rowlands
Philosophers have had very little to say about decline and death, which is rather surprising given their centrality in our lives. And what they have said is often barely believable. For example, on the subject of death, many prominent philosophers have been surprisingly upbeat. Epicurus argued that death cannot harm us because while we are alive it has not happened yet â and so can't have harmed us yet â and when it happens we are no longer around to be harmed. Much more recently, Bernard Williams argued that immortality is
overrated on the grounds that it would result in the eventual loss of our categorical desires â the desires that give us a reason for living â and eternal ennui would be the result.
While content with saying some rather implausible things about death, philosophers â Schopenhauer aside â have had next to nothing to say on the subject of decline. To the extent they do, their efforts are equally implausible. For example, Cephalus, the old man of ironic name who features, briefly, in Book 1 of Plato's
, maintains that being old and infirm is a good thing because you are no longer subject to the tyranny of âyouthful lusts'. But their failure to address the issue of decline reveals itself most clearly in philosophers' ruminations about what is important in life. These seem strangely off-target, almost as if decline is not an inevitable feature of life. Hedonists tell us to be happy. Happiness is what life is all about. But this is a life where I get worse and worse and then die. Should I not be at least open to the possibility that life is not really about that at all? If life is all about being happy, then this life, bequeathed me by my history, biology and the laws of the natural world, seems stunningly inapt. Taking my happiness where I can find it â maybe that is what it is about. But then what about the rest of life â the large swathes of it where I cannot find happiness? How do I live these presumably dominant segments of my life?
Then there is the mantra of the Enlightenment, enthusiastically adopted in the country to which we shall, in a few days, return: âBe the best you can be!' Life is all about self-realization: shaping yourself according to a vision of how you would like yourself to be; striving, and becoming the best incarnation of this vision that is possible for you. But this overlooks the fact that, for the most part, this life is a process
of becoming worse than I once was. As Schopenhauer put it: âToday is bad, and day by day it will get worse â until at last the worst of all arrives.' I can be the best I can be at getting worse, I suppose. But this is nowhere near as inspiring as the original version.
Nietzsche tells us: be strong. What does not kill me makes me stronger. Maybe, but unfortunately something is, sooner or later, going to kill me. He adds: happiness is the feeling that one's power is increasing. This is deeply unfortunate, because for most of this life I will find my power diminishing. I would have thought that the question of how I should live this life must take this obvious fact as a starting point, and not blithely ignore it.
When I had just started my life as a professional philosopher, the keynote speaker at a conference I was attending, a very distinguished and well-known philosopher, was presented with an obvious objection to his clearly flawed argument. This was in the Q&A session immediately afterwards and so the audience was still there. He failed to respond adequately, instead opting for a series of rambling observations of little relevance. The man who had asked the question, a big-hearted colleague of mine, desisted from the questioning and scribbled a note that he passed to me: âHe can't do it any more.' Indeed, he couldn't. It was obvious. But this did not stop the rest of the audience from jumping on him like a murder of crows sensing a fatally weakened peer. This had a big impact on me. I know this is what life has in store for me. One day â I don't know when it will be but I know it will come â I won't be able to do it any more either and whether my inability is exhibited in public like this, or merely secreted away in the private sphere, does not really matter that much. Either way, this is, for me at least, monumentally
sad. âAt least you will have escaped those tyrannical youthful lusts,' I imagine Cephalus muttering to me. Yes, well, that makes it all okay then, doesn't it. When some philosophers talk about life and what is important in it, I find I cannot help thinking of this old and distinguished philosopher who had done good work and couldn't do it any more. All I see is a series of rambling observations of dubious relevance.
It is at this point in the run and its ruminations, as Hugo and I are making our way back to the village along the
, that my calf decides, in my view rather unnecessarily, to emphatically reaffirm my mammalian bloodline. Calf tears have been happening to me off and on since around 1997 â since those runs in Kinsale, when I used to charge down the hill by Charles Fort, just for the hell of it. My left calf first went on one of these descents and has been going periodically ever since. My right joined in too, after a couple of years, even though by then I had excised the downhill sprints from my running. But before today I'd had no problems for the past three years and thought I'd left this particular issue behind. I hang around on the
for a while, to see if I can somehow miraculously stretch this problem away. It isn't going anywhere.
The rehab times for this injury have been getting longer and longer. I say ârehab', but it is not as if I have actually done any, unless lounging around the house feeling sorry for myself, muttering about how unfair it all is, counts as rehab. When this problem first occurred, I was running again in two weeks. The last time it happened, it was more like six. I really should get it properly rehabbed this time â have someone dig out the scar tissue or whatever it is they do. In the meantime, I suppose I might as well try to be âphilosophical' about the whole thing. At my age â striding the highways and byways
of these dangerous heart-attack years â of all the ways in which a run might end abruptly, a grade II tear of the calf is far from the worst.
R-I-C-E: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. All the things I am not doing now, but should be. I limped home from the run this morning to find there was an immediate demand for my services. There will be no more running for quite some time, I suspect. But walking, limping, hobbling and shuffling â these are things I am going to have to do anyway. Serious illness, the loss of a limb: that might have bought me a day or two â¦ but this is all very familiar. My boys need to run. âCome on, Daddy, we want to go to the beach.' And so I find myself limping heavily, perhaps a little theatrically I admit, along the 700 yards or so of path that leads to the sea. A few yards in front of me is Brenin, my older son. He's just turned three years old and sits proudly upon his first bike, peddling furiously and thankfully getting nowhere fast. Emma is up ahead, on a rented bicycle, and on the back of this is a seat that contains Macsen, my younger son, who was one year old last month. The flamingos, the
, have arrived early this year. When I first came to this part of the world, not much older than my sons are now, my jaw used to drop at what I thought of as these ridiculously exotic birds. But Brenin and Macsen are Miamians. âThey're not very bright, Daddy,' Brenin informs me. He's right; compared to the gleaming, orange Caribbean flamingos he sees in Miami, they are distinctly pallid.
The icy blast of the sea is a welcome relief, for a change. Brenin's lips will be blue within minutes, but he isn't going to be dragged out of there without a fight. We must play an important game â lifting him over the waves whilst
simultaneously chanting the liturgy, âUP-AND-OVER.' âYou didn't say it, Daddy: you've got to say it!' Then sandcastles â surrounded by a system of moats that would not have embarrassed Pierre-Paul Riquet, filled with water fetched from the Mediterranean by me, shuffling and shambling â their sole purpose to be destroyed at some subsequent time to be determined by the boys. Running from a distance, they perform graceless belly flops on the castles, hitting the sand hard, yipping like hyenas over and over again, aided and abetted by Hugo who bounds along beside them barking and frothing like a dog in the grip of
. I might have played this game once. But then I got old and didn't understand it any more. Perhaps I am beginning to understand it again.
I suspect children, and the dogs of children, understand what is important in life far better than adults. When I build the sandcastles, it is work: I do it for the enjoyment of my sons. When they destroy those castles, it is play: they do this for no other reason than to do it. As the castles die the death of a thousand belly flops, I can think of no more emphatic affirmation of the value of play over work. There is a joy that goes with this â the joy of giving yourself over wholly to the activity and not the outcome, the deed and not the goal. Perhaps I can no longer understand the game; but I can see the joy, I can feel it. I can hear it echoing out across the water towards Africa. And yet: we are not far away. I can see it. We're no more than a few metres away from the place where I once sat with a dying wolf, and watched the cold winter sun set slowly on his life.
This joy echoes out across the water but also back through the days of my life. An earlier time â Brenin had been dead two short months, and Nina, Tess and I had resumed our
runs together. It was a bright, cold spring day, and we had journeyed up into the CÃ©vennes, the mountains of the southern Massif Central. âCol' is the French word for a mountain pass. Today we were going to do a thirty-kilometre run through the Col du Minier â âthe pass of miners'. I had brought a small backpack, with a little food and water, and a map. I wasn't going to push. It had been a long time since I had run the long run. If it took all day, so be it.
The sun danced brightly on the cold blue waters of a mountain lake. We had run only six kilometres, the map told me, but already I was starting to feel it. When one has been living at sea level, performance tends to start to decline at around 3000 feet. We were at nearly 4000 feet, so altitude may have played some role. But I suspect I was the main problem. I was very, very out of shape, and the few 10k runs I had put in back on the
had not really kicked in yet. Every time I returned to running after a lay-off, the pain was worse than before. The run went on, and while my snarling Achilles tendon had gone temporarily dormant â no doubt it would wake up again later on â I was struggling badly. Nina and Tess, too, were finding things far from easy. They were also getting older, and the year's hiatus we had taken from running had taken its toll. Nothing much was happening for me â there were no dancing thoughts that day. It was just a slog.
I remember this run for one reason only. At around ten kilometres or so we stopped for a sit down and a quick bite to eat. The open mountaintop had given way to woodland a few kilometres back and we sat in a little clearing by the side of the trail. Nina and Tess collapsed, exhausted. Then, after a few minutes, a little food, a little water, Tess rose to her feet, moved away a few yards, and then charged at Nina
and performed the play bow. Nina leapt to her feet, as if she had spent the last few days resting, and they tore up and down the trail, play-growling, play-snapping at each other's shoulders and necks. And I could see the joy. I could see it there, in the exaggerated gape of Nina's jaw, and the exaggerated bounce of Tess's stride. Joy is not just an inner feeling. It can be seen, when you know how to look.
It was cold up in those mountains. The snows had not long departed those hills, and even at midday, clouds still clung stubbornly to the floors of the valleys below us. The sun did not warm that clearing in which I sat, but the joy of those two friends did. I had seen this sort of play many times before, of course. It was an almost daily occurrence. And when they played like this, I knew they were happy â as much as one can ever know anything about what is going on inside the mind of another. But today, it is different. I do not infer their joy: I see it. Some fields are made of grass, and others are made of energy. We walk through the former, and are immersed in the latter. Nina and Tess were fortunate enough to run through many fields of grass â and through Irish fields of barley and French fields of lavender. When they did, their joy would radiate out from them, reverberating across the open space â the clearing between us. Standing there with them, in a clearing in a wood in a mountain pass in France, I was immersed in a field of joy; embraced by it. This joy had permeated my runs down through all these years, although I did not know how to see it. When I run with the pack, joy warms me from the outside in.
It is here too, today, on this beach. Joy is the recognition of intrinsic value in life, the recognition of what is important for its own sake. I see the joy of my boys of summer; I hear it
resonating across the blue water. But not just their joy â mine also. Formerly a feeling curled up inside of me, my joy has relocated to a place outside of me. There have been times in my life â too small in number, too fleeting in duration â when joy is like this. Joy that was a way of feeling now becomes a way of seeing. A few seconds â that is all. This transformation of inner to outer lasts a few seconds and then it is gone. But I'm coming to think they might be the most important seconds of my life. This transformation in joy is love showing herself. Love may last a lifetime, but she shows herself most completely only in moments.
Many people do not understand decline; they are unfamiliar with its anatomy and physiology. Injuries play the role of the waves of time. An injury washes over you, and you never quite come back as strong as you were before. Perhaps you won't notice this initially. Maybe you feel fine. But there's a weakness that has set up home in your muscle or joint â no amount of rehab will change that â and sooner or later its time will come again. First there's a little niggle, then another, then there are more. There are days when you are not quite a hundred per cent, but you go out running anyway. And that's fine: that's what you have to do â because these days will become more and more frequent. Before you know it, you are never quite a hundred per cent. But you keep on going, because that is what you have to do. First you are running at 95 per cent, then it's 90; and then in a heartbeat you are down to 75 per cent. Your distances are going down just as your times are going up. And you do not know how it happened. You think, if I can just stay injury-free for a while, clear up these niggles, if I can just get a good run at it, then I can get back to what I was doing before; get back to the
distances and times I was doing before this run of bad luck started. But this misses the point entirely. Decline is a run of bad luck of just this sort. You will never get a good run at it again. The niggles, the aches, the weaknesses build up; and in the end you are just a tissue of niggles, aches and weaknesses woven together. No amount of rest will change this. You come back and feel good for a while, but it's so short, and before you know it you will be back to exactly where you were before the break. This is the face of decline, of erasure, of gradual disappearance. This is what it looks like. Running has many faces. One of these is the
, a way of trying to hold back the storm surges of winter. Maybe it will hold for a while. But, in the end, we all return to the