Read Running with the Pack Online

Authors: Mark Rowlands

Running with the Pack (5 page)

I'm still in corral G. Some men, local politicians of some sort I gather, are giving speeches now over a rather indistinct loudspeaker: ‘You've trained for this for months, you've missed lunches, you've missed dinners, you've missed meetings …' Yeah, I wish I had. I continue to distract myself from my worrying lack of preparation with some further rumination on the nature of the midlife crisis, and the sort of thing it would have to be to explain why I am doing this. I think there is a type of freedom that is embodied in running distance, but not the sort of freedom embodied in youth, not my youth anyway. So it can hardly be a matter of reclaiming the freedom of youth. But, still, there is something in the idea of reclaiming that strikes me as correct and important. Running distance, I have come to suspect, is about trying to reclaim something from my youth. But, I have come to think, it is not freedom that is reclaimed: it is knowledge. That is the transformation I have been trying to identify.

Once upon a time, I knew something — something that I later forgot in the business of growing up. I didn't just forget it: I had to forget it — forgetting was part of the great game of becoming someone. I knew value. I did not know that I knew this, of course. But I knew it nonetheless. Caught up in the game of becoming, at first I didn't understand what I had lost in this forgetting. But, slowly, I came to feel this loss, and after that taste it: an aching in the bones and then a sourness in the blood. Running distance brings me back to what I once knew.

Most people who are not philosophers think that most people who are philosophers spend most of their time thinking about the meaning of life. But, as an example of the sort of historical irony that has characterized the development of philosophy in the last three centuries, that is precisely what philosophers do not do — not any more. Some of us may think about it, in our quieter moments, but we tend to keep it to ourselves. The meaning of life — that is something for a simpler time. We have moved beyond all that. Now we spend our time talking about things that cannot possibly be understood by anyone who has not had an extended formal training in philosophy. Philosophy has, in other words, become professionalized: it is a way of keeping out the riff-raff. When it comes to our own lives we are, as Julian Barnes once pointed out, all amateurs. And so the question of the meaning of life smacks of the sort of lack of professionalism that philosophers have tried to excise on the path to becoming a mature discipline. I am not endorsing any of these ideas — far from it — merely recording them. Thankfully, in the last decade or so, I sense attitudes are changing, the question is no longer necessarily taboo, even for the most dyed-in-the-wool professionals. But this is the way it has been for a long time.

Sentences have meaning; life is not a sentence; therefore life does not have meaning. Once upon a time, when philosophers had become so weary of philosophy they had come to hate it, they tried to get rid of philosophical problems rather than solve them. These philosophers thought that the claim that life is not a sentence was important. But in reality, of course, someone who asks ‘What is the meaning of life?' doesn't really think that life has a meaning in the way that a sentence does. To ask ‘What is the meaning of life?' is a way of asking another question: what is important in life? The
question of meaning is a question of significance — not in the sense of semantic content but, rather, in the sense of importance. What is valuable in life? What makes life worth living? How should I live? — that is another way of asking the question, on the assumption that the way I live should reflect what I regard as important in life.

The use of the definite article in the question ‘What is the meaning of life?' suggests that we are trying to find one thing that will answer the question — a miraculous truth in the light of which everything will make sense. But when we replace this question with its alternative form, ‘What is important in life?', this presumption disappears. A nihilist might answer: nothing — although I suspect few nihilists ever really believe themselves. A more plausible answer is: there are many things that are important in life. Perhaps what these are will vary from person to person — what is important in life is, in this way, relative. But this merely raises another question. What is it for something to be important — whether for you, for me or someone else? And this is just a way of asking: what is value? What does it mean for something to have value?

The questions are the hard part. To even see that there is a question — there is the hardness, the difficulty, of philosophy. The answers: they are a mixed bag. It is rare for them to be unutterably complex or fiendishly difficult. On the contrary, Wittgenstein once claimed that the problem with philosophical truths is that, once you state them, they are so obvious that no one could ever doubt them. I think this claim is, to some extent, correct. But — and this is the strangest thing about the answers to philosophical questions — their banality is no guarantee of their intelligibility. To understand a philosophical answer, you need to understand how to work it out yourself. To do that, you need to see where it comes from.
You need to understand the force and urgency of the problem to which the answer is a solution; you need to understand the allure of the alternative solutions to this problem, and perhaps have succumbed to one or more of these alternative solutions at some point. In this respect, philosophical answers are utterly unlike the answers of any other domain of human knowledge or inquiry. If someone tells me that
E = mc
, for example, I might say, ‘Thank you very much; I now know that the energy contained in a body is the product of its mass and the square of the speed of light.' To understand it, I do not need to know how to derive this equation — which is fortunate, as I haven't the faintest idea. Philosophical answers are not like this. Unless you know how to work them out, you will not really understand them.

When the philosophical question is a question about life — about what is important or valuable in life — the power and urgency of the problem is something that you have to feel in your life. The allure of alternative solutions to the problems, the succumbing to this allure, these are things you feel and do in your life and not, fundamentally, in your head. Unless you can feel the problem of the meaning of life — the problem of value in life — you will not understand any answer that might be given to it.

In the end, it is not in our minds that this answer is to be found. It is in our blood and bones that we understand value. It is only through living that you feel the problem of life's meaning. Through living you come to understand what life has in store for you. You understand this not just intellectually; you feel it viscerally, you taste it, an aching in the bones and a sourness in the blood. An answer to the question of what is valuable in life would tell us what redeems this life — what makes it worth living. To understand redemption in
life, you need to understand from what, precisely, life needs redeeming. This is what you understand when you feel yourself growing old, feel your blood become thin and cool, feel your physical and intellectual powers begin to slide. If there is a meaning in this life, there is something that makes it, as Albert Camus once put it, ‘worth the trouble'. That is why the question of the meaning of life — of value in life — is the most important question there is.

There is a Platonic dialogue —
The Meno
— in which Plato teaches a slave boy, the eponymous Meno, some of the theorems of Euclidean geometry. Plato argues that he has not taught Meno anything new, but merely helped him remember something that he once knew but had forgotten. We are all born with this sort of knowledge, Plato claimed, but forget it because of the trauma of birth. ‘Anamnesis' is the name he used for this process of remembering what we once knew. For Plato, the idea of anamnesis was bound up with the Pythagorean idea of reincarnation, and I certainly do not believe in that. But the systematic forgetting of some of the most important truths, I think, is real. It happens not when we are born, but as we grow up. Any child knows value — they know what is important in life — although they do not know that they know it. And they know it in the way children know things, a kind of knowing that the adult finds very difficult, and has to learn all over again. Once I knew value. I knew it in my body and not in my mind, and so I did not know that I knew it. Running takes me back to this thing that I once knew but had to forget. Running puts me in contact once more with a certain kind of value that is easily lost to the adult. Running is a way of remembering — a way that the body remembers what the mind could not.


On the long run, there is an experience of freedom, of a certain sort — the freedom of spending time with the mind. On the long run, also, there is a certain type of knowledge: a kind of knowing that once permeated the lilting days of a life that was still young. This is knowledge of value, of what is important in life and what is not. The experience of freedom I find on the long run is not the experience of being able to do whatever I want. It is not the freedom that goes with absence of constraint. On the contrary, one of the things the long run teaches me is just how far I am removed from freedom in this sense. There is, however, another kind of freedom: a freedom that goes with knowing, a freedom that accompanies the absence of doubt.

The speeches are over. There is the gun, and we go … absolutely nowhere. We're ten thousand back, and it'll take almost ten minutes for us to get across the starting line. A cheerful older gentleman who has been standing next to me in the corral, who told me his goal time was two hours — I did a double take until I realized he was running the half marathon not the full — whips off his tracksuit top and throws it backwards over his head into the crowd. He turns around to watch the result of this, and cackles when he sees, in the meagre light afforded us by the streetlamps, the confusion of the person on whom it has landed. So that's how you stay warm: you bring clothing with you that you don't plan on ever seeing again — next year, maybe. There is a lot of hooting, hollering, yipping and possibly even a little yodelling. We start moving forward. There is a shuffling walk, which slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a scuffling jog.

At some, perhaps not entirely determinate, point in this process, we shall find what we might think of as my first step
in my first marathon. Here it is — I push off on my left foot and as I do, I find myself thinking: that is it. It has begun. That is the magical thing about first steps. Before that step I was outwardly calm but inwardly riddled with doubt: psychologically, a shifting, wriggling frame of confusion and uncertainty. Will my calf hold together? Will I be able to go the distance? How painful will this be? How humiliating? But with that first step, all my doubts are washed away by the quiet calm of certitude. According to Descartes, and a tradition instigated by him, to know something is to be certain of it, to have no doubts about it. We sometimes talk of being ‘free of doubt', and I think there is a deep truth contained in this expression. Freedom and knowledge are closely entwined. The calm, quiet certitude that washes over me as I take this first step is the experiential form of a certain kind of knowledge. If I were more influenced by Spinoza, as I was when I was a younger man (and who, when they are young, could fail to be influenced by Spinoza?), then I might have been tempted to describe this understanding as the knowledge of how things have to be, of how things must be. But that would not be quite correct. Even as I take this step, I understand all too well that things did not have to be this way. My certitude consists in an understanding of how things should be rather than how they must be. But ‘should' is a value term: a term that prescribes rather than describes. The experience of how things should be is an experience of value: an experience of what is important and, correlatively, implicit in the experience, an understanding of what is not. When the terror of doubt and indecision turns to calm, quiet, certainty, this is grounded in an experience of value.

As I take this first step, I understand that whatever happens today, however far I get, I should be here. I am doing what I should be doing. The experience of freedom I find on the long
run is, in fact, the experience of a kind of value that I once knew but came to forget. Running is the embodied apprehension of this value. The first step is taken. The long run begins. I hope.


The Stone Mountain


I have a dream of myself as an old man. I'm in a house, and I have the feeling that I am packing up to sell. Through the years, the house has been progressively decorated in new styles, but at least one room has always been left as a souvenir of the previous vogue. One room is 1970s chunky teak and padded beige; another is 1980s pine and sleek tubular steel. The 1990s room bears the indelible stamp of IKEA. It seems to me so improbable that all these things should belong in the same house. Rooting through the long-neglected attic I come across a collection of photographs that I cannot remember taking. The photographs depict people and places that seem vaguely familiar, but no more than that. I suspect the photographs are mine. In fact, I am pretty sure they are. I live in this house alone. Whose photographs would they be if not mine? But when I turn these photographs over, there is nothing written there that tells me to whom they belong. On the question of ownership, it seems that reasonable inference is the best I can do.

It is life itself I can't quite get: life in its breadth and depth. The longer I live, the more incongruous it all seems: the more trouble I have finding a place for everything — the more unlikely it seems that all these things should go together. Life progressively transforms itself from the natural and obvious to the gerrymandered and improbable. These memories I have, the ones that so enthusiastically thrust themselves upon me — they are mine. I have no doubt of that. It's my mind, and I'm the only one here: whose memories would they be if not mine? Possession is, after all, nine-tenths of the law. I'm not insane. I do not believe these memories were implanted in me by aliens. But there is nothing brightly embossed on them that reads ‘Property of Mark Rowlands'. What strikes me as obvious is not that they are my memories, but that they couldn't be the memories of anyone else. Sometimes, this is the best I can do.

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