Reaction: Ring of Freedom

Non violence sculpture by carl fredrik reutersward malmo swedenOne of the topics which has really captured my attention over the last few years is “non-violent resistance”. I’ve been introduced to the concept largely through Walter Wink’s work on “the powers”, though Wink makes use of René Girard, whom I really like, as well. Additionally, attending a talk by Miroslav Volf gave me a lot of food for thought! Non-violent resistance is a complicated idea with a simple (and, from the viewpoint of many, absurd) moral logic: (a) evil is bad, therefore (b) we should name and resist evil, but (c) we cannot do this with violence, since it is evil and therefore counter-productive to the eradication of evil itself.

This brief moral statement has captivated me, not only because it seems to make a lot of sense, but also because of how infrequently such a morality is even attempted to be lived out on a large scale. Regardless of how things have been throughout human history, there is still in our world a great deal of “conflict resolution” which is really one party using violence or the threat of violence to get their way. Is there a different way, a third way which avoids the problems with both violent conflict and pacifist inaction? More importantly, how could such a third way be effective against guns? Needless to say, these kinds of deliberations deserve book-length treatment, and I’ll probably be unable to think fully about such questions in blog entries, however often I might muse about them.

Anyway, my thoughts about non-violence also typically lead to thoughts about armies, and the US Armed Forces in particular, whose fundamental purpose seems to be to pursue the aims of the US through violence or the threat of violence. I know that the forces are trained to do more than kill, and often engage in humanitarian activities; those, however, are incidental to the actual purpose of the military (otherwise, why guns?). Thoughts like these were triggered again a few days ago, when I was sent this Veteran’s Day video, originally found on the NRA’s website. You might as well watch it, since it’s what this post is about:

I don’t know if anyone else had this reaction, but I found the video deeply ironic. The climax of the speech was a story about a soldier’s heroism which was designed to evoke pride in the soldier’s action and therefore pride in our country by his representation. It did this very well: to think that a Navy corpsman would rush into a firefight in order to rescue a wounded enemy is extremely moving, and I am awed at the courageous act. The irony, for me, was that the action so lauded of this marine by Oliver North was precisely the kind of action I don’t imagine is military protocol: an action of non-violent compassion in the face of a very real danger of violence. We rightly take pride in our association by nationality with a hero like the one in this story, but I wonder whether he was acting fully as a dispenser of his duties? Maybe, on the other hand, the mutual recognition of humanity in the enemy triggered this heroic rescue?

I’m sure I’m very ignorant of actual battle protocol in the army, and maybe there is a command to merely disable the enemy so that they can be rescued, given medical attention, and imprisoned or rehabilitated. Something tells me, however, that US generals would be pretty concerned if all of their soldiers were in the habit of risking their lives for wounded Iraqi insurgents. My point is that the story is so powerful it got told at an NRA annual meeting even when the power in the story comes from the fact that the corpsman didn’t use his weapon!

It got me thinking: what if there were a force of women and men trained in almost all the same ways as Marines, such that they were physically and mentally prepared to run into dangerous situations to rescue others, but who were unwilling to do violence to anyone they encountered? Reason says they’d all get slaughtered, but… it’s also a really interesting thought.

So much of what the NRA video did was to evoke pride and respect at the various skills and disciplines involved in being a soldier: taking care of oneself, cleaning one’s gun, walking all day in 120-degree heat without complaint, sharing the last vestiges of life with a dying comrade, and so on. We are naturally drawn to glorify such skill and sacrifice, and I admit it is impressive. However, when is it appropriate to stop asking what the skill is used for?

Stories draw upon this natural awe at great skill all the time, and so we can root for the team of skillful thieves even though what they are doing is illegal, and if their theft was directed at us we would prosecute them. Likewise, it is easy to glorify the warrior because the warrior is talented, skillful, and disciplined. The process of becoming a warrior teaches valuable personal skills, delivers confidence, etc… But does our adulation of the skillfulness involved in battle cloud over the fact that what we are adulating, at the end of the day, is battle, i.e., people killing each other? Killing isn’t what the average soldier does on any given day, but let’s face it: what country on earth trains their army in every skill except for shooting people?

Essentially, what I’m saying is that the fact that somebody is well-trained at something doesn’t make that thing good! We might have well-trained rapists and murderers walking around, but that doesn’t making them any more honorable or less deserving of incarceration. I hasten to add that I don’t equate soldiers with criminals! What they do is legitimated by every nation in the history of our species, and at the end of the day perhaps necessary to procure a slightly greater amount of peace, or stop evil from taking over the entire earth. I’m not convinced of that, though admittedly I don’t know very much yet. I’m also not convinced that, even if that necessity has held in the past, it has to hold in the future. I believe that however necessary we think war is, we should always be deeply saddened by it and ashamed of it as a human race.

Another curious point from the NRA video is the connection North makes between warfare and faith. I’m not sure what he meant, but it sounded like he said most soldiers are in the armed forces because of faith. Is that faith in freedom, or religious faith? If it’s religious faith (and North only showed examples of Christians), I’m even more concerned: as I look at Jesus, I don’t see a whole lot to commend violence, whether as a first or last resort. Moreover, the connection between praying before battle and praying before football highlights another worry: in either case, do you think God wants one team to lose, one to win?

One parting quote from the Ring of Freedom website:

Think of the fearless men and women who put on a uniform every day to make freedom possible—because there are no freedoms, without those willing to fight for them.

This is one of the stickiest points of this whole business: isn’t freedom worth dying to protect? Isn’t it worth killing to protect? Isn’t self-determination so basic a human right we’re justified in exterminating those who hinder others from experiencing it? I just don’t know; killing someone sure seems like a good way to end their experiment in self-determination! The Marine who rescued the Iraqi soldier, on the other hand, gave him that, and more: the knowledge that an enemy from the other side of the planet cared enough about his humanity to risk his life making sure it didn’t end. Now that is inspiring!

PS: I think it goes without saying that I greatly respect the sacrifices of those who have selflessly given their lives for causes greater than themselves. I respect that the average soldier has nothing to do with the motivations which lead her country into war, and whether they approximate those of a ‘just’ war. And I respect that the cycle of violence thrusts violence upon citizens of the world when they do not deserve it. However, I do believe that cycle needs to be examined, and that sacrifice must be respected with a conscious understanding of the goal of that sacrifice! Lastly, I am acutely aware that, whatever the morality of the wars that secured my freedom, I do make use of a freedom which was gained by someone fighting for it, and I am indeed thankful for that freedom. I simply hope that we can find a better way to procure it! And that won’t happen if we assume what we currently have is good enough.


Me recovering hungrily Today I ran my first marathon, and I wanted to write about it – not because it was a fast marathon or one that, from a running time perspective, I am proud of. It wasn’t and I’m not. But I think today’s marathon taught me a lot about life and spirituality, and allowed me to express both humility and my own form of personal heroism in a way that I hadn’t before. The marathon taught me these things, of course, in a way that only a 26.2-mile slog can. What follows is a race report, but also my reflections on the process that led me to the finish line in a (relatively to my training) unremarkable 4 hours and 8 minutes. Warning: this will be long, but (I hope) worth the read. And I haven’t written anything since December so you readers ought to indulge me. Warning 2: Profanities will probably be involved. They go hand-in-hand with marathons.

The story of today’s marathon started almost exactly two years ago in March of 2007, when I first spent time at the Tumaini Children’s Home in Nyeri, Kenya. It was there I volunteered during the creation of Hope Runs. At that time, we decided to train some of the older students (including a student named Karicho, who comes into the story later) for a marathon in June. Although I had to go back to the states before the June marathon, I decided to continue the marathon training I’d accidentally fallen into, and run the San Francisco marathon (which happened, fortuitously for solidarity with my Kenya friends, to be on the same day as the marathon the students were running in Kenya). My training was abruptly ended, however, when an injury in the Achilles tendon area that I developed on the long runs became so painful and unhealthy-feeling that I decided I couldn’t run the race. This Achilles problem already had the makings of a chronic injury – it had first arisen over a year prior, at that time also halting some athletic training and being a part of the inspiration that (perhaps ironically) led to my sabbatical time in Kenya.

When I knew that I was going to return to Kenya in October 2007 to volunteer for 6 months and train for the Kilimanjaro marathon, again with Hope Runs students, I decided to get physical therapy to figure out my almost-literal Achilles heel. Armed with more knowledge and rehab exercises as a result, I was confident that plenty of time and not running on pavement would lead to a successful marathon. Again, my goal in running the Kilimanjaro marathon was primarily to have something to work towards with the Hope Runs students, and also to run to the best of my ability. Since the Kilimanjaro marathon was at elevation and quite hilly, I had no expectations of a fast race. Soon enough, I was in Kenya, training with the coach, Titus, and everyone else. Although my ankle problem arose a few times, and even once prevented me from running a 30k race in Nairobi, for the most part it seemed to have gone away, and I was hopeful that I had worked through it.

Well, a month before the race, I got word that my sister was going to have a wedding on March 3 – the day after the Kilimanjaro marathon. Attending these two events was therefore mutually exclusive, and so I left for the states before I could run the marathon. Fortunately (and echoing the previous year), I discovered that the Napa Valley Marathon was on March 1, the same day as the Kili marathon. Once again, I was excited to run a marathon in the US on the same day as my friends in Kenya (including Karicho and fellow volunteers from Palo Alto Michael and Emilee, with now-girlfriend Jessica acting as videographer). My first run back in the States was 4 or 5 days before the marathon, and was a simple 7-miler. Unfortunately, whether it was running on pavement or the leg trauma of sitting on planes for 2 days, my Achilles problem came back in a serious way, making it extremely painful even to walk. On the day before the race, I went for a test jog and came back limping, in no state to run 5 miles let alone 26. Deeply frustrated, I called the Napa race coordinators and asked if they could roll my registration to next year. Of course, I didn’t know if there would be a next year in terms of my running, but at least it left the window open.

At the time, though, having to forgo the race I’d trained 4 months in Kenya for was a huge disappointment, and certainly created some bitterness and resentment (offset, I have to admit, by the happiness in being a part of my sister’s wedding, and then a few days later hearing I was accepted to Oxford). But this resentment: toward whom? Not myself, really; I’d done everything I could and knew how to do, and I’d trained well. Toward circumstances, or God, I guess. Now, I’m not the sort of person who, believing God exists and cares for people, holds God to be directly responsible for pleasant “coincidences” (Oh, darn [good religious people will say ‘darn’ rather than ‘damn’] I lost my keys. Where are they? God, help me find me keys! Oh, look, here they are! God, thank you for bringing my keys back!) The danger in this way of thinking isn’t, to my mind, believing that God can and does interact with people on small, everyday levels. The problem is, if God is responsible for pleasant coincidences, what do we say about the unpleasant ones? If we say the unpleasant ones happen by chance, what is there to distinguish their causal histories from the pleasant ones’ causal histories that could lead us to belief that God causes the pleasant and not the unpleasant? The only difference seems to be our definition of ‘pleasant’, which seems like it has a lot more to do with us than God. In which case, we attribute finding our lost keys to God on the pain of also having to attribute to him our losing them in the first place. But my main point is, it sure is easy to turn general gratitude into specific attribution, and general frustration into specific blame. And, counter to my own beliefs, I probably blamed God for some of my misfortune.

So much for that theodical interlude. (And by the way, the God-statements I have made and will make in these reflections are by no means intended to stand on their own, in terms of rational justifiability, for those of you who care about such things [and you all should]. End disclaimer). Anyway, time passed, things happened, I didn’t go to Oxford in October 2008 as I’d hoped, and I realized that I was still signed up for the 2009 Napa marathon. Alright, I thought to myself, this time I’m gonna do it. Third time’s the charm. I’m gonna train the hell out of this marathon, be super smart about my Achilles, and make it happen. I started looking at training programs to follow, and it occurred to me that I could take advantage of the easy Napa course and train for a specific time. Ultimately, I became enamored with the idea of running the marathon in the 3:10 – 3:20 range, with 3:10 (a 7:15 minute-per-mile pace) being the Boston qualifying cutoff for my age group (a significant benchmark in marathon running), and 3:20 being a respectable 7:37 minute-per-mile pace. At the start of my training, my 10k pace was 7:15 or so (and 6 miles is a far cry from 26), but I figured with 5 months I could improve significantly.

What I’m trying to convey with all of these details is that I wasn’t just training to run a marathon: I was training to run a marathon that would make up for both of the previous “Did Not Start” marathons in virtue of the achievement that it represented for me as a runner. If I could run a 3:10 marathon, I would be a ‘real runner’ (never mind the relativity of ‘real’, and never mind that ‘real runners’ run marathons at paces as low as 4:48). In order to do this, and in order to not get injured, I knew that I’d have to follow the program rigorously (skimping on the mid-week runs was a previous source of injury on long runs), and treat my body very well. In short, I needed to be a kind of athlete that I’d never been in my life: disciplined and dedicated. I was looking forward to race day with great anticipation, believing that it would prove that I (even I, nerdy little Jonathan Lipps), could accomplish something significant in a sport.

So I did train. I was religious in my running. I did treat my body well, with clean and abundant vegetarian carbs and proteins, and almost-weekly massages. And wonder of wonders, I saw improvement. Amidst the pain and boredom, I was getting faster and stronger. I was training on pavement, yet my ankles were holding up. I was noticing that I could hold sub-7 paces for multiple miles, which I’d never done before. My long runs were hard of course, but that struggle was familiar, and soon I had reached the peak of training – my 22-mile long run – and finished it without injury.

Unfortunately, as we know from all sports movies, after the pump-up training montage, there comes a chilling moment when the true challenge is unveiled – maybe the star player leaves the team exposed, or the opposing side employs some dastardly trickery. The Kryptonite to my Supermarathon was unleashed 2 weeks ago, on my ‘cool down’ long run of 18 miles. Maybe it was the waterlogged shoes (it was raining for most of the run), a different lacing style, or the lack of massage that week, or maybe it was just God making a sports movie, but my Achilles pain came back hard. Between miles 11 and 15 I suffered through various amounts of pain on the back of my left ankle, but it eventually became so sharp and fiery I knew it wasn’t worth pushing through. In fact, maybe I had already pushed through too much. When I woke up the next morning after icing and rest, and found that I could barely walk on it, I knew I was in trouble. A mere 12 days to the marathon, and I couldn’t walk. How was I going to recover in time? What about the tuning runs? Etc…

It was a depressing few days, as the ghosts of old frustrations haunted the new ones and as they all haunted me. Jessica (who incidentally and wonderfully had her best long run on the same day I got injured) was hard-pressed to keep me positive and not to despair. Determined not to give in to the same failure as in previous years, I did everything I could to heal the ankle. I iced and rested and elevated and compressed, and hoped and prayed that with almost two weeks of healing, I could be back in shape by marathon time. Slowly, I did feel things improve, and soon I was walking on the ankle without noticing any pain. In the week before the marathon, I decided that I needed to keep up my aerobic activity, and even chanced a few elliptical workouts, without any adverse reactions. I felt, basically, that remaining positive and doing everything I could to treat my injury well was working!

The marathon drew nearer. Early the day before, my parents drove Jessica and me up to Napa, where we were all going to spend the night before the race. That whole day I focused on managing my pre-race nutrition, stretching, massaging, and resting. Although my ankle felt good and strong, the barest of ghost pains still lingered when I would use it in different ways, keeping doubt a live option. Additionally, a light but consistent rain was predicted to start falling, and to remain all the way through the marathon. Given that the last time I ran a long run in consistent rain was when I ruined my Achilles, I was a bit worried about this prospect. The fact that the always-helpful Weather Underground wind direction indicators said that we would have a 10-15 mph headwind for the whole way was just one more worry to try and shove aside.

While I’m being honest about the worry, I really was engaged in positive thinking about the race. I couldn’t do anything about the rain, the wind, or even (anymore) my ankle. I had eaten and drunk exactly what I was supposed to, and I had trained exactly how I was supposed to (well, until I was injured). Aside from the circumstances out of my control, I was in as good a shape as I could possibly be. I knew that I was at least going to start the race, and give it my best shot. The question of what I would do if I started to feel my injury during the race would come into my mind from time to time, but I would ignore it, since trying to answer it wouldn’t have fit the positive spirit I was trying to cultivate. And eventually, it was time to sleep. After a bit of tossing and turning, it was 4:30 AM. Marathon Day.

Jessica and I dressed and ate what we needed, then packed up the car for our 5:30 departure to the start of the marathon on the Silverado Trail. As we drove, the rain beat on the windshield, and falling leaves betrayed the presence of the predicted steady wind. Somewhat anticlimactically, we had to stop and unceremoniously hurry out of the car because of the traffic control situation. A brief hug each and we were walking the last few blocks to the start. Excitement started to dawn with the sun – we were doing this! After stowing our sweat bags and finding inappropriate places to relieve ourselves before the swiftly-approaching start time, Jessica and I gathered near the line and waited the last 5 minutes. In what seemed like the next instant, a fire engine bell sounded to mark the start of the marathon, and we were off!

My first few strides were cautious, then more confident, and then exuberant, as I felt my body falling into my warm-up pace, with no noticeable discomfort in my ankle! My eyes welled up with tears of gratitude as I realized that all of the physical and mental and emotional buildup of the past 5 months had finally culminated in this one moment. I had persevered through the injury that had killed my previous marathon attempts, and I was running the race!

Soon enough, I was focused on the running, checking my pace, waiting to hit my post-warm-up 7:10 average pace. The rain was constant but light, the hills frequent but mellow, and I was enjoying being out on the road again. I saw my parents (who were playing crew for us) at mile 4 and mile 7, and was so happy to be waving, smiling, and running strong as I passed them. Their thoughts and prayers and concerns had been with me for two weeks, and I could tell they were elated I was OK.

Somewhere around mile 10, everything changed. A slight flutter in my left Achilles reminded me of my injury there. I took the pace down a notch and tried to breathe easier. That twinge had brought reality to my race – if I took it easier, could I stave off the inevitable excruciating pain and still finish in a good time? I already felt that 3:10 was out of reach. Backing off my target pace at all, I wasn’t going to make it. But that’s OK, I thought: better to run the whole marathon than become injured and have to quit. Before too long, these thoughts became moot. In less than a half mile, the twinge became the full blown expression of painful injury that I had rested two weeks to avoid. It was back, and I hadn’t even finished half the race! Inside, I howled with anger and frustration. All of the gratitude and elation of the start evaporated. My gait became uneven as I tried to take a bit of weight I could off my left foot. The continuous bank of the road, in one direction or another, became a serious problem in this effort. But, I was still moving.

good luck and condolences to the ankleAt 11.5 miles (my average pace now up to 7:36), I saw my parents, and stopped in pain. They grieved to see I wasn’t doing well, but I wasn’t ready to quit just yet. I told my dad that I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the race, but I could try and make it to mile 15 (the last place I thought I’d see my parents along the course, and the last chance I’d have for a ride out). In the meantime, with nothing to lose anymore, and hopes of a decent finishing time obliterated, I took the time to take off my waterlogged left shoe, which I figured was a major cause of the recurrence of my Achilles injury. I replaced it with a dry sock and a dry training shoe, and took off again.

The dry shoe did little to help, but it was a bit more comfortable as I settled into my awkward running style. As the pain in my tendon grew worse, I tried to put less and less weight on it, until I’m sure I looked like someone trying to make a funny impression of a cantering horse rider. A few people asked if I was alright, but of course there was nothing anyone could do. It was me stupidly running with an injury, after all! I tried to hum some songs, play mind games, or do anything to take my thoughts off the pain (and more than the pain, the frustration of training 5 months – really 2 years – only to be defeated once again).

It was in that state, around mile 14, that I noticed someone running on the other side of the road, against the direction of the marathon. As he got closer, I recognized him as none other than my friend Karicho, from Kenya! A few months ago, he had been sponsored to come to the states to live with Michael and go to school here. Seeing him, I realized that he, Michael, and Emilee must have driven up from Palo Alto that morning to surprise Jessica and I and support us on our run! That alone was enough to bring tears to my eyes, but then remembering all the training runs Karicho and I had been on together in Kenya (including my first Nyeri run, in the pitch dark early morning over hilly dirt roads with the smell of charcoal fires sleeping), remembering what marathoning really stood for in terms of my life history (solidarity with the Tumaini kids), and seeing that here was a Tumaini kid in Napa, running cheerfully in the rain, just to make my run feel better, in a remarkable and humbling role reversal… I have to pause right now while writing this because of the potent emotion still alive in that memory!

None of that, nor Karicho’s unworried acceptance of the fact I was injured (as if it didn’t really change anything) took away the pain or frustration of what I was experiencing. It did make me see it in a different light. I felt a bit calmer, more resigned. And as we neared mile 15, I asked Karicho if he could run ahead and ask my dad to get out the ace bandage I’d left with him that morning. I showed up at the mile marker and saw my mom and dad, but also Emilee and Michael, smiling and cheering me on. Their presence lifted my spirits, and I asked them to help bandage up my left ankle to see if it would help. It didn’t really feel like it at the time (I was concerned with the details of the bandaging), but that was the point where I actually decided to run the marathon. 5 months prior, I had decided to run a marathon. On every day of training that had led up to the race, I had decided to run a marathon. Even that morning, I had decided to run a marathon. But it wasn’t until mile 15, when all hopes of running a good marathon, an impressive marathon, a fun marathon, or an easy marathon were dashed, that I decided to run this marathon. It was, unfortunately, the only marathon left for me to run. And so I had to decide whether I wanted to quit, go home, train again, and try some other time for the marathon I desired, or whether I was going to accept all of the things outside of my control, and finish what I started, even though it wouldn’t be perfect (or even good), and even though it would hurt a lot.

I think it was a powerful decision, and the turning point in this whole story. The marathon finally went from being something that I played with in my mind and dreamed about, to something that burned me with its harsh reality. It went from being a sports science project to an insurmountable personal challenge. In short, it became what marathons are, in terms of their potential for psychological and spiritual growth: dragons needing slaying. When I started the race, I wasn’t on a quest, but I was now. I was on a quest to survive, and surviving meant moving my injured ass 11 more miles, over hills and through rain.

That is what I did. And believe me, it was hard. I’ll spare you the dramatic play-by-play of the last half of the race, because it would go something like this: Ouch ouch ouch shit ouch ouch ouch fuck ouch ouch shit ouch damn this marathon ouch ouch. Etc… The worst part about it was that, shortly after mile 15, my ankle injury became the least of my worries. My muscles, perhaps overtired because of the heavy shoes and my inhuman gait, basically stopped responding. My heart rate, perhaps because of what I was trying to demand from my unresponsive muscles, skyrocketed to something absurd for the pace at which I was moving. And my nerves kept receiving messages from my unresponsive muscles that told my brain that I was in hell.

None of this made sense to me, after having run long training runs of up to 22 miles without any problem. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and nothing I did could fix it. This was an unexpected pain – not my ankle injury but a full-body sensation that I should not be doing this. I drank gatorade, ate bananas and Gu, and walked when the pain became unbearable. Uphill, downhill, it was all the same to me – there was no difference in pain. I stopped occasionally to re-wrap my ace bandage, and wanted to sit down, cry, and lament my misfortune. But I knew I could stop at any time, and I knew that sitting down wouldn’t get me any closer to the finish line. So through the last monotonous 6 miles of rain and wind I trudged, no longer limping because my brain had stopped registering my ankle as hurting. Instead, everything was hurting.

My walking became more frequent, and I felt more and more out of it, until finally I came to the last mile. Whatever else happens, I said to myself, I am going to run the last fucking mile of this stupid fucking marathon. So I stopped walking, picked up my quads (I swore I could almost see the invisible knives sticking out of my flesh), told my hamstrings to stop their senseless cramping, and hobbled along in the best imitation of a run I could physically manage. Right then, Karicho came gliding up beside me, where he told me he’d just come from Jessica (as it turns out, he left her at mile 18), and was timing himself to the finish. Then he sped off, leaving everyone around me a bit angry at his effortless stride.

My marathon was not over, however. I hammered through the last turns and eventually found myself in sight of the finish chute. I picked up a little speed as I tumbled through the narrow alley toward the finish, and smiled when I heard my parents and friends shouting for me from the side. And then, with one innocuous little step, somehow so different from the one before, it was done. 4:08:23. A 9:29 pace.

After that, my only thoughts were, when can I sit down? And, when can I sleep? I got some hot soup and stayed on my legs for a while longer, though, as we waited for Jessica, and cheered her as she came across the finish, mastering her own marathon monster.

It wasn’t until we had gone back to the hotel, packed up, checked out, and driven back to San Francisco that I was really able to reflect on the race. You can probably believe that the neat way I’ve described my feelings and choices during the race doesn’t accurately depict my thoughts when they happened. It was only really in sorting through things shortly afterward that I realized what it was exactly that I accomplished. That moment of choosing to persevere, even though I had every excuse not to, was an important step for me. It was important, I think, in two ways. First, it was important for my personal growth. I have sometimes had a habit of quitting, leaving, or otherwise expressing displeasure or poor sports attitudes when things look like they’re not going to go the way I want. Not today. Secondly, and more importantly, today’s race helped me understand a tiny bit of what it means to suffer. Granted, it was an artificial environment, and I could have ended my suffering at any point, but what if things were different? What if I couldn’t just ‘quit’? I’d like to know that I have the ability to persevere, and this marathon will help in giving me that confidence.

It’s thoughts like these that turn my wondering back to God. God certainly didn’t answer any of my initial prayers. My prayers were based on my desires, for good weather, healing, and fast times. I didn’t get any of those. But apparently, I did come to one or two significant life realizations that will likely reverberate throughout my personal growth and maturation experience for a long time to come. If you ask me which God would probably care more about – positive experiences on one hand and authentic growth through hardship on the other – it seems that I’d have to say the latter. And here we come back to our discussion about attributing to God the finding of the lost keys: if there’s anything that I do want to attribute to God, it’s his tendency to put people in situations where they are forced to choose how to grow. A lot of pain in this world is senseless and a lot of evil is hard (or impossible for us) to explain on a theistic worldview, and I’m not trying to enter that discussion. What I am trying to say is that maybe we should look for God’s hand, not primarily or only in pleasant experiences (though it is there as well, no doubt at all), but in the ‘momentary’ pains that cause redemptive growth in human beings and in nature.

First marathons, at any rate, seem to be great ways of coming into contact with those ‘momentary’ pains (though I promise they feel like eternal pains). At least, that’s what mine was for me.

Holiday Marketing is Upon Us!

It’s been a while since I wrote. Lots of things have happened. Work on Backlight continues. My personal life unravels. I take the GRE. I start applying to grad school again. I begin marathon training. I read many insightful things by many insightful people (and neglect to share). I ruminate about issues surrounding Election Day (war, abortion, gay marriage, the economy, and others). I vote. Barack Obama is elected president, and I breathe a sigh of relief along with the rest of the world.

I could have written reams about any and all of the above, but I didn’t. Instead, I come to you now with dire and horrifying news: The Christmas marketing season is upon us! And it will prevail. Unless we act soon. Last Saturday (November 1 — that’s November first), I was walking through San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center on the way to my running route. Being the day after Halloween, large poofy spiders and various orange-and-black things were scattered sadly around the shops. So far, so good — the emotionally awkward day-after detritus is a necessary evil that comes along with any holiday. But what did I hear piping through the mall’s music system? Silver Bells, that smooth and comfortable memory of listening to Bing Crosby as a child in the living room lit by a fire and colorful tree lights. Inconceivable. Impossible. Unacceptable. My mind quickly drew up its defenses and stood against the inappropriate Christmas emotions that had been involuntarily triggered by the song. Was I fast enough? Did I preserve holiday feelings for the holiday itself? Or am I now doomed to experience Christmas burnout? I don’t know.

My argument against the Holiday Marketing Season is simple: it’s too damned long. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas (and I’m talking about the secular, egg-nog-trees-and-lights holiday here, not the Christian celebration — I enjoy that for different reasons) has always been my favorite holiday, and in some impossible perfect world, it would be Christmas all year long. But the sad fact of human psychology is that there is a finite amount of enjoyment we can squeeze from any particular holiday, and there is generally an inverse relationship between the quality and quantity of that enjoyment. I understand the anxious greed of retailers that causes them to attempt to turn every last drop of holiday cheer into cash, and I appreciate the economic stimulation for our country that is often a result. We know from the law of diminishing returns, however, that true enjoyment is an art which requires a delicate balance of anticipation, satisfaction, and moderation. The message of marketers that we can live in the “satisfaction” phase of the enjoyment of the Christmas season for almost 2 months is simply false, and serves to counteract the quality of our enjoyment by turning us into holiday-themed consumption zombies.

So, how should things be? My desire is not for the complete elimination of Christmas-themed marketing (though there are often reasons to be depressed by it and to dislike it). In fact, holiday marketing can play an important part of the “anticipation” phase of enjoying Christmas. Towns and stores decorating themselves, seasonal drinks at Starbucks, the abounding of festive colors and the promise of upcoming time off of work spent with family and friends — all of these are fine things (especially peppermint ice cream and egg nog). What I don’t appreciate is the triggering of anticipation for or the actual satisfaction of Christmas enjoyment desires at inappropriate times. What is an appropriate time? After Thanksgiving (Oh yeah, isn’t that a holiday too?). The period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the ideal span to contain the entirety of the “Christmas season”. Christmas trees are put up, buildings decorated, the traditional carols left free to float through the air… it’s wonderful! Deserving of the name “festival” rather than “slog”.

I beg you, therefore, to do what I’m going to do: completely ignore any and all holiday marketing until after Thanksgiving (unless, of course, it is about turkeys or tofurkeys or pumpkin pies or “Fall” or cornucopias or Beaujolais Nouveau). Don’t buy egg nog until December. Don’t play Christmas music. Boycott Santa hats. Wait to put lights on your house. Do this, and you will become true connoisseurs of the Christmas season, realizing that maximum enjoyment is found in the ordering of anticipation and the limiting of satisfaction!

The Dark Knight and René Girard

Last week, I saw The Dark Knight. It was incredible, easily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year and probably in my Top 10 overall. It had a wonderful balance of action, good writing, amazing acting, thoughtful plot, and provocative questions. The questions it raises (and answers?) are, as you would expect from a good Batman movie, all about justice and violence and how much of the latter is permitted in search of the former.

A few months ago, that would have been all I perceived in the film. Recently, however, I’ve been going through René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, since I’d wanted to get a taste of his thought through one of his books rather than from a secondary source like Walter Wink. Anyway, I was nearly done with the book when I saw The Dark Knight, and was surprised when I saw the film explode with new meaning for me, unlocked by Girard’s concepts! I thought a brief exposition of the connections could be illuminating (and maybe inspire someone to read Girard, whom I now believe to be one of the most important thinkers of our time).

Attempting a one-paragraph introduction to Girard’s theses is silly, but here we go: his main idea is that there is a hidden principle that ties together all of human society, which stems from the fact that as creatures we are prone to mimetic desire, that is, we are prone to mimicking others’ desires, or desiring what others have. This naturally creates ever-building conflicts (which he calls scandals), and these scandals mount and mount until a moment when there is so much intrasocietal tension that people come to the verge of the “war of all-against-all”, since the only logical conclusion of “mimetic rivalry” is murder. In order to prevent such a catastrophic degradation into pure bestiality and to restore order, Girard thinks these tensions and energies are collectively focused in a spontaneous and unanimous redirection to a swift and violent “war of all-against-one”. This “one” is referred to as the scapegoat, initially demonized then subsequently divinized for his “ability” (through sacrifice) to bring calm to the community. This whole process, Girard says, is ritualized and then mythologized in such a way that the actual violent mechanism (the “single victim mechanism”) is veiled and invisible to the contemporary participants then the later receivers of the mythological tradition. In other words, the citizens who pick up the stones actually believe that the one they are about to murder, even though a moment ago he was one of the crowd, is now worthy of death.

Girard goes on to base some astonishingly profound claims on top of this foundation, which are worth exploring further if you have the time to read his work. He also supports his powerful anthropological claim in a way that I clearly don’t have the space to outline here – it truly is amazing when he examines the myths of the ancient world and compares them to the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition (which he thinks is the only tradition to see and expose the single victim mechanism for what it is – a second-rate and temporary solution to the main problem of human existence). Of particular interest for Christians, he unlocks a new and compelling way of reading Jesus’ words and the history of early Christianity radically nonviolently, particularly the Crucifixion. (Girard loves treating Jesus’ willing death, not so much a “blood sacrifice” in the sense as all the other ritual sacrifices which mask the single victim mechanism, but as an action that looks enough like it to dupe the “principalities and powers” into triggering the mechanism, only for it to backfire via the Resurrection and Jesus’ powerful exposition of their hidden secret for maintaining power). Finally, Girard thinks that in our modern society, thanks to the insights of Christianity, we tend to be characterized by “concern for victims” rather than a subconscious willingness to sacrifice them.

Obviously, a lot more could be said, but sooner or later we have to get to The Dark Knight. In the movie, Batman is wrestling with some essentially Girardian questions (common to superheroes, it seems). He sees the fundamental problem of society (Gotham) clearly – disorder, violence, and inaction, and attempts to counter these problems with his own brand of nonlethal (rather than lethal or nonviolent) crime-fighting. He soon discovers, unfortunately, that his actions only heighten the tension and spawn nemeses of greater caliber. This corresponds, I’d say, to Girard’s description of the multiplication of scandals and the move to a breaking point.

The breaking point comes in the form of the Joker, a mysterious individual who describes himself primarily as an agent of chaos, which is extremely interesting in a Girardian sense given that “chaos” is exactly what the single victim mechanism evolved to counter – so already we can imagine that perhaps one of the Joker’s roles in the film will be to instigate this societal mechanism. In fact, he does this on a number of occasions! His favorite games all seem to involve forcing supposedly-upright citizens into situations where it looks like sacrificing one (or a few) of their number will bring calm and restore order (the call to murder the Wayne Enterprises employee about to reveal the identity of Batman, the ferry dilemma, his speech to Harvey Dent, etc…). In other words, he is inviting the triggering of the single victim mechanism, even explicitly, as a way for Gotham to regain peace. But tellingly, this “peace” is only temporary – the next day, the Joker will be back with another escalation of tension and another demand. This is exactly how Girard describes the single victim mechanism – a violent and temporary reduction of societal tension.

It’s also interesting to examine the Joker in the light of Girard’s thoughts about Satan as the principle (rather than the “person” – Girard doesn’t want to award Satan with real existence-in-himself) behind mimetic violence (the violence generated by mimetic desire and resulting in the single victim mechanism). Girard sees Satan as maintaining power precisely through the operation of this mechanism (as the Joker does).

Another of the themes in the movie is Batman’s wrestling with the Joker’s argument that they are basically the same. Nemeses, true, but both costume-wearing crazies: one out to promote order and the other to destroy it. It seems that the Joker’s argument is really intended as a temptation for Batman to give in and use the same tools as his enemy (using lethal rather than nonlethal force). Girard’s theory speaks to this situation as well, when he talks about “mimetic rivalry”. Two people who desire the same thing eventually become hard-and-fast rivals – that much is pretty obvious. But he also explains that two rivals, supposedly different in every sense, through their intense rivalry generate a fundamental likeness as they are consumed by their rage against each other and eventually become beings with one main characteristic: the desire to defeat the other. And so the Joker invites Batman to succumb to this cycle, to descend into the facelessness of mimetic rivalry where the combatants have more in common with each other (via their combat) than not.

In all of this, Batman has to make decisions about whether to play the game offered by the Joker (and indeed, it seems the only option), or whether to reject the Joker’s starting assumptions. These questions are put not just to him, but to all the people of Gotham, especially in the ferry trial. The options: order at the cost of other people’s lives, or pure chaos (everybody dies). It seems sadly obvious to us, the viewers, that the former option is better than the latter. But Batman (and the people on the boats) decide to believe in a third option – the path of nonviolence and the willingness to be sacrificed. Of course, that path doesn’t always lead to a happy ending – though it did in the movie because of Batman’s skill in trapping the Joker.

But how does that help us? What if we were in the same situation, except without a Batman to perform our miracles? This is where faith in God is put to the test (or rather, where faith in God puts him to the test), and we find out what Jesus (and so many other innocent victims) felt like before being torn apart by the mob… But perhaps I should leave that an open question!

Well, I hope I’ve made it clear that there are some cool resonances between The Dark Knight and Girard’s theories. I haven’t done any research or exploration to see if the writers / director of the movie have read Girard or intentionally used any of his ideas in making the movie. Either way, The Dark Knight stands as a powerful representation of these important themes, and asks us to confront within ourselves questions about violence, scapegoating, and sacrifice.

The iPhone Era: Technological Adaptation and the Future of Human Evolution

When the original iPhone was released a year ago, I wanted one. The promise of being constantly connected to all the various sockets of the Internet into which I have plugged myself (news, e-mail, chat, social networks, information gathering, etc…) was seductive. Being able to work while not standing by a computer, or to keep tabs, in an up-to-the-second fashion, on my virtual communication stream – how exciting!

I didn’t get an iPhone then because of my imminent move to Kenya (where it would have been a bad idea to flash one of those around, even if it functioned), but with the recent emergence of the iPhone 3G, I decided to take the plunge, and see if this device was as life-changing as it was cracked up to be. Turns out, it is! But I’m beginning to wonder at what cost.

It’s no secret that technology changes us. A few years ago I reflected on the iPod’s effects on culture, and earlier this month, Melissa raised similar questions, with respect to Google. I had an interesting experience today, however, which proved that these changes can insinuate themselves into deep parts of our cognition.

I was walking down the street with some friends, looking for Los Hermanos, a great burrito place. I was in the general vicinity of it, I thought, but wasn’t quite sure of the cross street, and I was confused that I hadn’t seen the restaurant thus far on my walk. Well, I said to myself – that’s what I have an iPhone for! So I fired it up, Googled the restaurant, and had a street address in under a minute. 2026 Chestnut. “OK, what’s the address of this store here? 2016… OK, that means that Los Hermanos should be…” At which point, I looked up from my phone and noticed the large, brightly-colored sign hanging above the business not more than 15 feet from where I was standing. Yep, it was Los Hermanos.

It was very interesting to me that my first instinct, upon finding myself in a place where I expected to see one thing and saw another, thereby needing more locational information, was to use the Internet rather than my eyes. My eyes, having evolved to perform precisely the task I needed done (namely the gaining of local spatial knowledge) were passed over in favor of technology. Which meant, of course, that the more dangerous trade – my memory for Google – was implicit.

But why not trust to the skills that were bestowed upon us via our natural adaptations? Have we truly passed into an age where our environments are changing far more rapidly than our bodies can adapt? It certainly seems like it. But perhaps the more interesting question is, what will that do to our bodies? When we learned how to cook food our jaws decreased in size. When we learned how to wear clothes, we lost our hair (depending on your view of this adaptation). When we learned how to live in cities, we lost our natural keen sensitivities to natural phenomena. When we learned how to use dead plant matter to propel ourselves in metal canisters across the earth, many of us lost the proper functioning of our legs and other muscles. When we taught ourselves that interesting content can be delivered in the time span of a short video clip or a 3-minute radio single, we infected ourselves with A.D.D. while simultaneously dulling our senses to anything not flashing or brightly-colored.

… And I could go on.

So, what will happen when we learn how to never need to remember anything again? What will that do to our brains? What will it do to our ability to survive without our newfangled devices? (Imagine trying to survive these days without clothes, fire or tools!) What species will we become, with essential parts of our existence scattered around the world in metal boxes on fragile hard drives? No longer homo sapiens, the thinking human, but homo technologicus, the equipped human. And so we have to ask ourselves, do we want to evolve in this way? The benefits of ubiquitous and distributed memory are immense, but what are the costs? What will happen to our ability to spend time in Nature qua natural beings, qua creatures?

Maybe that’s what we should be thinking about when buying our new iPhones (and yes, mine is very shiny) – but either way, it’s certainly not what is being advertised.