Running is the asceticism of our age. It is tempting to gape at the peculiar excesses of the Christian past; extreme fasts, lengthy silences, brutal penances and extravagant pilgrimages all feel very odd and distant to us today. And it is likewise tempting to wonder where, if anywhere, that drive to a seemingly superfluous discipline went. Where it went (among other places no doubt) is running. Not simply the moderate daily exercise for health and endurance (the rosary of the pious lay person), but everything from super marathons to Iron Man triathlons to torture gauntlets like the Tough Mudder and the Warrior Dash witness to a lingering need for sheer luxurious exertion.
While the discipline of running is as varied in rigor and practicality as the great orders of the Middle Ages were in their rules and ethics, the marathon retains something like a universal prestige. It is a possibility for most, a genuine accomplishment for those who complete it, and yet a challenge for even the most talented and highly-trained athletes. It is undeniably popular as a way to mark life events: a 40th birthday, a successful course of cancer treatment. It can express loves and loyalties as well: a group of Newtown parents running in memory of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.
I do not at all demean the spirituality of running as our modern version of penance and pilgrimage. I’m not much of a runner, at least by the standards of my peers who run, but I probably spend as much time running as I do in prayer (“Time to run from Death,” I tell my wife when I get on the treadmill). Rather the opposite. It’s precisely the religious ambition, lightly draped by the gear, the rationalized training, and the anti-chafing body tape, that makes running so poignant to me. And it’s part of why the April 15th bombing of the Boston Marathon left me troubled beyond the brute facts of the casualties and the destruction.
We ourselves are the ultimate soft target. As social beings we like to congregate.
We are perhaps now so accustomed to the “security theater” that has characterized the twelve years of the War on Terror that we have lost sight of the essential vulnerability in which we live. There is a small kind of nobility in the creation of so many “hard targets” such as federal buildings, as if a truck-bomber wouldn’t settle for blowing up the office tower across the street if the reinforced-concrete flower planters thwarted his plan to blow up the place where Social Security checks get printed. But we ourselves are the ultimate soft target. As social beings we like to congregate. We might endure security theater — the ostentatious, if practically dubious, display of anti-terror muscle — at some already unpleasant and unsociable venue like an airport. But until we give up our desire to test ourselves, body and soul, against our limits, and to do it in a pulsing, cheering crowd of our fellow bodies, we cannot be assured that our very desire for embodiment and union won’t be used as a kind of weapon. We human beings, as Lucretius put it, live in an unwalled city.
The memory of this attack will linger, I suspect, beyond the brute details of its cost in lives and limbs, because it happened in such a quasi-religious moment, in such a joyous communal atmosphere, and perhaps also because it called forth such heroics from runners, spectators, and responders alike. It is possible that the mere fact of having finished, or even watched, a 26.2-mile battle with human frailty made people more heroic than they might have otherwise been.
As I write we are still learning about the bombers, their history, and their motives. But quite apart from the uses to which all such horrors are eventually put, it’s worth noting that these assaults almost always fail. There is a deeply atomized view of humanity at the bottom of every attempt to accomplish something through random death and destruction. It is not only, or even primarily, the dead who are the targets of this violence. The violence is meant to literally dis-integrate the social body that surrounds the dead and wounded. It assumes, not wrongly, that our own bodies are more real to us than anyone else’s. It assumes that those divisions we derive from bodily experience–the healthy avoiding the sick, the scrubbed and disinfected avoiding the overly human-smelling, the able-bodied avoiding those with disabilities, even men and women in bodily opposition–go, so to say, all the way down. Our feelings of fellowship and solidarity are false, and will melt away when danger to ourselves is sensed.
An act of violence that seemed perfectly engineered to scatter and destroy a momentary human community had, it seems, much the opposite effect.
That assumption has proven false, time and time again. An act of violence that seemed perfectly engineered to scatter and destroy a momentary human community had, it seems, much the opposite effect. People who were expected to flee the dead and wounded to save their own soft targets ran straight into the heart of danger for the sake of those strangers who would otherwise be left behind. While our embodied life places limits on our capacity to know each other, it also grants the possibility of empathy. We know this from the fierce solidarity that flows from the sexual bond of marriage, from the intimate union of mother and child in the womb, from the defense of the bullied sibling, from the willingness to bleed or die among brothers and sisters at Homestead or Hill 262, Selma or Stonewall. When Jesus says that anyone who offers a drink of water to one of his little ones in his name will not lose the reward, or that whoever feeds, clothes, and visits the least of his brothers and sisters does so to him, I don’t think he is merely stipulating that an atomized humanity is to be treated as one in him. I think he is saying something more plain to the mind: that we are all already one in our bare needs. We all want to eat, drink, be touched, be clothed, live. In some shadowy way, we even want that for one another, starting with those whose needy flesh is most apparent and real to us.
The greatness of a marathon is, in that sense, not so different from the greatness of a mass pilgrimage, a Good Friday procession, or a tent revival. It joins our sweaty, smelly, fleshy, swiftly explodable bodies in a greater body that makes each of us more real to the other. Each of us individually lives in an unwalled city. Together, we are the wall.