Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reflections on Crazy

"When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained. " --Mark Twain


If I were to be able to monetize all recent interactions where someone says to me, "You're crazy", I would be well on my way to early retirement, or at least paying off student loan debt.  It's actually interesting that people can, in what would be considered the course of polite conversation, casually cast aspersions on another's mental health and treat it like harmless banter.  While not generally sensitive personal slights, this oft-repeated exchange has made me wonder what it is that people are really trying to say, and why.

Let's start with Webster's definition:

In`san´i`ty
n.1.The state of being insane; unsoundness or derangement of mind; madness; lunacy.
 2.(Law) Such a mental condition, as, either from the existence of delusions, or from incapacity to distinguish between right and wrong, with regard to any matter under action, does away with individual responsibility.

As a practicing lawyer seeking to run 100 miles, I'll go ahead and discard the second definition.  I suspect I retain the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and have absolutely no intention of shirking individual responsibility for my actions.  That leaves "unsoundness or derangement of mind; madness; lunacy" . . . hhhmmmm, are we getting somewhere now?

No, we aren't.  At least not in this context.

When people call someone else "crazy" for life choices, they are essentially saying, "I could personally never imagine doing something like that."  That promotes the definition of "insanity" as being a person who's conduct deviates from a collectively-acceptable norm.  Since this so-called "crazy" endeavor is so far outside a person's own realm of contemplation, they categorize the mental state required to pursue it as defective.  Ultra-running is but one example.  Any extreme sport - skydiving, bungee-jumping, drag-racing - might evoke a similar reaction.  So might trekking through the Amazon; or dog-sledding in Alaska; even hiking the Appalachian Trail.  But, is it a fair characterization?  I cannot imagine ever speaking or understanding Japanese, but I don't think those who do are "crazy".

And, what is it that all these sorts of pursuits have in common?  The possibility of sustaining physical harm by virtue of a leisure activity.  Never mind that any of us could be in a car accident at any time.  Or that chronic inactivity and poor diet will likely lead to a host of medical problems in middle and old age, if we live that long. 

We have arrived at a point in modern Western civilization where most of us are able to go about our daily lives with minimal physical exertion or discomfort.  Of course, some people still break their backs doing hard manual labor, be it in the field, or in factories, or in construction, etc.  But, now we are able to press buttons to do things that once required actual effort.  And with that ease comes a sense that we're "safe" from injury.  A lot of us spend our days at a desk, typing on a keyboard, clicking a mouse, maybe talking on the phone.  We sit for breakfast, during our commute, at our desk, and then again when we get back home.

Problem is, we weren't designed to sit. 

So, some of us choose not to.  We choose to move through the world propelled only by the power our own muscles can generate.  We run a 5K race.  Then a 10K.  Then we gear up to the Holy Grail of endurance tests: the marathon.  Except that marathons aren't the end-all-be-all of testing the limits of our aerobic capabilities.  That's where ultramarathons come in.  Ultras don't necessarily reward innate athletic talent.  They don't favor the super-speedy, or the incredibly strong.  They certainly don't require a ton of coordination (though nimble feet are a plus on trails).  One need not measure 7 feet tall, nor bench press 300 pounds.  No, just look at a race field and you'll see that runners come in all shapes and sizes.  Why is that?  In large part, it's because completing races of 5 or 12 or 24+ hours is largely a mental endeavor, and a brain capable of that sort of tenacity can fit within all manner of body-types.

Is it therefore "crazy" to pursue something which affords a tremendous chance for personal growth, loosens our daily shackles, and provides perspective on the things which most matter in life, even if that means experiencing discomfort, fatigue and maybe a not-too-serious injury?  Some of us submit that it is.

As I recently reflected from one of my all-time most personally influential books, Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance":
" 'Is it hard?' Not if you have the right attitudes. It's having the right attitudes that's hard.”
What percentage of this will be mental?  I truly have no idea.  But I do know that setting off on a well-supported journey of 100 miles without knowing whether I will be able to complete it, how long it will take, or what toll it will take on my body AND mind is the essence of the appeal of this.  I am choosing to strip myself bare of the daily trappings which keep us safe, but which simultaneously create a barrier between us and the world we inhabit.  I don't just want to be of the world; I want to be truly in it. 

Trying to "run" 100 miles through a scenic part of Vermont is just one way to achieve that presence.  If that's not what does it for you, then maybe you can find another way.  Or at least choose your words more carefully when you hear about someone doing something which strikes you as extreme: "What?!  You're running a hundred miles?  How cra-, er, I mean what a wonderful way to challenge yourself." :-)

Thanks for reading. -Ron