I have posted this before, way back when, but felt like it was time to dig it out again and put it back up. In this time of feeling the need to make resolutions and thoughts of becoming who you are not are still fresh in everyone’s minds this may be some good food for though for some people. This was not written by me, it originally posted on the letsrun.com message board several years ago. I am glad that I saved it as the original thread is now history. Here is one of my favorite parts:
“Sheehan seems to be saying that runners, by virtue of their experiences with pain in training and racing, live more authentic lives than the person who doesn’t have such a familiar relationship with pain. Because of these unique experiences, runners are less deceived in their view of the human condition. They don’t subconsciously (or consciously) deny or deceive themselves about their own mortality and meaninglessness. Because of this, the runner leads a more authentic life, devoid of the desperation and anxiety inherent in an inauthentic life.” Read on friends.
The matter of living an authentic life, versus an inauthentic life, is worth considering because it illuminates a more basic philosophical issue: that of truth and knowledge. Within this issue of authenticity is the issue of how one deals with the very human realities of pain, struggle, and discomfort. Ultimately, a person cannot achieve an authentic existence without a more comfortable relationship with pain and suffering, thereby making the acceptance of pain an important element of achieving insight into personal truth and knowledge.
To examine this issue, we must first consider what leading an authentic life entails. Furthermore, we must question why an authentic life is even worthwhile. Most simply, authenticity is when one lives in a state of acceptance of the truths of the human condition. An authentic life is one where there is no self-deception or artifice. One who lives an authentic life lives a truly honest life where the true meaning and character of that life are fully revealed to the subject. Necessarily, this meaning isn’t enshrouded beneath a haze of deception or denial. Rather, the subject is fully aware of the existence they are participating in.
In his bible of modern existentialism ‘Being and Nothingness’ Jean-Paul Sartre attaches the phrase “bad faith” to the condition of inauthenticity. Sartre writes that bad faith can be “identified with falsehood.” A person who shows signs of bad faith “lies to himself.” This sort of self-deception is the defining aspect of inauthenticity.
Predictably, bad faith or inauthenticity presents a major problem if one is concerned with finding an answer to the questions of epistemology: what can we know? How do we know what we know? Indeed, bad faith and inauthenticity, by definition, are completely at odds with finding truth and knowledge. Sartre writes, “the one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth.” With this sort of deception occurring it’s virtually impossible to realize anything certain about knowledge. Given a definition such as this, it’s not hard to see why an authentic life could be considered a more worthwhile existence than an inauthentic life. If authenticity is synonymous with truth, then inauthenticity is necessarily coupled with the specters of deception, falsity. To lead an inauthentic life is to live in a fake reality.
Because our overall objective is that of knowledge, then what we’re really looking for is a foundation of truths and certainties from which we can build a framework of knowing. This objective inherently requires that our existence be free of any deception or artifice that would obscure us from realizing the certainties of our existence, and thus, from realizing truth. Therefore, what we desire, because knowledge and truth are our goals, is authenticity.
Because authenticity is what we desire, inauthenticity should be avoided at all costs. However, it seems that the culture and society which we are born into today (in America, at least) is constructed in a manner that promotes a certain alienation with our basic existence as humans. From an early age, we are incessantly inculcated with a set of ideals that generally promote conformity and “plugging into the system.” This is done through social indoctrination of certain values and expectations. Oftentimes, this means that our values begin to form around a basis of acquiring as much material wealth as possible and gauging success by the rapidity with which we’ve ascended the societal ladder of enterprise. These values have become so ingrained in our society that this collective ideal has been labeled “the American Dream.”
Unfortunately, the pursuit of the American Dream usually requires placing career promotion and material wealth ahead of all other things because we’ve been lead to believe that we need to live in the biggest house possible, own the nicest cars, maintain the greenest lawn, and spend as much money as is necessary to overtly display our opulence and fit in with the majority.
Of course, it could certainly be argued that such an egregious existence is far more desirable than living a life of poverty, homelessness, and hunger. However, because we’ve determined our objective to be truth and knowledge, it is important to realize that it seems unlikely that the basic truth of our existence is that we should strive for mass consumerism.
Instead, by looking at what drives this desire to acquire things, we might be able to define a more authentic and truthful existence. In order to attain meaning in our lives, we humans feel a need for validation of our existence. That is, a concrete meaning in our lives is necessary in order to not have overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and despair. As humans, we all have a conception, within our being, of just how transient and fragile our individual lives are. Consequently, we are naturally stricken with a desire to attach some meaning to our existence, some point to our lives, so that when the end is near we can be at peace with our time in this world.
Unfortunately, for some time now, we’ve been burying this anxiety about the meaninglessness of our lives under a deluge of desperation. Instead of accepting the distressing truths of our existence, that maybe our lives have no meaning; that we will all die someday; that pain and suffering are inherent aspects of living; we’ve willfully comforted (and deceived) ourselves by lying to ourselves about the human condition.
This deception and willingness to deny some of life’s truths has manifested itself in various ways. For instance, we try to attach the reason for our anxiety to the fact that we somehow lack something, usually material, in our lives. By associating our desperation and anxiety with the lack of this object, we are able to blame our anxiety on something that is relatively easily attained. If one makes enough money, he or she can buy almost anything material. We deceive ourselves into thinking that once we acquire that object our life will somehow be more complete and rid of this inherent human anxiety.
From whence does this anxiety, or anguish, come from in the first place? Jean-Paul Sartre writes,
“I emerge alone and in anguish confronting the unique and original project which constitutes my being; all the barriers, all the guard rails collapse, nihilated by the consciousness of my freedom. I do not have nor can I have recourse to any value against the fact that it is I who sustain values in being. Nothing can ensure me against myself, cut off from the world and from my essence by this nothingness which I am…Anguish then is the reflective apprehension of freedom by itself.”
In other words, it’s as if we’re afraid of the fact that we have the ultimate responsibility of creating our own meaning in this world. This responsibility is frightening because the fact that it exists illuminates the fact that there is no other meaning or order to the world other than what humans provide.
Why is this such an anguish-inducing notion? Creating meaning is an uncertain and intangible task. It is easier, and we’ve been socially conditioned to do so, to continue living under our socially-accepted delusions. These delusions usually involve attaching some sort of meaning to mundane material goods. Because the majority of society seems to be content living an inauthentic life, a tendency towards authenticity is often seen as a sign of craziness or eccentricity. Indeed, the fact that authenticity often entails some type of behavior that is seen as deviant from the majority of society is enough to encourage people to go on deceiving themselves.
It’s a difficult and scary process to go against the crowd and examine one’s life in a manner that is as devoid of deception as possible. Why? Because we will find that there is inherently a lot about life that is unpleasant. It’s much more comfortable, and socially accepted, to go on deceiving ourselves. This realization of the truth about our existence (the inherent suffering, our mortality, the lack of meaning), and the burdens of alienation and eccentricity that society places on people who “go against the flow,” create an anguish that people want to, understandably, ignore.
If the idea of leading an authentic life is so horrible, i.e. induces such anxiety, then why should an authentic life be what we strive for? Although the idea of an authentic life might at first be nerve-wracking, it is only so because we have become so familiar with the fervent “rat-race” of desperation that characterizes inauthenticity in modern society. But, more importantly, authenticity provides a freedom that offers us an awareness of our own possibility. This freedom is an important element in our desire for true knowledge. Although this openness to life can be frightening, such existential freedom allows us to determine personal truths. Finally, the most rewarding reason might be that when we lead an authentic existence we live an honest life with no deceptions, and this is what we are striving for: truth. Truth in existence is a logical first step towards establishing truth in knowledge.
As stated above, the acceptance of certain unpleasantries, such as pain and suffering, as part of the human condition is an essential step towards achieving authenticity. In fact, it is an avoidance and denial of pain in our lives that often characterizes some of the deceptions associated with inauthenticity. However, a discussion concerning the acceptance of pain and suffering needs to make clear its objectives.
The acceptance of pain cannot be equated with condoning pain. Certain types of pain, especially destructive and sadistic pain, are never good. Rather, someone who is living authentically needs to realize that other types of pain can provide one with a deeper knowledge of him or herself and his or her capabilities. More specifically, I’m referring to the type of pain associated with willfully pushing one’s body to it’s physiological limits; the pain inherent in competitive endurance sports such as long-distance cycling, swimming, and most specifically, running. These people aren’t necessarily masochists; they don’t need to derive pleasure from pain. Rather, they enjoy and appreciate the information or knowledge and the freedom that this pain reveals to them about themselves.
When a runner is in the throes of exhaustion that can only come from the requisite supreme effort of a race or particularly arduous workout, he or she experiences emotions that span the entire range of a lifetime. Runners who truly push themselves are exploring the outer limits of their capabilities. They are forced to confront the inexorable pain of racing, pushing even harder, fighting back the despair, and then finally submitting to their physical and mental limitations. In other words, runners who have fulfilled their potential always lose. There is always a point when the runner decides to give up and submit to the lactic acid coursing through his or her muscles, the infernal burning in his or her lungs, and the searing nausea in his or her stomach. However, only by accepting and assimilating this pain are runners able to acquire the knowledge of themselves that gives truth to their existence. If the pain weren’t confronted, the activity would almost seem trivial; a pointless exercise of failed determination.
When runner-philosopher Dr. George Sheehan writes of the necessity of sport (running) in his book Running and Being he sounds suspiciously like an existentialist discussing the merits of living an authentic life. When considering the unpleasantries of guilt, pain and death, he asserts,
“These realities…must neither be ignored nor evaded, but squarely faced and conquered. But where can this encounter be sought? Where can pain be found on demand? Where can we meet guilt head on and cleanse ourselves? Where can we experience death and then return? The best answer, it seems to me is sport. Sport is where an entire life can be compressed into a few hours….Where a person can suffer and die and rise again on six miles of trails through a New York City Park.”
Indeed, Sheehan revels in the fact that runners are privy to the ability of experiencing, whenever they want, emotions and feelings that the average person, the inauthentic person, only experiences upon the end of life itself. Sheehan writes, “[The runner] knows that sport is where he lives. Where he can best meet and overcome pain and wrong and death. Life is just a place to spend time between races.”
Sheehan seems to be saying that runners, by virtue of their experiences with pain in training and racing, live more authentic lives than the person who doesn’t have such a familiar relationship with pain. Because of these unique experiences, runners are less deceived in their view of the human condition. They don’t subconsciously (or consciously) deny or deceive themselves about their own mortality and meaninglessness. Because of this, the runner leads a more authentic life, devoid of the desperation and anxiety inherent in an inauthentic life. Sheehan writes,
“Is it possible that the athlete is better prepared for death than the rest of us?…The answer, it seems to me, is yes. The athlete for very compelling reasons has found a way to live to his absolute limits and has reconciled himself to his own mortality; which is a way of saying the athlete has developed a sense of time, an acceptance of pain, and a happiness that so completes him that death becomes simply another experience. The athlete’s time emphasizes his mortality. Others of us may drive this thought from our minds. We do not like to think life is short and man corruptible, two obvious facts to the athlete.”
Runners realize that pain and discomfort and hardship must be met and accepted. This meeting of pain ultimately allows us to find a more profound way of dealing with our existence. Most people, the ones who go through life avoiding and denying pain as much as possible and leading an inauthentic existence, don’t realize until their death what a gift existence (and the freedom inherent in it) really is. Fortunately, because runners have experienced “mini-deaths” in every race and gut-wrenching workout, they are already quite aware of the beauty and meaning that they can create in life.
The lifestyle of a runner promotes existential authenticity in other respects as well. Running is a sport where the athlete is, for the most part, rewarded directly proportional to the amount of effort and work he put in prior to race day. Generally speaking, the more miles a long-distance runner logs, the faster he will become. In philosophic terms, runners revel in their existential freedom. They realize the freedom they have to explore their potential and determine their own meaning and existence. Armed with this freedom, runners know that it is up to themselves to determine how well they do in the sport, and that they will be duly rewarded for the commitment they bring to the sport.
Furthermore, runners as a whole are less apt to be deceived about the true quality of their competitive performances than are other sportsmen. For example, although Shaquille O’neal’s basketball skills may seem pretty dominating right now, there’s really no way of telling just how well he would stack up against the likes of, say, Wilt Chamberlain. Runners, however, are painfully aware of their place in the hierarchy of both current runners and runners of the past. The distance of a meter or a mile hasn’t changed throughout history, thereby giving the cold, hard numbers the final say in who was the fastest runner ever over a given distance. A basketball player (or any other athlete who’s performances are partly determined by the skills and talents of his or her contemporaries) will never be completely troubled by a definitive declaration of his prowess (or lack thereof). There’s simply no completely objective way to rank the best player ever. Runners, on the other hand, are not spared the realization of their own inadequacy. Whereas a basketball player could go on deceiving himself, telling himself that he’s the best ever, a runner knows for sure that he’s either the fastest ever, or not.
In the novel ‘Once A Runner John’ L. Parker, Jr. tries to explain what it is about competitive running that sets it apart. In the novel, collegiate runner Quenton Cassidy is a top runner trying to make the decision between continuing with the conventional lifestyle that society promotes, or of heading into isolation in a cabin in the woods to pursue the singular task of training for a race against the best runner in the world.
This choice can be seen as a metaphor for the decision one must make between leading an authentic or inauthentic life. Cassidy is a smart, charismatic individual who, if he stayed in school, would likely soon be on his way to achieving the aforementioned American Dream: a good job with a wife and family in the suburbs. As Cassidy explains,
“We are speaking of human endeavor and delusional systems…It’s a simple choice: We can all be good boys and wear our letter sweaters around and get our little degrees and find some nice girl to settle, you know, down, with…take up what a friend of ours calls the hearty challenges of lawn care…”
But Cassidy chooses the other path; one could argue the path of authenticity, by withdrawing to the cabin, living an eccentric existence, expressing his existential freedom, determined to find out just where his limits exist. Such an act fits nicely into the criteria of social deviance that authenticity often assumes. Cassidy essentially becomes a hermit. Having stripped away all delusions and distractions, he sets about the possibly crazy task of logging 20-plus miles a day on the forest trails by himself.
However, for Cassidy, the decision to undertake such behavior is actually without much question. He would have it no other way. Parker, Jr. writes,
“Cassidy always felt that those who partook of the difficult pleasures of the highly competitive runner only when comfortable, when in a state of high energy, when rested, elated, or untroubled by previous exertions, such dilettantes missed the point…Cassidy noticed that their eyes always gave them away; the gloom, one could tell, was too much for them. It would soon engulf them. They would begin to ask themselves the questions too many times. Soon they would miss a workout. Then a few in a row. Then they would chicken out on themselves during the tough, stupid, endless middle of a bad race. And you don’t easily hide such things from yourself.”
Cassidy also realizes the importance that pain has in providing knowledge, and how running is essential for him to lead an authentic life. Parker, Jr. writes,
“Training was a rite of purification…Racing was a rite of death; from it came knowledge. Such rites demand, if they are to be meaningful at all, a certain amount of time spent precisely on the Red Line, where you can lean over the manicured putting green at the edge of the precipice and see exactly nothing… [Cassidy] ran because it grounded him in basics. There was both life and death in it. It was unadulterated by media hype, trivial cares, political meddling…Running to him was real, the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.”
For Cassidy, he could never be happy and live authentically without running because running provides the constant affirmation of his limitations, his mortality, while still allowing him to test those limits. Running allows him to strip away all of the delusions of society and focus on the basics of life: pain is a constant entity, I will die someday (because it’s happened so many times during races), there are limitations to my efforts, but I have the potential to explore those limits myself. Reducing life to these sorts of basic truths is ultimately what authenticity is all about.
Obviously, however, the pursuit of running isn’t the only path to an authentic life. Nevertheless, as shown above, a true commitment to competitive running requires that one become intimately familiar with pain and exhaustion and ultimately leads to an acceptance of these unpleasant aspects of life that many people never achieve. Without this acceptance people will always be deluding themselves about the truth of their existence and will therefore live inauthentically, unfortunately ignorant of the knowledge that is possible.