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Running in Reality
Listening to music while I ran helped distract me from dejection and despair. It also took me away from opportunities to be confronted by the grace and truth of reality.
The spring of 2020 was a particularly challenging time for me as I struggled between what God wanted for me, and what I wanted God to do for me. There’s been sundry articles about the effects of the lockdowns during this period. But it wasn’t the lockdowns, per say, that caused my fight with dejection and despair. They only made it that much harder for my situation to be remedied. There were hardly any healthy “interruptions,” no in-person college classes, no friends to read and study with at the coffee shop, no church gatherings, no church services (they were online).
When I needed heavy, consistent contact the most to help get me through the trials I was already undergoing, the schools and churches were closed, and most other people were staying in their own homes. How could someone like me, who was spiritually forlorn at the time, seek to remedy this? What was the antidote?
I took at least one long run a day, if not two—with my college classes now on Zoom, none of my day was taken up walking back and forth to class or conversing with fellow students. As I began to run quite regularly, it became an outlet for me to not only see other people—who may have been just sitting in their lawns—but a way that helped stem the tide of being crushed by despair.
When I ran, I would go all around town, in the neighborhoods and on more remote trails. When I first started to run, I didn’t listen to any music; I didn’t wear headphones. One day, however, I did put headphones on and listened to fast, upbeat pop music. I had heard from others that listening to faster-paced music while running allows you to “up your game,” to give me even more focus on running and more distraction from the thoughts (and guilt) swirling around my head that I was trying to painfully avoid.
As the weeks went by, I would wear headphones, effectively “zoning out” the places I passed and the sounds I would have otherwise heard. With my headphones, I didn’t hear those sounds, and didn’t feel the need to acknowledge anyone I may have happened to pass. Instead of accepting the beauty I passed, the wildlife I traipsed by, or the peaceful flowing of the creek, I was fully distracted, plugged in to the distraction of my music, and separated from the real world that contained unresolved trials. In essence, I was listening to music as a way to feel a sort of intimacy and comfort I wasn’t getting elsewhere, but in reality, it was making me more disconnected from creation, more out of touch with my own self.
I was crossing a lot of territory with my body while my mind was pretty much on pause. Did I ever really visit the places I ran by? Or was my head throbbing with too much pain—fearful of being stuck with my own thoughts—to welcome the beautiful places I was running by? I told myself I was being a better runner by turning up the music; what I was really doing was trying to escape, or outpace, my own internal, spiritual struggle. While building muscle on the outside, I was wearing myself down on the inside.
Although I unthinkingly continued to throw on the headphones and run out the door, God was trying to reach me by showcasing the beauty—and comfort—of nature, of reality. Even though I had blocked it out mentally, I still habitually took the same trails, where the forest, wildlife, houses, and flowing streams were. It wasn’t as if I was running on a treadmill in a basement somewhere. Though I was too stubborn to admit it, I was prolonging my own fight in my mind by not being fully present where I was running.
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Since the invention of bluetooth listening devices, airpods, and other small, audio devices, I often pass by other people who first appear as if they are talking to me or themselves, but then notice the small device in their ears and notice it wasn’t me or themselves, but a device. When I experience this briefly awkward moment, I feel like the one who was being silly.
We’re being trained to suppress—or even ignore—our natural instinct to become alert when hearing another person’s voice. To nod or otherwise generally acknowledge someone walking by us on the sidewalk who is plugged in to their own reality, is like greeting a ghost. To react instinctively and naturally is to be abnormal.
We’ve likely all experienced this awkward scenario before. When we used to talk into our phones or wear large headphones, our lack of engagement with those around us used to be easier to notice and anticipate. Now, we can listen to music or talk to someone not around while doing pretty much anything—shopping for groceries, working in the garden, or in my case, running.
Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Is this technology helping us by avoiding those sometimes awkward passing conversations or tuning out reality and the complications of our own minds? Is our body simply a tool to help us become further distracted by our internal struggles? What does it mean to be bodily present? We don’t need to be distracted by music—or a podcast—as often as we think we do in order to get something done. Distraction—to take focus off of—can be helpful, so long as it does not divert us from being nourished. But when considering how to distract ourselves to focus on some particular project or to avoid some particular pain or discomfort, we have to ask ourselves what the cost of that distraction really is. We have become addicted to distractions—musical or otherwise—and often avoid, at all costs, organic human interactions and nature; we think we ought to consent first.
When we’re already distracted enough by technology and gadgets as it is, why do we insist on continuing to put more obstacles between ourselves and the earth and other people? It’s far more understandable to “tune out” when you’re in a cold, metal fitness center than it is to take in the chirping of birds, the rushing of the river, the breeze traveling through the tree leaves, or the laughter of children.
What I needed during those 2020 spring months was to confront my own despair and spiritual struggle with God and receive the grace that God had presented in front of me—gifts I ran by every day. By constantly wearing headphones, I was foregoing the simple mercies of having an interaction with another person on the trail, who may have been trying to distract from their own spiritual challenges. Seeing others and being close to nature grounds us in reality, and that in and of itself is a comforting thing—that even though our minds may be battling a spiritual foe—we’re not alone. But it was my choice to continually, and for a time, habitually avoid those goods. The opportunity that the technology afforded me—at that juncture—was a culprit in kicking the can down the road. I was being offered a certain road to redemption from my guilt and pain by passing other persons in their yards and on the trail, or the lush trees, and flowers at the side of the road, but it took me many more months to grow fully-aware of it—to be once again clear-headed and comfortable with the silence, sounds, and yes, the awkwardness, of nature and human interactions. Now, when I go for a run, I cherish the chance to take in the sounds of nature as I trample along, and to greet the elderly couple I may pass on the trail, or the mother who may be trying to corral her little ones while pushing along a stroller. These people too have stories of their own, and they saw it fit to go out and take a walk, either alone or with a loved one(s). And what we have in common is that, even though our lives may be drastically different, we were experiencing the same graces, being acknowledged as another human being, who was also made for love and joy.
How different of an experience it is to go for a jog and let God speak to you through his creation, than attempting to drown out the natural beauty and joys around us by choosing to be distracted every second? As creatures of the earth—of mind and body—we are meant to be fully present wherever we are—and that might mean leaving our airpods and headphones on the desk when we go for a jog or take a walk, and observing the reality we pass on our way.
Next time you work out, go for a run, or find yourself hoeing in a field, consider not listening to music or a podcast, and allow yourself to listen instead to the sights and sounds around you—the birds of the air, the rush of wind, or the voices of fellow human beings working beside you.