Observations of the Customs of a Certain Temple on a Certain Feast Day

I rise. It is a feast day, a holy day. I blink sleep away and begin to prepare a special savory treat to commemorate the end of the traditional annual fast. Outside the window I see a man walk by, his body making jerky lunges in random directions, seemingly at war with specters. His mind is shackled by some demon or other, and awareness of his prison lessens the savoriness of my treat slightly.

My wife and I have been invited to a temple where this holy day is celebrated, the day which proclaims that death is only a hiccup of our existence. We walk to the temple amidst a sleeping city which has not altered its pattern for the sake of today’s holiness. Closer to the temple, we observe disciples in expensive clothing (a tradition I do not understand) making their way to the entrance, where we are all greeted by smiling acolytes who hand us papers on which are inscribed the details of today’s ceremony. Inside is a joyous throng of worshippers, eating more savory treats, drinking a bitter, black tea, and greeting their friends. The fine clothing is impressive, but more so the beautiful faces and radiant smiles of the crowd. In stark contrast with the streets outside the temple, there are no demons to be seen here, just the medley of colorful garments and the exuberance of the end of the fast.

The ceremony begins and we hurry to find our place in the giant indoor amphitheater. Hundreds, if not thousands, have come to celebrate this holy day, and all faces are now focused on one priest on a central stage (he is dressed like a successful merchant). He lifts his hands and calls upon the divine presence, then cedes the stage to a differently-accoutred priest holding an instrument like a lute. This second priest leads various musicians as well as the gathered audience in songs written for this annual feast. But for the words which are sung and the clothing of the audience, I would struggle to know whether I am in a temple or a house of music where the traveling bards play less holy music upon a similar stage.

Soon, a third priest (the high priest of this temple, also dressed like a merchant) takes the stage in order to deliver a speech, after the fashion of this temple and others like it. The speech reminds me of the debates of the University, if they (in foolishness) had only one participant, and if others present were mute. The audience listens in silence, and thus it is difficult for me to discern whether the priest’s speech is being met with agreement or not (as this seems to be the point of it). I see that his heart is pure in his belief, but true to his choice of clothing he wields logic like a merchant. In his effort to convince those of the throng who do not yet belong to the temple to adopt its hopes, he makes several points, and I wonder if anyone has chosen to change his mind as a result.

My own mind wanders to the story which this day celebrates, about the man who died and then was raised by divine power back to life. The high priest in his speech reminded us that the news of that man’s new life was couriered by women (in a society where they were considered insignificant). I ponder the honor given to these women in the story as my wife shares in whisper an irony: the cadre of priests at this temple consists entirely of men! So much for women bearing good news.

I am brought back to the ceremony as the cadence of the high priest’s lecture signifies that he is about to finish. The next ritual is one with which I am familiar, though at this temple it is also rife with irony. Led by yet one more priest, it re-enacts another part of the story of the resurrected man, where, at dinner with his friends, he uses bread and wine to prophesy his death. Owing to the size of the crowd, the re-enactment looks more like a display of martial discipline than a meal. Small wafers and tiny cups of sweet wine are delivered with impressive efficiency, and the worshippers swallow the bland morsels as the musicians play music designed to inspire contemplation. Truly, the music is more reminiscent of the intimacy of that first meal than the small food bits which are intended to symbolize it.

For my reflection, I contemplate death. I contemplate my fear of it and search for that seed within my belly that says death will not be the end of me. I contemplate the story of the man who was raised from the dead, and wonder at its place in history and what it means if it really happened. I contemplate the beauty of the gathered worshippers contrasted with the ugliness of the streets outside. I contemplate a world that doesn’t know what to do with death (physical or psychological), and so inflicts it on others, runs from it, or denies its reality altogether through a steadfast focus on present pleasure. This contemplation submerges me into the deep pool of longing which has always existed in the center of my being, and I am moved in wordless ways.

The amphitheater emerges back into view as the high priest returns to the stage to intone a farewell benediction, accompanied by more music. He then directs those in the audience who are parents to collect their children from a holding area. I realize for the first time that, despite the varied ages of the disciples, no children were present during the ceremony. I can only imagine that they were sequestered so as not to be bothersome, or perhaps because children are thought not to be able to understand the high priest’s lecture.

After the ceremony, we make our way to the temple doors, passing clumps of worshippers (organized by some social principle or other) discussing various topics unrelated to the rituals of the temple. Back on the streets of the city, the people we pass seem to be going about their business in ignorance of the day’s holiness, particularly those who, being deformed and unable to work, beg for money. Without further event (save for seeing several citizens wearing masks with the ears of a hare, presumably about to act in a comedy) we arrived home and began to prepare the traditional feast: a combination of morning and mid-day foods.

Relay: Interesting Stuff From the Last Month

Last month has been busy, and I haven’t figured out how to blog anything original. But that’s ok, because I have a bunch of links for you! These are things I found interesting, provocative, inspiring, or funny in the last month. I’m even going to categorize them for you:

Science

  • Honeybees are found to interact with quantum fields – a researcher noticed that bee dances trace a 2-dimensional projection of formulas of some kind of quantum math. Bee dances seemed pretty arbitrary before, and now this researcher claims that bees may be ‘in touch’ with quantum fields. If true, this would be interesting and awesome.
  • Scientists find evidence that many universes exist – I’ve always thought that “many universes” is a contradiction in terms, but hey. It turns out that our particular ‘universe’ may be just one of many ‘cosmic bubbles’ colliding around in some vast ‘multiverse’. I don’t believe this yet, and won’t until people define their terms better.
  • Thunderstorms generate anti-matter – powerful thunderstorms can generate crazy gamma ray bursts scientists think may be accompanied by anti-matter. That would be anti-awesome.

Philosophy

  • Albert Einstein writes on science and religion – some good stuff in here, especially about the awe and surprise of finding that nature has rational foundations. Also other general philosophy of science points. I still disagree with his overall statement, which is that the historically-bound bits of religion should be discarded, since he appears to take for granted their fundamental falsity.
  • Minimalism works – apparently, someone on the Internet made fun of minimalism. The article I linked is a rebuttal which I found concise and useful. Yay minimalism!

Culture

  • Suburban sprawl sucks – and it’s bad for you too. I confess this was too long for me to read completely, but I did get that the author is an advocate of getting rid of zoning laws. I, too, advocate thus.
  • The dangers of externalizing knowledge – this is a favorite topic of mine. What happens when we stop learning everything except how to Google? It’s possible that that is indeed the one skill which leads to success in life, and therefore will encourage social evolution to continue in the current trend. I’m just afraid that learning is a holistic process of shaping the entire person, body and soul. What happens when we postpone this shaping until we load Wikipedia? What will our unshaped minds do with that information, anyway? I could go on. Nice to see this on TechCrunch.
  • Caring for your introvert – this guy makes some rather grand statements concerning introversion. Given that I’m an introvert, I’m inclined to agree with the whole ‘introverts are superior’ thing, except I know it’s false. Good article anyway, despite being overblown. I also think the Enneagram could account for a lot of what he is describing, without as much polarization (or arrogance, for that matter).

Theology

  • Agnostic Christianity – doubt isn’t bad. In fact, it’s an unavoidable part of faith. Embrace and respect it!
  • The Seven: not exactly deacons – what happens when the Apostles decide they’re too important to wait tables? God uses the waiters instead. Or something like that… some good potential pastor-skewering in these passages.

Food

  • A coder’s guide to coffee – I am a coder and I love coffee. Therefore, I love this article. I just need to find a way to roast my own beans in Oxford…
  • L-Theanine in tea and not coffee – apparently this amino acid enables our bodies to use caffeine in a much more zenly awesome way. Where is it naturally found? Not coffee (damn!) but tea. If I used coffee as a mind hack, maybe I’d switch to tea. Unfortunately, I drink coffee because (a) it tastes really good, and (b) I’m physically and psychologically addicted to it. Oh well.
  • A hacker’s guide to tea – If I were to switch this is the guide that I’d use! One thing I particularly liked: camomille is not real tea! Ha, I always knew camomille sucked.

Random

  • Trimensional – a 3d scanner for the iphone. I haven’t tried it, but… really cool idea! I’m also not sure what I’d do with a 3d model of my face. I’m also not sure why they used the guy they did for the screenshots. Yikes!
  • How to draw an owl – Click through and see the picture. Hilarious. And also a good prompt for discussion. So often, what is left out of how-to guides is: “now, practice x for thousands of hours”.

Marathon

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.

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.