Running, Writing & Living: to Make the Means the Ends

Throwback Friday

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

As it is with running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life, where the joy to be found in each arises from the practice of the thing itself, rather than from whatever the activities are meant to produce. As ink collects on a page, and aerobic breathing and footsteps echo in the local woods, so too have I come to learn that love and joy accumulate in the daily living of life more than in the pursuit of them as external ends. So long as they are not being done to serve some other purpose, outside of themselves, I generally enjoy and in so doing can succeed in these efforts indefinitely. So it is with running, so with writing, and so it is with life.This approach need not, however, ignore the will to strive, to progress, or advance: to grow. It is merely that once these external motivations become the sole and primary objective of these practices – as opposed to merely a by-product of the experiences – it can become all too easy to lose sight of the joy at the heart of the act (however uncomfortable an encounter with a steep hill or blank page may be) that is essential if we are to continue to progress. By realizing this truth of succeeding in the struggles of running and writing throughout my youth and formative education, I have begun to glimpse how best to meet that other intensely personal, often uncomfortable, and naturally rewarding act of living (and learning) itself.

When it is the most fun, after all, I am running not so that I might gratify some purpose not in and of the run itself; I am running for the enjoyment of that time spent running, and so that I might be able to continue to run: so that the most freeing of natural joys in life is available to me, in body as well as mind. When I am enjoying it the most, I am writing not to reap the eventual fruits of the intellectual or emotional labours of reasoning and introspection; I am writing because it is the process itself which brings me into touch with my thinking about myself and my place in the world. Just as in the physical sense with running, writing is an encounter between the self and the world that cannot be predetermined or coerced into existence in advance. Rather, it is the experience that allows my boundary with the world to be defined. Only once it has been so defined does the possibility that this boundary can be transcended come into being.While setting goals or deadlines to motivate myself from week to week or year to year can be helpful in working toward self-improvement, it is this ongoing encounter with the unknown that can most consistently be trusted to lead the way to continued transformation and ongoing personal growth. The outcome, or end, being pursued, in other words, becomes the continuous realization of the means itself: to be able to interpret emerging contexts and plot new courses of action. In striving to achieve this congruence between ends and means, I am reminded of Foucault’s notion of Enlightenment, which should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

As it is in running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life. And so with life, with learning. In each of these capacities, I have challenged myself to make the means of these pursuits their ends:

  • By running merely to run, asking nothing more of what amounts to tiring, challenging work, I am rewarded with better health and fitness, as well as the ability to continue to test my physical limits into the future.
  • By writing only to write, and letting the words and insights arise (or not) where they may, I retain and hone the craft and habit of exploring and expressing my thoughts and reflections clearly.
  • And by living and learning for its own sake, I continue to seek knowledge and experiences that become wisdom and points for further departures of curiosity into the future.

This realization and focus of my graduate education in curriculum studies has emerged from almost 10 years as an educator, but is grounded in life experience and formative passions of both running and writing that have long-provided me with motivation and means to succeed and progress. Before I was a graduate student immersed in the philosophy of education and learning, I devoted a good deal of time and education to expressing my thoughts in words, earning an honours degree in creative writing and working for my university’s newspaper while I drafted stories and poems and novels in my spare time. I had a poster of Jack Kerouac on my university-bedroom wall, and had become at the age of 20 convinced of the transformative power of the creative arts. Whether in beholding the transcendent enthusiasm of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Allen Ginsberg, or William Wordsworth, my undergraduate education nurtured a profound faith that such creative expressions could fundamentally transform not only people’s individual identities, but society itself. It is this faith that has inspired me to help students develop this type of critical awareness and ability to communicate: to become the sort of person Apple founder Steve Jobs said could “put a dent in the universe” (Jobs & Sheff, 1985).

Even before I changed my major (from Biology to English), I was a scholarship athlete on my university’s track and field team, competing across the southern and midwestern states against the best middle distance runners in the NCAA. I waged a 10-year battle against the 800m, sweating and grinding tenths of a second from my best times every year from the ages of 14 to 22, and lived to test the boundary of not only my body, but my will. Every race stood as a new opportunity to create a greater effort than that I had previously achieved, where I might defeat an unbeatable rival, or set a lifetime best. Or not. Even when my efforts were unsuccessful, I was discovering The Line, my boundaries, or the limits that I would be trying to surpass the next time out. Having taken the better part of my twenties away from the sport of running, recent years have found me venturing for further and further runs and races in the localwatershed, and I am again developing the taste for exploration at the edge of my physical limitations. In doing so, I have reaffirmed for myself the faith in a process that I think ought be authentically modeled for students we are encouraging to practice the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us” and to engage in “an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

References

A Kernel is Hidden in me…

PM TALONS Photoset on Flickr 


Fresh from the PM TALONS’ fall retreat, I woke up Monday morning with a tweet from my colleague in Singapore, Jabiz Raisdana, inviting me and fellow writers, teachers and thinkers to run with a post he shared with his class of grade eights at UWC:

I would love to see these words transformed, re-thought and remixed into some kind of art project. I know there are some amazing musicians, writers and artists amongst you; do these words inspire you to draw, sing, create? This post is like Caine’s Arcade, in that I hope it moves you in some way to create. Consider it another seed that I have planted. I will wait patiently and hope that perhaps a few trees may grow.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hesse quote made a perfect union with some of the pictures I took while the TALONS were journaling on our three day jaunt through the British Columbian woods, where Jabiz’ own words had actually served as a meditating and writing prompt on Thursday afternoon. Before sending the group on a solo walk around the back half of Hicks Lake, I played the TALONS the first half of a song I wrote out of one of Jabiz’ poems and told them to “immerse oneself in the blossoming awareness of the moment,” and that we would meet up on the opposite shore where I would play them the second verse and we would settle ourselves to do a little writing (where I snapped the above pic).

That he would have a follow up quotation for us on Monday morning is unsurprising, of course, because this is the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from my online colleagues, these folks – some of whom, like Jabiz, I’ve never met face-to-face – who are here in our classroom from time to time whether on these blogs or in the local woods: teachers, students, learners, friends.

Theater of Wild

DSC02050 Theater of Wild by Bryanjack

The year before I graduated university, I spent six weeks working as an assistant aquatics director at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, in Arkansas. An internship component of an academic scholarship I had won the previous year, I spent that summer sleeping in a canvas tent under the watchful eye of the Airforce National Guard, who used to use our pool and lakes as laser-target practice for their C-130 bombers, and living immersed in the particular strain of Americana that spends its weekends and vacations marching to chanted troop slogans, saluting the flag and praying before meals.

I had been a transplanted Canadian in the south for three years, running on a track and field scholarship at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and had made a place for myself among the urban college scenes of Little Rock and Fayetteville, acquainted myself with Memphis, New Orleanes, and the dirty-vegas facsimile of Tunica, Mississippi. But this was my first prolonged excursion into the wilds outside of town, and after four years in Little Rock, quickly became what I still consider my southern home (I returned to the camp as Aquatics Director the following two summers).

The friends I made in those woods, and the things that the Quawpaw scouting community taught me about myself and the world and my fellow man were a culmination of my university education, and a perfect synthesis of my British Columbian and southern roots, where we would be swimming lengths before dawn in the mist of the pool, and watching heat lighting accompanied by the buzz of cicadas. It is all much more than I can hope to capture in words: a densely peopled time in my life that left such deep marks upon my heart and mind that without any deliberate effort the characters from these stories continue to create my daily life and living.

We’ve talked a lot in TALONS the last few weeks (or I have at least) about the Precious, an unspeakable love and adoration the classroom community passes in held hands and knowing glances, in laughter and tears, a bond and affinity that stems from a flowering seam of wilderness and wild that the Gus Blass Scout Reservation helped light in me those many years ago now, and which I will never forget.