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I am a morning person. By that, I mean that I reserve my most full-bodied existential crises for 5 a.m. Running? Strive and strive only to end up where we started (if a bear doesn’t eat you after the turnaround). Writing? On the internet, the best and the worst are all gone by tomorrow and it’s onto the next deadline (if you don’t get cancelled first). Parentheses? Punctuation for people who don’t understand commas (I blame my English teacher).
Maybe you’re a night person. The midnight ceiling asks many questions, and most of the answers are, “Actually, it doesn’t matter.”
Or maybe you like those early afternoon mental walls. Logging into your email account, seeing yet another pointless message marked “urgent,” it’s clear that we all got 99 problems and certainty about existence ain’t one.
Damn, that’s a depressing intro. Particularly for a guy that is most known for exclamation points and saying that YOU ARE AWESOME with all-caps that have eroded away my shift key. But I just want to be clear that if you have these big, unanswered questions about how you get through the day, you are not alone. That’s the whole message right there. The corollary of YOU ARE AWESOME is that AWESOME is a construct of a brain grasping for meaning while spinning on a rock in an infinite universe.
But I just want to be clear that if you have these big, unanswered questions about how you get through the day, you are not alone. That’s the whole message right there. The corollary of YOU ARE AWESOME is that AWESOME is a construct of a brain grasping for meaning while spinning on a rock in an infinite universe.
The reason I’m writing this article today is because of a question I received from one of my favorite athletes and friends. It’s complicated (isn’t it always?), but the basic takeaway is a question we probably all ask sometimes.
Why should you care about running?
Coaching is my livelihood, and sometimes at 5 a.m., I still struggle with that question. My most vivid memories of mini-existential crises involve race mornings at random Motel 6s in random towns. Sipping instant coffee and staring off into space, “why” can often return the sound of crickets. Or maybe those crickets were just cohabitating with me in the Motel 6.
So even the guy that does this for a living and thinks you all are awesome with a side of amazeballs doesn’t feel 100-percent secure with “why” all the time. My wife and I wrote a book with a whole chapter called “Knowing Your Why” (read that for practical suggestions). We read every philosophical thinker on the subject we can. And those crickets are still there sometimes.
If you have those same feelings, it doesn’t make you mentally weak, or a wuss. It probably means you are thinking about life and existence, putting yourself out there and being vulnerable.
Basically every philosophical and spiritual framework gets at the big “why” questions, which is comforting in its own way. Buddha’s wisdom about the cosmic joke explains why so many of the statues are smiling. Jesus’ loving trust in God and fellow humans is a warm hug on a cold night. The Stoics’ desire to let go of attachment takes some of the edge off. And even the nihilistic rejections of meaning are liberating in their own way. I could go on all day, as long as Wikipedia’s servers don’t crash.
Buddha’s wisdom about the cosmic joke explains why so many of the statues are smiling. Jesus’ loving trust in God and fellow humans is a warm hug on a cold night. The Stoics’ desire to let go of attachment takes some of the edge off. And even the nihilistic rejections of meaning are liberating in their own way. I could go on all day, as long as Wikipedia’s servers don’t crash.
Those same questions lead to art, I guess. Comedy, rap, musicals, writing—lots of people way smarter than I have written about how they’re creative expressions of the statement: “Here’s how I experience this whole life thing. Maybe it will make sense to you, too.”
I don’t know anything about that stuff, because I’m just a running coach with a janky shift key. But I do know with 100-percent certainty that I have no definite answer to the question the athlete asked, as much as I want to (at the very least, it would sell more books). I wish I had enough faith in something to be certain of anything.
I just don’t know. THAT IS NOT AWESOME.
And I’m resigned to the idea that I will never know for sure. So when the athlete asks that big question, I hear the crickets screaming, just channeled to something we do (running) rather than something we are (human). That’s human ethics and philosophy in a nutshell, a bunch of different questions spurred by one big question.
As the ethicist Chidi said in the amazing show The Good Place, “Michael is having an existential crisis. It’s a sort of anguish people go through when they contemplate the silent indifference of our empty universe. Look, the good news is, if he can work through this, it’s the first step towards understanding human ethics.”
Non-ethicist Eleanor: “And if he can’t?”
“Well, then, he’ll be a lifeless shell of misery forever and we’re all doomed.”
Eleanor expands in a later scene. “All humans are aware of death … so we’re all a little bit sad.” A few lines of dialogue go by. “And if you try to ignore your sadness, it just ends up leaking out of you anyway. I’ve been there— everybody’s been there. So don’t fight it. And in the words of very wise Bed, Bath and Beyond employee I once knew, ‘Go ahead and cry all you want, but you’re going to have to pay for that toilet plunger.’”
When I was a kid thinking about this stuff for the first time, I didn’t have The Good Place or a deep connection with a specific faith, so I was desperate and impressionable when I read a couple quotes from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country. I actually wanted to make them the inscription of our book, before realizing that I didn’t know how Vonnegut felt about hill strides. Those two quotes:
“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
So that’s where I am now.
My background human sadness is salved just a bit by love, community, and farting around. Running to me is all those things. But especially farting around.
To the athlete that asked the big question: I have no idea what that answer will look like to you. No clue what it should look like. Certainly no inkling of whether there is an answer at all.
I was listening to a podcast with comedian Pete Holmes talking to Billy Eichner about the meaning of life, and Buddhist Jack Kornfield was quoted. There has never been a more apt description of my understanding of these topics than a game of podcast telephone with two comedians talking about Buddhism. But that quote struck the same chord as Vonnegut did decades ago:
“What would love have me do today?”
Like a producer really feeling a beat in the studio, I rewound that part and turned up the headphones. That is my stuff right there! It’s one of those questions spurred by the one big question that gets to the point, at least for my unique blend of lifelong introspection and self-conscious ignorance. What would love have you do today?
I think love points first toward the important stuff. Racial justice (Black lives matter), gender equality, equal rights, making sure our lines of empathy go beyond our personal connections, trying to support other people going through the same confusing journey no matter what their backgrounds or perspectives. Therapy, mental-health awareness. Lifting people up with unconditional support, not crapping on other people and their feelings/beliefs, etc.
When it comes to running, where does love guide you? Consider the tough times of injury and regression alongside the effortlessly transcendent moments. There’s no right answer.
Now to the less important stuff. When it comes to running, where does love guide you? Consider the tough times of injury and regression alongside the effortlessly transcendent moments. There’s no right answer. Running is not inherently a good or needed thing for every person. And your personal answer can change over time. Or you can have a different ethical framework altogether.
For me, running has helped me be more self-accepting, giving myself the love needed to start a fission reaction where the love I have to give can multiply exponentially. Or not. It’s all a story I’m telling myself at the end of the day. I’m going to keep doing it though, until I can’t anymore. Because at least for my brain, there are infinitely more answers on the run than I can find doing most other things.
Maybe your answer will be totally different. Or maybe you don’t have time for this navel-gazing exercise. Or maybe you have certainty to the big questions, in which case your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
I have no idea how to conclude this article.
Basically, I just want you to know that it’s normal and OK if you’re struggling with the big questions sometimes. Talk about it if you can, from family to friends to mental health professionals to spiritual guides to Motel 6 crickets. There is a lot of warmth to be found in huddling together against the cold, dark night.
I guess I’ll end with a self-affirmation. I am a running coach, and I’m not sure why (or if) you should run. Yet I wrote an article about it. Talk about using my time on Earth to fart around!
In conclusion, YOU ARE AWESOME, and we’re in this together. Even if we’re not really sure what “AWESOME” is. Especially if we’re not sure what “this” is.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.