The Runner: In Isolation?

Previously I talked about how, for me, running is a very solitary experience. A lot of good can come from this solitude, from the opportunity to let ourselves be, removed from the regular pressures and distractions of other voices. It is a time in which we can be alone with ourselves, within ourselves, and so turn to this inner life, the inner self, and explore its depth and beauty.

And yet, for the most part, when we run we are not alone. There are exceptions to this- perhaps if you are running on a completely secluded and deserted path, or if you happen to have a treadmill in your house and lock the door (I don’t personally like treadmills, but that is a different story for a different time). However, I don’t think there has been a single occasion in the last couple months when I have gone running and not encountered another person. By this, I don’t mean I’ve run into someone that I know (I have only met a familiar face, in the midst of all my sweaty, heavily panting glory, a small handful of times). Rather, I run past people- strangers– sharing the same path as me. Sometimes I also run on the sidewalk alongside the road and in such cases, cars (presumably filled with people: perhaps strange, perhaps familiar) pass me by.

Although I may be in my own private space of inner solitude and reflection, I am not physically alone. So what is the proper response when one runs by a stranger? I confess that I often feel uncertain, and often in the moment do not know what to do. You might say that there is nothing to do, that such a situation is not really a situation at all. In truth, no matter how I “respond” as I pass another person on the path, it likely won’t have any lasting impact on my life or the life of the other person. But this (the outcome) is not (or should not be) the standard by which we label something as good or worth doing. And besides, we are talking here about visible impact, while the little moments that are seemingly meaningless are often the ones that can change hearts and minds in ways we may not see or understand, and yet are immeasurably important.

I am a frequent avoider of eye contact. Instead of looking up when someone else is coming by me, I often look down, I look away, I refrain from looking closely at the person. Part of this response stems from insecurity and part of it stems, I think, from our culture’s overemphasis on individuality. The insecurity becomes an influencing factor when we think (consciously or subconsciously), “What will this person think of me? If I look at them, if I smile or say hello, will they accept my offering or will they reject it, and in doing so, reject me? How do I look to them? Am I good enough, in their eyes and in my own?” This not only gives too much power to the other person, but also directs too much of our internal energy towards ourselves instead of to the other and to the moment itself.

Secondly, I mentioned an overemphasis on individuality. I think this glorification of the individual, which is shouted at us from the cultural rooftops and proudly proclaimed from the media’s waving flags, can limit us. It is something we have internalized and that in turn can change our views of ourselves and of our relationship to other people. If our freedom (not true Freedom but the freedom to choose and have complete independence from the needs of those around us) becomes the highest concern and greatest good, we begin to cherish and jealously guard our isolation. Solitude and solitariness are good and they are necessary, but they go too far when they cut us off from others, not only in our actions and words but in our thoughts. We ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” instead of being open and willing to give of ourselves and reach out to the other, even when it is not strictly necessary.

Is all this really relevant when it comes to the issue of eye contact? I think so, because our openness to look at and welcome another, even if only with a passing glance or smile, opens us up to a greater willingness and desire (rather than fear) to commune with and reach out to other people. It is not in the magnitude of the act itself (which in this case is very small) but in the willingness to extend ourselves outside of our own individual spheres in order to recognize another person’s uniqueness and beauty.

Although it is something so simple, I think it can be very profound, as many simple truths are. We never know the impact a smile, friendly look or kind word could have, and yet I think each one helps us to grow a little more in this openness to communion, and to appreciate the equal dignity, value and beauty of each person, no matter how long or how significantly they may figure into our lives.