The most human humans are athletes. This is something that was suggested by P.H. Mullen in his book Gold in the Water.
It resonated with me, not because I agree but because I’ve often thought about what makes people more human than others.
In my utopian bias, I liken being “more human” to being more kind, to being more compassionate, to having the ability to transcend sympathy and to, instead, empathize with others and their collective plights.
It’s probably why I supported the movement in the late 1990s by medical schools to encourage their applicants to earn degrees in English. Such a degree would require them to read volumes of literature. The literature would help make them more empathic. That empathy would provide them with a better bedside manner which would, eventually, make them better doctors . . . better healers.
So when Mullen made his observation about athletes being the most human humans, it gave me pause. What distinguishes humans from other life forms? And what might it mean to be more human?
They say paradox is truth. In other words, to reveal the true breadth of something, we must bear witness to the entire spectrum. The good. The bad. The wonder. The fall.
I suppose this is where Mullen may be onto something. Athletes provide themselves with an opportunity to experience the full-range of emotions, and many athletes do this two, three, even four times daily.
I think back to yesterday’s 11-mile training run. It began with apprehension and doubt (as I drove to the trails, still recovering from a hard swim session). Then there was fear (I’ve developed a little niggle in my left glute. Will this run make it better or worse?). Then there’s the moment when you confront your fear, exit the truck, insert your earbuds, and blast a little bit of confidence and reassurance into your body. The fear is ever present, but it flirts with hope. You press Start on your watch, and your cadence is heavy but fluid.
Belief begins to peek its head around the corner. You can see it, and your posture straightens. You loosen up your arms. There are still remnants of fear, of fragility. But you’re now remembering what it feels like to feel good. Strong. Powerful.
You’re on the trail now. You see Sal and Liz on their daily walk. (Liz carried the Olympic Torch in Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympic Games). You smile. They smile back. You are in your element. You belong.
There is familiarity on the trail. Ritual. These are the players. This is the battle.
You feel invincible. But it’s fleeting. Soon you hurt. You doubt. But you also deny. It’s this denial that keeps you pushing forward until renewal returns with the hard chant, “Just one more loop”.
You complete the loop. You’ve done 8.5 miles, but now you must continue running to the track where a new fear is lying in wait. There is dread. Doubt. The vicious and wonderful cycle begins again until you finish. There is euphoria. You have emerged victorious.
And it is a private victory. There is no finishing chute. No on-course photographer. No helicopter beating the air from above. But you did something in the last 90 minutes that can’t be bought. You endured something that can’t be purchased. You gained things that can never be taken away from you . . . until your next session tomorrow.
And thus the athlete, who traverses this emotional seismograph, who does it daily . . . the athlete may be getting more exposure to the emotions that truly make us human — the emotions, whether good or bad, that give us reasons to celebrate who and what we are.
I realized that running strips you down to the bare essentials and exposes all that is good, bad and ugly within. There is nothing left to hide and that’s when true empathy begins.
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