Catharsis

aristotle

“Catharsis (from Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’) is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.” – Wikipedia

“Exercising with unusual vigor while you are enraged or emotionally distraught could be dangerous for your heart, according to a cautionary new study of the types of events that may trigger heart attacks.”

“The results indicate that, individually, both strenuous workouts and emotional upheaval increase the likelihood of cardiac arrest, but the risk is greatest if you combine them. The study does not prove, though, that running or otherwise sweating while mad is always inadvisable, only that some workouts and some emotions don’t mix well.” – Gretchen Reynolds, writing in the New York Times (“Think it’s cathartic to run angry? Think again“)

Oh, you New York Times, you paternalistic purveyor of pseudo-science, why have you made it your mission to embrace the running life like a boa constrictor, cutting off its circulation in a desperate attempt to increase yours?

Oh, Health and Wellness blog, why do you extol the virtues of running less, of substituting a few minutes of high-intensity training for hours of low-intensity jogging, of magic workouts for busy people?

Oh, Gretchen Reynolds, why do you choose such good topics but take such a narrow view of them? Why do I wait in vain for you to admit that running is actually, you know, meaningful — enriching our lives in ways that aren’t in the end reducible to a peer-reviewed study of medical risks and benefits?

Catharsis? Let’s talk about catharsis. Let’s talk about the hours every day I sit at my desk staring at my screen, batting emails back and forth in a complicated but pointless game of action-item tag; let’s talk about another reorganization, another mission statement, another new boss; let’s talk about conference calls with folks in Germany or Korea or China or Seattle, at all hours, with people I’ve never met, and with whom I am supposed to collaborate or inform or learn from. Maybe extroverts thrive on this stuff, but it drives me mad, or would if I didn’t have the chance to escape into a world of patient, persistent movement forward.

Let’s talk about the feelings of horror and disgust engendered by a toxic political environment and an election process that whips us into a frenzy of anger and suspense, and promises resolution but offers none, only an endless reality show that begins with us looking down on the participants as they wallow, and ends up with us in the mud with them? Thank goodness for the chance to escape into the solitude and quiet of a long run through a non-political October landscape.

Let’s talk about the personal angst, the slow but inevitable realization that time is passing you by, that you’re not a kid anymore, that you don’t have the energy or the will to pursue all of your dreams, that you continue to make the same mistakes, hesitate at the same moments, speak — or fail to speak — the same nonsense. Let’s talk about the loves lost and squandered, the gnawing feeling of discontent with yourself and those around you.

I don’t know about you, New York Times, but I would rather face life’s hundred thousand aggravations and indignities knowing that, like yesterday, I can run away from them for a time by literally running until they become insignificant. I would rather deal with the wonderfully practical problems of breathing and locomotion than with the insoluble dilemmas of work, home, school, and society.

And if seeking catharsis through running puts me at risk, I will tell you that I was already at risk — at risk from a life unrelieved by the benefits and satisfactions that running brings.

This study of which you write — I notice that it only looked at those who had already suffered a heart attack. Does that strike you as perverse in any way? Does it occur to you that a comprehensive study would need to include also those who avoided heart attacks with the help of regular stress-releasing bouts of aerobic exercise?

But no… I know what the study is suggesting. I get it. Adding stress to stress, intense exercise to anger, generates a higher level of risk, at least looking backward in the cases of those who have suffered heart attacks. But going back to Aristotle, the idea of catharsis is that art (or running) has the power to cleanse the body and mind of emotions that are destructive, allowing us to return to a normal and healthy state.

Sometimes the running we need is intense. Sometimes it’s long and slow. It sounds pretentious to say it, but there really is an art to incorporating running into your life in a way that it enhances everything else in your life, and doesn’t make you useless for anything else. And that’s why I really, really hate it when you, New York Times, publish some article touting a breakthrough workout or fad training plan that’s supposed to convey all of these benefits with an investment of a few minutes a week. It never works that way. It’s always a process of mutual adaptation, and if you’re lucky, running becomes that essential thing in your life, that practice that’s there when you need it but doesn’t always hector you about how many miles you’ve logged this week.

Yesterday I ran ten miles in the woods, and when I was done, I was happy and content. Not only had I stopped worrying about what I would write in the blog, I had stopped fuming about  your article. I was tired and hungry, but at peace.

Thanks, New York Times, I feel better getting that off my chest.

 

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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4 Responses to Catharsis

  1. Kevin says:

    I like this version of Jon with an edge… I predict after the election though, he’ll be back waxing poetic about running the trails through the New England countryside.

  2. Jon Waldron says:

    Kevin, I know you just can’t wait to hear more about high school cross country.
    Hope to see you on the trails soon.

  3. Terry says:

    The edgy Waldron sounds like a running Jon Stewart taking on the smug bloated egos at the NY Times and on the campaign trail. Great stuff. Thanks for the read and great to see you posting again!

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