Travel and Running: the most self-affirming things I know

All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why. – James Thurber

Travel and running, I find, are exhilarating. And lately I’ve been thinking about why. I attribute so many positive emotions to both activities, and more interestingly, I wonder why I associate them so strongly with one another. My conclusion? Both travel (especially of the roughing-it, backpacking sort) and running have an incredible capacity for self-affirmation.

What do I mean by that? Well, there are few other activities where the boundaries of your physical self are so defined and focused. Imagine sitting in your home or visiting your hometown. In your home, for example, you have your books and clothes and furniture and all the other items in life that you are responsible for and attached to you as property. In your hometown you have rich memories and social ties to people and places. In these cases, your boundaries of self seem to extend beyond your physical person. Your “circle of caring” goes beyond your body, beyond your immediate physical sphere, and instead encompasses a larger and more complex area. This extended sphere contains many pieces and contours, often shaping a landscape beyond your front door to cover your neighborhood, city, or even country. Especially when you care very much about your home, both your abode and the general environment and culture you live in, then your sense of ownership or stakeholdership is very real and external to your body. In this sense, your self is greater than the physical terminations of your body, and your psyche expands to mirror this stretched self.

Compare this experience with travel or running. When you’re traveling, you are limited firstly by the amount of physical property that falls into your immediate responsibility. You may have a backpack or suitcase and a few other items of value. But by virtue of travel, these objects are often compact and mobile, making your circle of caring more focused. Add to that the very obvious aspect of travel, namely encountering a new and changing environment, and you have a combination that is incredibly self-affirming. Frequently on the journey you will have to ask: ok, do I have everything? Wallet, phone, suitcase, check. The mental list of physical property is much much much shorter than when you’re at home; while traveling, the list is almost always exhaustive. In one breath you can say you have everything. Your physical sphere is agile and compact, whole and affirming.

While traveling, there is also the important psychological factor of processing new places, people, and customs. In encountering new things, you conduct numerous internal negotiations. Am I familiar with this? How does this relate to what I know? Do I like this or not? And each one of these negotiations, whether positive or negative, adds a layer of certainly and definition to your self. This is me, and this is not me.

I often experience the same sensation while running. And notably, it is usually more physically pronounced than in travel. When running, or in similar athletic activities, you have an acute awareness of where your body begins and ends. When your mind says go!, only a limited part of your self can travel with it. All the limbs and appendages and organs are on for the ride — but not your books or bills or heaps of dirty laundry. What’s more, you are moving through changing environments and negotiating the terrain. And all the while, you are aware of where you begin and end, what is you and what is not you. It is this unfolding yet focused experience of knowing that I find so thrilling and assuring. That’s why I hope to run for the rest of my life, and better yet, I want to run while traveling, exploring new landscapes and every moment know where I begin and end, and be affirmed by the knowledge of what is greater than me and what is contained in me.

What about you? Do you experience similar feelings, and if so, how do you find them?

Image: A Brand New Day by Thomas Hawk / CC BY-NC 2.0

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