Keep Coming Back

One of my running buddies, Ron, is snarky, curmudgeonly, sarcastic, and grumpy. On a good day. Ron has a bitter view of the world and agrees with Snoopy, Charles Schultz's philosopher beagle, who said, "I love humanity; it's the people I can't stand." Ron looks for the darker motivations of a person's actions and can always be counted on to explain a seemingly altruistic act as one of selfishness or self deception.

But these qualities aren't the only reasons we're so fond of him.

Because Ron also has a wonderfully analytical brain and "gets it," sometimes after only a decade or two of intense thinking about an issue. For example, after our five-mile plod down to Matheson Hammock yesterday, I asked Ron what he had learned from our morning run.

"What do you mean 'learned'?" he asked guardedly.

"Well, you've run 16 marathons..." I began.

"Actually, 17," Ron corrected.

"And have put in enough miles over the years so that--had you been more organized--you could have run around the earth at the equator."

"Does this story have a point or should I just find a sharp stick to put in my eye?" Ron asked.

"I want to know what you learned from the run this morning," I continued. "I'm writing a blog post about two different kinds of learning and I want to know what you learned from this morning's run."

"I didn't learn anything today, you bubble head," Ron lamented. "Before you joined the group, I ran with Lucy.* What could I possibly learn from miles 30,000 to 30,005? (Ron is in the 60 - 64 age group, the one above mine. He has been running for close to 40 years. Runners don't have birthdays; we just move up in age category.)

"Then why did you get up this morning at 5:30 and come out and run?"

"What am I supposed to learn? To alternate my left foot with my right rather than hop?" Ron thought for a moment then continued, "I know how to run. I guess I'm here because the only thing worse than getting up at oh dark hundred, losing a pint of blood to these rabid mosquitoes, listening to your horrible jokes, and sweating in this jungle would be not doing it."

"Ah," I said. "Then what we have here is experiential learning. Because no matter how many times you've done it, you still have to keep doing it."

***

Which brings me--"finally" you might say--to the point of this essay: Why do successful alcoholics, those in recovery, keep going to meetings? Why do they flock to those Tuesday night at 7:00 pm or that Friday lunch time meeting every single week, week in, week out, for 27 years? Don't they "get it"? Don't they know that the secret is JUST NOT TO DRINK? What more could there be to learn? What is left in the "curriculum"? What possible phrase could there be, what new insight, what novel idea that could be helpful to someone who has been in recovery over half of his life?

"One is too many; a hundred is not enough" is pithy, but hardly new information to the recovering alcoholic. If I drink, I know for a fact that I will end up, sooner rather than later, in a bad place. Duh. I "learned" that bit of breaking news when I ended up in the back of a police car with no idea how I got there. Twenty seven years ago.

Covered with vomit, 36 hours gone from my memory, waking up in the back of a police car. Not an event I'm likely to forget.

But I have to keep going to meetings just the same. Just like Ron and I have to get up and run.

***

Learning the Pythagorean Theorem is a different kind of learning. A student does enough examples and, over the course of a few math classes, the student "gets" the business with right triangles. For all the eloquence of this fundamental relationship between the sides of a triangle, for all the hundreds of magnificent proofs that the square of the hypotenuse does indeed equal the sum of the squares of the other two sides, there's nothing "new" about the Pythagorean Theorem. Once you've got it, you don't have to get up at five in the morning and go sweat in a swamp.

You certainly don't have to spend every Tuesday evening for 27 years going to Pythagoras Anonymous meetings.

***

There's nothing "new" to learn about running after all those miles. What the heck is going to be different tomorrow morning? A new pair of shoes? A new stride? Oh, wait, here's an idea: maybe it'll be hot and muggy this summer in Miami. No, never mind. It's been hot and muggy every day that Ron and I have run. Every run is the same.

Years ago, it was different. On a given Saturday morning, we might run father or faster than we ever had before. There was something magical about that. Of course Ron and I remember our first marathon from 1980. Magnificent. Transplendent. Nothing like it. But that was a long time ago. We acknowledge that we will never run that far or that fast again; we're OK with that. We have to be.

The same holds true for sobriety. The first day is great--wonderfully exciting, filled with the fresh promise of a life without the backs of police cars. The second day is also awesome; the future is bright. So is the third sober day. But the 143rd day of sobriety can be dull; the 364th day can be perilous; the 700th day can be the one where the recovering alcoholic can say, "Aw, the heck with it" and think about making a slip. Just like we have to be committed to running because the only thing worse is not running so too do alcoholics in recovery have to be committed to sobriety every day because the alternative is worse.

***

Maybe there's a difference between that which is learned with the head--triangles--and that which can only be learned with the heart--sobriety--among other more important and more visceral lessons.

Something to be said for that, I hope even Ron would agree.

* Explanation for obscure reference: Lucy, an Australopithecine whose fossilized skeleton was unearthed by Donald Johanson and his team in 1974, lived in what is now Ethiopia some two and a half million years ago.

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