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The Anxiety of the Runner: Terminal Helplessness

by D. William Faupel

D. William Faupel is director of library services at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Before joining the Episcopal Church he was a licensed minister in the Assemblies of God. This article appeared in the Christian Century Aug. 29-September 5, 1979, p. 821. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


I have been a noontime runner for more than a dozen years. A decade ago I was a lonely figure on the campus track. But now, when the weather closes in and the geriatric jocks gather in the fieldhouse, I can count at least a hundred people at any one time between 11 o’clock and 12: 30, busy with the various stages of their exercise. The once-quiet woods now gallop with activity on fine fall days; on one football-less Saturday, more than 1,200 of us put on our Frank Shorter T-shirts and ran ten kilometers through the streets of East Lansing in times ranging from world class to plain ridiculous.

Apparently, those of us who run do not all do it for the same reasons. Some are competitors, steadily increasing time and distance, entering races where runners can really hurt themselves, and reading Runner’s World. Others are pure health freaks who never run any farther or faster, keep to the indoor track even when the sun shines, and talk about heartbeat rates and studies of longevity among runners. It seems that my crowd runs partly as an escape from the pressures of life. We’re the ones for whom the change into ritual clothing, the pain of running, and the shower of cleansing constitute a daily rebaptism into newness of life. For us, the time spent running is time no one else has a claim on, and the rewards are similar to those of prayer and contemplation. Indeed, such exercise may constitute a secular pietism.

I

At one time the division of runners into competitors, health nuts, and quiet time seekers satisfied my need to analyze the motivation for an activity that I engage in almost every working day. Recently, however, two tasks have opened up to me a deeper level of motivation. One project was to read and classify the responses of women runners to a questionnaire. The second was an analysis of my own daydreams, especially those that cluster about the act of running. I discovered through these efforts a more profound explanation for the phenomenon of the jogger in modern society, one that discloses another angst to place alongside Paul Tillich’s listing of the anxieties of death, guilt and meaninglessness, and psychologist J. F. T. Bugental’s addition of the anxiety of loneliness.

It was the questionnaire that first set me thinking. A woman runner and I, planning an article for a university publication about the growing number of women runners, devised a set of questions that probed for motivation. Some of the answers were ones we expected -- they testified to the sense of well-being that comes from a regular running program:

I like it when people make over me a lot because I run two miles a day.

Things never go right the rest of the day if I don’t run.

I know that if I can run a mile a day I can also . . . [fill in the blank with everything from “lose 50 pounds” to “live without my husband”].

It’s the only thing I do that’s all mine.

I was so fat and out of shape.

The other motivation -- the one that set me thinking afresh -- was one expressed in one way or another by 19 of the 20 women who responded to the survey: “I am going to run until I can’t put one foot in front of another, and then I’ll be dead. No geriatrics ward for me.

What these women were articulating was the hope that running will save them from a state of helplessness. Incapacity at life’s end is the new anxiety that modern medical technology has given Western society, and I am convinced that running has gained so many converts in recent years because people hope to guarantee that their bodies will not slowly decay in a modern convalescent home. Runners want to remain active and independent until they die. Hidden somewhere in the pursuit of regular exercise is the notion that if one keeps moving, one will never be caught in the wires and tubes and sterile unprivacy that the aged suffer today.

II

Let me describe the running phenomenon itself by borrowing Suzanne Langer’s “tension-act-release” curve.

Many noontime runners begin their working day by planning their daily run. If it appears that the way is clear, that no luncheon appointments or meetings will interfere, then all is well. Runners forget the advent hour of pleasure pain and do the work set before them. But let a conflict appear, and a cloud obscures the sun. Sometimes one can work around it by rearranging the hour of exercise. But when necessity simply allows no free time the runner works less enthusiastically, participates in luncheons and meetings grudgingly, and gains a reputation for obduracy. A colleague once snapped at a friend of mine: “You’d be department chairman if you’d quit running!”

The “trigger” that signals the reappearance of tension will vary. For the secretary it may be the approach of noon; for the faculty member, the end of a class or advising time. Something signals, and the attention turns to the track even if other activities intervene. I have no idea how morning runners can arise from slumber and immediately begin to run, though Annalies Knoppers, Michigan State University’s volleyball coach and a daily 13-miler, argues that the need to run is tension enough. If morning joggers miss their miles, she says, tension is the result. For the new runner, a fresh decision often requires recollection of the original motivation -- perhaps the remark of a friend or spouse about the need to lose weight. I used to recall the pain and humiliation of hitting a home run in a softball game, only to be so crippled by the dash-around the bases that I couldn’t return to center field next inning. I quit softball and started to run.

The motions that follow may differ, but each person goes through a pattern during which tension grows. A typical agenda would require traveling to the site of action, changing into ritual clothing, entering the place of exercise, doing calisthenics, and talking with others about the projected run.

My daydreams during this stage are of two kinds that have in common only that they are self-regarding or self-praising. The first usually centers on several unpublished books I have written (theological mystery thrillers!), and the scenarios always include publication instant adulation, and generous remuneration. The second fantasy is more significant: I have retired from university teaching (but still write best sellers, of course), and have become pastor of a rural church. Sometimes the setting is Scotland. There, because of my engaging personality, mature wisdom and natural genius (with God’s grace as an afterthought), the church flourishes mightily. The whole community finds a home there. As my due reward, I am asked to give lectures at seminaries -- lectures in which I tell the professors what’s wrong with theological education today.

These two fantasies I entertain while walking or biking to the fieldhouse. The first is mere wishful thinking, though it surely responds to the anxiety of death and the desire to create something to outlive me. But the second reveals my hope of remaining vital and active even in advanced age. In that daydream, I write, preach, learn to play the piano, give tennis lessons, and much else -- and always I continue to run. Rarely, death-thoughts arise: death always comes with an auto sending this aged but still jogging carcass hurtling to its end.

III

The act of running itself is the simplest of the three stages. To the aging competitor, time and distance are important; to the health-centered and quiet time runner, they mean less. But for any runner, a forced lay-off from running is agony; the anxiety of helplessness insistently whispers its message of “time-is-passing” and “the-body-is-aging.”

Why one person is satisfied to run a mile in ten minutes and another must run 13 miles at an eight-minute pace -- such mysteries are lost in the unconscious. But that labyrinth is also where the sibilant voice of anxiety insinuates. And it must he quieted before the course can he finished, even at some risk or at great inconvenience. Runners often prolong simple respiratory infections because they refuse to take a week off. Minor foot and muscle injuries cripple runners whose determination not to quit overstrains their ligaments. It is this anxious voice grown demonic in intensity that transforms casual joggers into fanatics who can’t stop until they have run ten miles a day. Tillich was right: the demons take our anxieties and magnify them into raging psychic needs whose feeding threatens our sanity.

My fantasy during the act of running is always the same. In real life I have four daughters. But in the midrun fantasy I have an adopted son. He is a fantastic athlete -- unbeatable at any sport -- and he always wins an Olympic gold medal in the 1,500-meter run. Now, of course, a son means a kind of immortality. But this son has a living father, who, though old in years, is young in heart, in stride and in accomplishment. If the daydream of the son quiets the anxiety of death, the presence of the father who shares in his victory quiets the modern anxiety of terminal helplessness.

The third stage in the act of running, that of satiety, needs little comment. Seldom are there daydreams. Instead, there is the rebaptism of the shower -- a reward well deserved and gladly received, except by the puritan few who take it icy cold. Secular clothes are donned, and I find myself no longer fantasizing. My mind is free to plan. I plot lecture outlines, study committee responsibilities -- in short, I am free of anxiety and able to enter refreshed into real life. My imagination, now free of self-aggrandizing and self-preserving daydreams, is released to cope with the rest of my life.

One runner I know has said: “I’m going to run till I’m 90. If the weather is bad on my last day, I’ll collapse and die on the indoor track. Don’t let anyone try to keep me alive, Fred. Just take a push-broom and shove me off the running surface. Then, when you’ve finished your run, call the coroner.”

A second runner related to me a dream in which he has reached advanced years and is killed in an accident. A surgeon is handed his heart on a tray so it can replace the diseased heart of a younger person. As the cardiac specialist picks up my friend’s heart, he looks at it, whistles admiringly, and says, “What a beauty. Too bad the youngster who had this is dead.”

From my own study of the Tillichian anxieties of death, guilt and meaninglessness, I am convinced that death is the deepest-rooted, the basic anxiety. But, as Tillich saw, cultural presumptions and pressures heighten other anxieties and give them warped significance. He showed why the guilt anxiety prevailed at the time of the Reformation, and he confronted brilliantly the anxiety of meaninglessness in post -- World War culture. Our ancestors scarcely knew the anxiety of terminal helplessness, at least in its present form. When illness laid them low in their advanced years, pneumonia quickly finished them off. But we today know that we could live for years lying in a hospital bed. Thanks to penicillin and the turning of comatose patients in their beds, people may sleep a score of years and never know their surroundings. Millions languish in homes for the aged, their minds and spirits exhausted but their bodies helpless to die.

I do not believe that the tap-root anxiety, the anxiety of death, is dealt with by running. The geriatric jogger is not engaged in what Ernest Becker called “an immortality project,” because that anxiety surfaces early in life and is handled more or less adequately in other ways. (One of those “projects,” by the way, is the publication of books and articles that will outlive the author.)

But the anxiety of living death, of helplessness, pervades civilized societies today. Running is a scientifically approved way of extending life; runners, however, do not so much want to gain an extension as they want to ensure mobility until death comes. “I’ll run until I drop,” one woman wrote in her questionnaire. Running, as a secular salvation that works no better than other secular saviors, poses questions for the ethicist, the theologian and the student of religion and modern culture, but especially for the pastor and church member. The church as a community of believers bears a special responsibility in addressing the anxiety of terminal helplessness.

IV

The individual who lives outside of a caring community is powerless to face the reality of terminal helplessness in any way other than suicide. My own two or three-mile run along the banks of the Red Cedar River will someday become a ten-foot shuffle from bed to bathroom with an attendant’s hand supporting me, unless I determine to stumble into the river some day and drown.

Only community responds adequately to terminal helplessness. The Armenian and Chaldean ethnic communities in Detroit are known never to allow their aged to be taken into institutional care. Death for them is an “at home” event whenever possible. The concept of a hospice for the dying -- especially those dying of cancer -- is also essentially a community idea. The hospice staff members give patients medication to ward off pain, give people some choices in their struggle to live through their death, and surround them with the persons and accouterments of home.

My father died summer before last. An apparently healthy man in his late 70s who had taken care of my bedfast mother through the half-decade of her decline and death, he had spent a busy day with me and my family. We had taken him on a short trip to renew our acquaintance with the hamlet where my mother grew up. Then we had shared dinner with my sister’s family and turned on the television to watch the Cincinnati Reds get trampled. My father never cared who won baseball games, but he cheered mightily when Pete Rose and company lost. So we all went to bed happy. The next morning when I went to awaken him, I found -- to borrow my mother’s language -- that “the Lord had called him during the night.” It was a happy death, for he never experienced what millions of the elderly go through, that living death of helpless inactivity as medical miracles and institutional care prolong their existence. That night as I tried to sleep, I thought of my running and of my need to keep moving. I knew at once that the effort was hopeless. I can only pray for a death like my father’s; I cannot guarantee it. I can only watch myself carefully until I see the signs and then put an end to my life. Or I can find a community that will allow me to die and help me as I prepare to be with the Lord.

V

Paul Tillich, in his classic study of existential anxiety, does not seem to realize the paralysis of this kind of helplessness. He subsumes the “anxiety of powerlessness” under its more powerful companion, the “anxiety of death.” But by lumping powerlessness with death, Tillich fails to treat it with the care he gives the anxieties of guilt and meaninglessness. I believe that death should be singled out as the generic root of all our disease. Following that, helplessness as a general anxiety, and terminal helplessness as a peculiarly modern case in point, need special focus.

But more important, Tillich does not treat any anxiety as if its primary antidote were to be found in community. Instead, corporate responses to anxiety are labeled as “courage to be as a part,” and one is warned against succumbing to “heteronomy” as an escape from anxiety. Certainly it is true that people have sought to avoid the persistent agonies of the human condition by losing themselves in some group or nation-state or ideology that promises health and meaning, while it destroys freedom. All this Tillich meant by heteronomy. Perhaps Tillich’s secular existentialist heroes, who exhibit the “courage to be as oneself,” do stand taller than any crowd, even a caring, life-enhancing one as the church can be. Whether such heroes help us much is a different thing. I think Tillich had no experience of real community. He lived through the collapse of German society after World War I, and taught as an exile in America most of his life. There is little evidence to be found in the section on the church in Tillich’s Systematic Theology, Volume III, that church-as-community (or Body of Christ) was real to him. My wife, Jean, who has read the spate of Tillich biographies, tells me that, except for his being rebuked for not attending chapel at Union Seminary, a worshiping community does not enter his life in America. In this, he is definitely a modern man. He is also of no help with the anxiety of terminal helplessness.

Certainly, the anxiety of death has been overcome for many by the church’s proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For many, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation has been overcome by the gospel declaration of pardon, usually made within the Body of Christ. The anxiety of meaninglessness, writes Tillich, can be overcome only by “the courage to accept acceptance.” Yet for most of us that acceptance is found first in human community, not in metaphysical pursuit of the “God beyond the God of Theism.” One can, of course, substitute other communities for the church, if within them human anxieties are accepted and confronted, and opportunity for meaningful sharing and response is afforded.

Of all human anxieties, the response to the anxiety of terminal helplessness is peculiarly community-bound. Yet ours is a time when community consciousness about the plight of the terminally helpless is uncertain, and ways of handling it are confused. Our age exalts youth and shunts the aged aside. I confess with shame that the sight of the very old or terminally ill fills me with dread. I dodge, sidestep -- do anything but confront those who bear in their fragile bodies my helpless future. I run! So our society with great relief allows the professionals to take dying out of our hands.

Until the time comes when church and synagogue can reaffirm a place in community for the aged and dying, suicide and suicide pacts have a “good sense” ring to them, even if they affront Christian theology. There are, to be sure, numerous church-sponsored homes for the aged that really are homes, not merely institutions for terminal care. Perhaps church-hospice arrangements can also humanize the last weeks of life that could otherwise be devoid of choices in convalescent homes for the aged and busy hospitals.

VI

I began with jogging and the daydreams that surround it; I end with a plea for community. The church must try to deal specifically with the environments of the terminally ill and the terminally aged. As hospices make their way into abandoned maternity and pediatrics wings of local hospitals, churches can push for their acceptance and church people can serve on boards of directors and aid in ministering to dying patients and their families.

Second, the whole problem of aging has to be rethought by churches that are determined to be the Body of Christ. It is a restatement of the obvious, but it is a fact that mainline churches cannot really ‘‘discern the Body” (I Corinthians) in our “speaker-audience” style of worship; nor can we take seriously our aged as part of the Body until they are as much a part of our church communities as puzzled parents, youthful rebels and businessmen. And that reality must be expressed and experienced first in public worship.

I suspect that these suggestions should be reversed. First, the pastor’s mentality and the service of public worship must be restructured so that all can discern that they are part of the body of Christ, regardless of age or health. Then extending the church’s ministry to all will be as natural as breathing -- or helping.


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