This morning’s run was conducted in deep fog. The sub-zero siege that had hold of the American Midwest has let up long enough to allow a surge of warmer air to flow over Illinois. The snow on the ground and the warming air produced morning fog thick enough to bring a mysterious feel to the most mundane scenes.
Somehow I preferred to go on a quiet run in these circumstances rather deal with the four-mile loop I’d planned to run toward the shopping centers and car dealers down Orchard Road. Instead I turned north to run up Hickory Lane, the unincorporated stretch of road that bears little traffic at 5:30 in the morning.
Once I got under the big trees along Hickory Lane, their shapes were outlined in black, profound and simple. As I stared at them, the structure of each tree made sense in a new way. So many times I’ve drawn or painted trees and gotten them all wrong. Either the branches look clumped and out of order or else the trunk is too thick or thin in relation to the branches.
But this morning all that fell away because I saw the reason why trees and branches grow as they do.
That sounds so simple, yet the profundity of “why” branches grow as they do is both pragmatic and evolutionary. Each branch has a role to play in the life of a tree. Yet that specific role is in many respects defined by external forces. The direction and position of each branch on every tree on earth is determined by the ongoing interaction of available light and the ‘competitive collaboration’ in relation to other branches on the same tree and other trees as well. It is, in many respects, a long and difficult dance for existence.
Looking at trees this way makes sense of the “why” , in which a given tree exhibits a certain shape. It’s a dance of sorts between the limbs of the tree and any other source of change that comes along. When trees grow together in a forest, they both exploit and respond to this constantly shifting feedback of light and shade, moisture and wind. And that’s only what we see above ground. But when people speak of being “grounded,” they refer to this idea that for all the things going on around us, we still know how to find our place.
As athletes, we are just as moldable as trees. Each of us is “shaped” by external forces and the internal responses they engender. Our training takes us out into all kinds of conditions. We breathe air moist and dry and clamber through temperatures cold to hot. We swim in water than can be bone-chilling or warm and overwhelming.
All these influences force us into the “why” mode of our bodies and how we are able to respond. Thus we learn how to dress for any occasion. We also learn how to keep our digits warm and our private parts too. In turn our bodies are shaped and shorn by all this training.
Trees on the move
Ultimately, we look in the mirror and can see evidence of the “why” resulting from our training and racing experiences. Like ambulatory trees, we start to carry ourselves a bit differently when we’re fit and strong. Each of our limbs has more purpose and finds its way to its respective mission.
And when I was done standing there looking up at the tree silhouetted against the pale morning sky, I started running again and felt composure in the moment. Grounded, as it were, in a sense of wonder. That only comes about in having stopped to think about the “why” of some place or thing in this world. Then I realized I’d had three miles of asking myself “why” this morning and was grateful for that curiosity about the world. It can disappear you know. People can stop caring about the “why” and barely only focus on the “what.” They grow numb.
Which is why thinking about the why is much more important than stopping at the what.
If you get the difference, you are truly on the journey to a more enlightened life. Asking “why” is the path to both a spiritual and a practical awakening.
“Why” is the question so many two-year-olds ask about everything they want to know in this world. It can be annoying. But those who continue to ask why are the people revealing the most mysteries about the world.
The photo that appears above shows the main building at Fermi Lab, the research center that for the last 50 years has conducted experiments on matter to determine not just the “what” but the “why” of how the world works. It is both scientific and spiritual work, if you think about it. Those scientists want to know the “why” of the universe, and are now shooting neutrinos through the earth from Batavia, Illinois to a lab in South Dakota to find out why our universe works like it does.
And that’s beautiful thing.