Back when I competed for every inch of advantage in the world of running, I was a bit merciless in my regard for other competitors. In the first mile of a five-mile race I would ultimately win while setting a personal record of 24:49 for the distance, a runner next to me inquired, “What pace are you running today?”
I answered, “Faster than you.” And I took off for the victory.
That was an asshole move, I’ll admit. Lots of us competitive runners were assholes in the heat of competition and beyond. The well-regarded Bill Rodgers once characterized most of what he saw on the marathon course as “graceless striving.” He later apologized for the remark, but it was indicative of his attitude toward the quality of effort he sought to bring to running. He once remarked that while winning the New York Marathon, his instincts told him to do everything right, even down to the position in which he carried his hands.
That’s not being an asshole. That’s honoring the sport. And when I got to serve as a race escort for Bill Rodgers at a local 25K years ago, I was amused when a plodder of some sort stuck his head in the window to ask Bill, “What advice do you have for a four-hour marathoner?”
Rodgers graciously smiled and said, somewhat incredulously, “You can run for four hours?”
I’d say he came a long way from his original statement about graceless striving to the point where he was able to entertain the earnest inquiries of the masses with a response like that. At one point, people could probably categorize him as an elitist, someone that has the attitude their insights are superior to others. The fact of the matter is that Bill Rodgers was an elite runner at the time. He should have high standards and expectations when it comes to the honesty of a performance.
Are you not entertained?
I think that’s a good way to look at life. All of us are called to compete in life in one form or another. It might be at work. Or it might be focused more in our avocations including triathlon or any of the sports we selectively choose from running to riding to swimming. We compete because we love the challenges it provides. And are you not entertained by it all?
Largely, we’re nice about it. And largely, we all choose to play fair. But sometimes we see people that don’t abide by those principles. In those moments, we can be real assholes about it. Elitist even. People who take cut the course or do performance-enhancing drugs to win or improve their performance illegally are rightly frowned upon. People who use cloying political skill to earn positions they don’t deserve. Emperors who slaughter their father and demand fealty or you and your family face death.
Assholes by demand
But then there are people who don’t cheat but are still relative assholes. I think of Steve Jobs, the late Apple corporation genius that transformed the digital world and everything about our lives. He was known to be a bit of an elitist asshole. But his profession and industry demanded that sort of drive to draw innovation out of his proteges. Or so the story goes.
On one hand I relate to that brand of creative urgency and on the other hand, I’ve suffered in having tried it in life. As a young man I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It presented the notion that pure talent should not be diminished or compromised in any fashion. The architect at the center of the story would rather go off and pound rocks than have to suffer dilution of his creative powers or ideas. Perhaps that character was based on the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, another notable asshole if there ever was one. When called about leaks in the ceiling of a house he designed for SC Johnson, Wright reportedly replied, “Don’t you own a bucket?”
I read about people like that because I’m fascinated by how people choose to live their lives. Much success in this world is created to what human resource experts love to call “emotional intelligence.” That means choosing how and when to engage with people, and in the right way. Some of us have it, while others struggle knowing how to navigate company politics or even who gets to sit where in the cafeteria. It can all seem like a vast mystery at times, as if you’re locked in a Matrix and don’t know whether you should get in or get out.
That’s part of the reason, I suppose, why I both loved and abhorred running as a sport. It is so absolute. You either run faster than someone else, or you don’t. Yet during my peak years I was so hard on myself about winning races there were times that I’d still be dissatisfied after having beaten three thousand people to the finish line. In some ways, I was being an asshole to myself. Years later, during a period when my late wife was going through cancer, I sought counseling to handle the stress of multiple caregiving responsibilities for her and my late father, a stroke victim. The counselor listened carefully through a couple of sessions and realized I was beating myself up for things that had even happened long ago.
“You seem to be good at forgiving others,” she quietly observed. “But how are you at forgiving yourself?”
That question both struck me down and raised me up. After that I took a hard look at my internal dialogue. I stopped writing every negative thought I had down in journals. While it wasn’t the same as always looking at the bright side, I found ways to be less ruminative about my troubles. Even in my relationships with friends and family, I sought authenticity somehow. One of the things that drove me crazy was people complaining in real time, all the time. So I shared a perspective with my wife that offered a hierarchy I’d identifed. “Complaint is a lack of respect. A lack of respect is a lack of trust. And a lack of trust is a lack of love. So let’s be more loving toward each other. If you have complaints or worries, let’s write them down so we can look at them together and talk about them. Otherwise we’re always stressing out over things that don’t get solved.”
That might have been an asshole’s way of approaching the problem. I don’t know. But it worked. We figured out ways to discuss money and other sensitive topics. Then one night during a period when I was out of work and taking care of her full-time, we ran low on money. “We need $3500,” she told me.
We sat together and prayed at the dinner table that night and the next morning, an envelope was dropped through our front door that contained $3700 in cash. We never knew where it came from. That approach is a different form of emotional intelligence. It’s called letting go of what you can’t always control. Be humble. Let that be the right kind of pride in what you do. I wrote a whole book about that subject.
This past week I was visiting the Facebook group from a city where I once lived. I posted an old baseball team photo and it generated a load of memories from other people that had played in that league or for that team. Then a classmate from the school I’d attended back east said “Hi Chris” in the comments. I reached out and asked if he kept in touch with other classmates. “Not too much,” he replied.
Two days later he posted a comment on an article I’d written about the fact that Rush Limbaugh has lung cancer, yet the controversial conservative once bragged that America should be thankful for people that smoke because the taxes they pay contribute to social causes. I pointed out in the article I wrote that 10% of all medical and healthcare costs in America are the product of people smoking, an amount that adds up to hundreds of billions of dollars. (Source: Reuters) My old friend did not like what I’d written. “Now I know you’re an elitist asshole,” he posted on the article comments.
The cancer of Rush Limbaugh
How interesting, I thought. Pointing out the hypocrisy of a smoker dying of cancer after having bragged about it, or using his own words to chronicle his bigotry and hate, or mocking women as “feminazis” and calling Barack Obama a “magic negro” makes me the elitist asshole in that equation? And challenging the perspective of a jerk who denies climate change just because it might cause lazy people to change one iota of his behavior? I’m the elitist for that?
I resisted the temptation to write back with a simple insult, but sent him a private message congratulating him on having a son who is a great runner, since I’d visited his page and learned that his kid had just run a personal mile best of 4:02. Then I closed my comment by saying, “If you like Rush Limbaugh, you probably ought to Unfriend me.” That was the emotionally intelligent thing for me to do. Because I wouldn’t want to give him any more reason to call me an elitist asshole, other than the fact that speaking the truth these days tends to draw that kind of criticism from all the wrong quarters.