Trail running has many benefits.
It strengthens your ankle and foot ligaments; makes you look rugged when, on the way home from a run, you go into the Spar with mud on your calves to buy a chocolate milk. It deepens your knowledge of out of the way places which other people just drive past. It allows you to buy a fancy backpack which has little pockets in which you can keep sweets. It lets you get lost often, without having to panic, like when you were four and got separated from your Mom in the Spar, and you didn’t feel rugged and didn’t have sweets in your pockets or chocolate milk to comfort you.
And last, it connects you with your own ability to choose.
Of these, and many others that come to mind, the greatest benefit, by far, is that running trails connects you with your ability to choose.
You see, in this world of ours there is a tool called Obligation. Actually it’s a box of tools. Some are big and hard. They pummel your own preferences into the floor. Others are soft and spongy. They suck your life from you by making you feel bad.
Bureaucracy, bosses, churches, children, friends, family, pets, parents, strangers, standers at traffic lights, taxes, targets and all the stuff you’ve bought, but not used enough, all demand that you pay what’s owed. At least, what they think you owe. They all want something from you.
Yes, all sorts of things, and people, use the various tools of Obligation to separate you from your ability to choose what you do with this one life. Sometimes they take turns to make you do things you don’t want to. Sometimes two or three work in parallel. Occasionally it’s a gang attack. And they never get enough. More. They want more.
As they impose their insatiable demands for how you ought to think, what you ought to want and when you ought to do it, you get more sluggish and slavish until you start to slobber from the maw of your numb head. At that point you’re about to die from a hardening of the oughteries. But there is hope at hand.
There are places you can go where Obligation doesn’t belong. They are wild, open places where you can listen to your own inner voices. You can leave the determined demands and endless expectations of the obligations of others where they belong – with those others – and you can run. You can run fast on the flat, steady on the ups and skip on the downs.
There you can reconnect with your Choice.
Do you know what you want? You can work it out there as you choose whether to go under, or over, or around that fallen tree. You can rediscover your ability to decide for yourself as you pick right or left at the fork, up or down the hill, through or over the stream. You can follow your own senses without feeling guilty, or having to explain or defend.
It’s a wonderful, scary adventure.
Last week I was meeting with a large, effective, clever manager of an engineering team. He’s very strong in many ways. He was eating his lunch. It was a chicken. A whole roast chicken. Not a root, fruit or leaf was in sight. He was eating it with a fork. Let’s call him Joe (because that’s his name and I tell this story with his permission).
Joe was telling me how one of his “mates” demanded an answer as to why Joe declined an invitation (read instruction:) to go on a boy’s night out. He didn’t want to give an explanation for his personal preferences but he did anyway - because his “friend” wanted one.
Joe explained that he doesn’t really like boys’ nights out in the pub. He doesn’t mind if those who do like them go along, but he doesn’t like them. He likes to be home drinking Rooibos by the fire while chatting to his wife. He likes socialising in gender and partner- inclusive groups where the themes of life are openly discussed in normal language.
But this explanation wasn’t good enough. Joe’s “buddy” is a master craftsman of Obligation. The interaction ended with Joe’s commitment to the friendship being questioned. Joe came away feeling guilty about not liking boy’s nights and angry about being bullied.
Now, it’s become complicated for Joe to be Joe. The various tools from the toolbox of Obligation have been used on him for so long that he doesn’t feel allowed to do what he prefers.
As a result, sometimes he doesn’t even know what he prefers. He’s had the screws put on him by Obligation and it’s screwed him up.
Yip the large, strong engineer eating the whole roast chicken with a fork is dying of a clogging of the oughteries. No one is safe, I tell ya. Especially around Christmas, and comparative compulsory occasions, when Obligation opens its enormous orifice widest and sucks with its fiercest fervour.
Did I have any advice? Joe asked, stabbing the greasy silverware in my direction.
“I do,” I said, “Go run a trail. It will give you perspective and connect you with your own Choice.” (“And help reduce your cholesterol,” I wanted to add, but didn’t.)