A glimpse of the infinite from Tennessee

The past two weeks have been peppered with sadness. It seems like each day I see another friend struggling with loss – of a parent, or a friend, or a mentor. I have even felt a sadness of my own.  Last week the academic world lost a phenomenal mind, and I lost my dissertation chair and academic advisor. This blog isn’t so much a tribute to him, his work and far-reaching influence do a much better job of honoring his life and work than anything I could write.  But his death did make me think about sadness, how it makes me feel, what I can do to respect it while not letting it take over, and of course its relationship to running.

Sadness is considered a “non-arousal” emotion. Sadness doesn’t prompt the human brain to action. On the contrary it prompts us to inaction. I get that. I went home the day I found about Dr. Yetiv and sat on the couch with take-out pizza and ice cream – the standard sadness diet. I, like so many, didn’t want to do anything in my sadness.

Except run. For me, the instinct to run after news of a tragedy is fierce and instant. At first, I’m sure it is my brain’s desire to run away from whatever email, text, or phone call that delivered the bad news – as if physical distance can make the source of the pain obsolete. Like a hot stove, the further I can get away, the less it will hurt.

But there’s something more there. After the initial wave of restlessness passes, I still want to run (and not just because of the pizza and ice cream). Running gives me time and space to feel and process. It gives me the isolation I need to start working through the sadness, the loss, the grief. It also strips away all the walls I put up to protect myself from sadness. It MAKES me process, makes me feel the things that are uncomfortable and undesirable, those things that demand to be felt, if not now then soon. If not soon than down the proverbial road. Running gives me just the right balance of mindless wandering and mindful pondering. It is not so complicated as to keep the brain actively engaged – running has never worked as a distraction. In fact, the further and faster I’ve tried to run away from something, the faster and harder it hits me.

But running requires just enough. Seemingly it requires the exact energy I’d normally use telling myself I’m fine. I can’t run and run away. It is too hard to ignore my heart during a run, too hard to keep pretenses and pace.

Running allows me to be overcome by the grief, it lets it swell up in my chest and head, lets it pulse through my legs and my lungs. It makes me run faster, trying to leave it behind but never succeeding. My legs can pump the rhythm of sobs, substituting strides for tears, but I can never outrun my sadness. Eventually I can let it consume me, in my safety of isolation. I can feel the weight and helplessness of sadness. Then I look up, wherever I am, and acknowledge the never-ending road ahead of me. I see the spider web of side trails and passes sprawling from my route. Depending on the time of day I can see blue skies forever or my persistent partner the moon. I can glimpse just one angle of an infinite and beautiful universe and my sadness is put in proper perspective.

And in a beautiful melody, the symbiosis of mind, body, and spirit, running gives me a shot of happiness. As my mind braves into the sadness – often not knowing its depth or breadth – my brain sends endorphins and dopamine to help ease the pain. It rewards me for the courage of vulnerability.

And as I’ve said before, it may take miles upon miles, the sadness may never completely recede, but at the end of each run comes just a little bit more peace.