The Paralysis of Do-goodery

A week ago, I went for a run. It was the same four miles that I run a few times a week. I have been stuck on four miles since January 2020, when I set a goal to comfortably cruise through them at under a seven-minute pace on a regular basis by year’s end. Unfortunately, I have run four miles on over 60 occasions this year and only broken seven minutes twice, and by the skin of my teeth at 6:59 and 6:55. Not exactly the comfort I set my sights on back in January.

The run I went on a week ago was particularly frustrating. The air was much crisper and cooler than its seasonably muggy and humid self. My body felt unusually limber thanks to yoga the day before and it was one of those days where you feel like you’re effortlessly gliding everywhere you go. I had been stuck on just over a seven-minute pace for a few months. Today is the day I get out of my rut, I thought.

I put on my top running jams, you know, that playlist you watch over and protect like a secret weapon, bringing it out on the rare occasion that its preserved intensity (thanks to infrequent listens) will give you an extra boost. There was no excuse not to smash seven minutes today.

My runs are typically when I find myself doing a lot of inadvertent reflection. All kinds of fleeting thoughts about attaining happiness, professional self-fulfillment, and the state of our democracy, dart across my mind, barely introducing themselves before it’s time for the next mental cameo. If I don’t pay enough attention, I wind up heaving in a pool of my own sweat nearly 30 minutes later, exhausted and subtly-aware that the answers to life’s greatest questions have once-again slipped through my fingertips.

But last week’s journey was different. Less than 24 hours prior, my wife had sprinted out of our bedroom to show me footage of a massive explosion in her hometown of Beirut, Lebanon, the city where we enjoyed some of our best memories, where I asked her to marry me, and where we ultimately celebrated our wedding. It got me thinking about all the examples of the overt disregard for human life at the highest levels of governance and most exposed mediums of communication I had witnessed lately. I thought about the role the Lebanese government’s negligence and corruption played in creating circumstances ripe for the blast. Even more horrifying was their indifference to the awareness that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had been sitting idly in the city’s main port for several years, prime for detonation at any minute. This ushered in the next act, the US response to the coronavirus pandemic and both the cool ambivalence and overt denial that led to a spike from 100,000 deaths to 150,000 in just two months. The President, much like the Lebanese government, was unmoved when reviewing the statistics, declaring that “it is what it is.” And so came the next act, the plight of 11 million Uighurs in China, thrown into “reeducation camps” rife with torture and abuse, with some escaping to Muslim countries for safety only to be sent back for more of the same.

And it played like that for a mile or so. The Rohingya. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. The Stoneman Douglas shooting. Eric Garner. Countless instances of blatant disregard for human life. Fellow human beings dying, right out in the open, as a result of systemic inequalities, aversion to objective information, and racism, among other social and political ails. These were all issues I had no control over, and spending all my time thinking about them was paralyzing. If my world was smaller, I thought, I would spend less time being disappointed. I kept running. What if just for today, my world was as small as this run, right now? I can control how fast I’m going, I can finish four miles faster than I ever have before. I can break seven minutes.

So I ran faster. I refused to let my thoughts rush across the stage, hanging on to each one, channeling my paralysis with the outside world to motivate my control for what was happening within.

A few minutes later, I huffed my way to my building’s front door. I checked my watch — seven minutes and two seconds. I had run as fast as humanly possible and I had failed.

So many of us dedicate the entirety of our lives to fighting for a higher regard for human life within the concepts, countries, communities, and civilizations we are a part of, with many dying in vain. Sometimes it feels all too easy to look at a place like China, where students were steamrolled by tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 while fighting for the same ideals that the Chinese government is violating today in its treatment of Uighurs or the passage of the new Hong Kong security law, and wonder, why do they still care?

Why are there still protesters in Hong Kong? Why are Lebanese citizens, with houses reduced to rubble, savings accounts hovering above zero, and half-demolished hospitals overflowing with both explosion and coronavirus victims still protesting the same government whose same negligence and corruption has disregarded the same human lives for decades? Why do Black Americans, who have been asking for the same humanity from our government, and its system engineered to secure their destitution, still hit the streets and the polls with the same demands? If the struggle hasn't changed, why continue to sacrifice your time, energy, and happiness?

Some would answer with “hope” and “a deep sense of identity.” You simply are Black, or Lebanese, or American, thus making you obligated to fight the ever-present plights of your people, no matter how Sisyphean, no matter how fluid identity is, or the facts that may cast doubt on the authenticity of its construction. But before hope and a deep sense of identity, is a decision to believe. We choose to believe that we are party to concepts, societies, and civilizations that will outlive us, even if they are often constructs that are far-off unrealistic goals, plainly artificial, or the product of nefarious or contradictory circumstances. In the United States, we believe in a set of democratic ideals put to paper by a cast of White landowners who were mostly walking contradictions to them in their daily lives. Lebanon is a nation-state created by the French around the area of Mount Lebanon. But its people have made the choice to believe in its authentic existence the same way we have ours in the United States, a country founded in the near-eradication of indigenous people that were already living here.

But ultimately, even if our efforts are in vain, even if our best-laid plans to live up to an imaginary paragon of American democracy conflict with reality, even if protesters in Hong Kong are part of the same struggle that has claimed the livelihoods of thousands before them, why wouldn’t we fight for those beliefs? What is life without something to believe in, however artificial or hopeless it may be? The concepts, societies, and civilizations that we fight for may not be authentic and the journey for their attainment may be utterly fruitless, but they embody ideals that make us better people. We choose to believe in them, because our efforts still take us in the direction of progress, and stave off the alternative that much longer.

So maybe I’ll break seven minutes next time, or maybe I never will again. But believing in my goal to break it on a regular basis is what keeps me running, and I never want to stop running.

Reflections on government, culture, politics, and society.