Running From Despair

In the opening of his seminal poem The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry writes:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great

heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

Berry’s timeless elegy to wilderness is one of serenity and hope. For him, a lifelong farmer and husband of the land, the wilderness provides a place where he can seek solace in the midst of the despair of the world and, in the end, ultimately be made free.

I returned to Berry’s comforting words earlier this week as I struggled with the despair in my own heart. As a person who endeavors to see the world through positive and optimistic eyes, I was struck that my typically glass-half-full world view had been brought down by the events of the past few weeks. Turning back to Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things, I knew where I had to go.

I had to go running.

After a particularly restless night’s sleep filled with disjointed dreams and fitful tossings, I crawled out of bed at4:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning and stumbled through my house. Over my morning coffee, I eschewed my usual perusal of the previous day’s news and instead turned to poetry, ultimately arriving at Berry’s classic. After several readings, I drained my coffee, laced up my shoes, and headed out into the early morning darkness.

As I settled into my run, the streets of my sleepy Southern town were silent, amplifying every footfall as I made my way over to our local park. A few lights were on in some of the small cozy houses that line the park as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters were stirring about, starting their days. A pair of runners came toward me in the opposite direction and we exchanged barely intelligible good mornings and moved on. I briefly wondered if they, too, were facing their own despairs on the run, given world events of late.

On the first big hill of my route, I put my head down and instinctively punched it hard, for no particular conscious reason. I just felt the urge to run hard, to feel a little grinding in my legs and burning in my lungs, perhaps as penance for having such a good life or possibly just a primal urge to feel a little bit of my own pain knowing that so many others in this moment were experiencing theirs. I caught my breath on the subsequent descent and then pushed again on the next uphill, and the next, and the next. It felt surprisingly good to deeply breathe in the cold early morning air and taste a bit of blood in the back of my throat. It felt strangely comforting to feel my leg muscles tensing with the ache of a harder-than-normal effort. And it felt positively liberating to let my mind focus clearly and exclusively on the task at hand, forgetting, for a few brief moments, everything else.

The despair I harbor with the current state of affairs will, of course, not go away during the course of one simpleWednesday-morning run. But what that simple run can do is bring balance and perspective as well as a place where I can be at rest, even if it is a paradoxically restless state of rest. Running doesn’t necessarily provide any answers to some of our deepest problems, but it does indiscriminately provide a special opening for questions. This pastWednesday, the questions emerged out of a spontaneous desire to push hard, experience pain, and drive through. Next week, the circumstances may be different but the opportunity will be the same. If running has taught me one thing over these last 27 years, it is that each time I lace up my shoes and head out for a run, I am renewed, and in that renewal I can find peace, if even for a few fleeting, hopeful moments.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Wendell Berry’s home state of Kentucky. Country Boy Brewing in Lexington makes a classic, throwback-style American Brown Ale called Shotgun Wedding. Weighing in at a mellow 5.3% ABV, Shotgun Wedding is aged on vanilla beans with just a hint of sweetness and soft earthiness. A great beer for tailgates or fall camping trips.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you used your daily run to help cope with the tragedies and violence which have occurred around the world in the last few weeks?
  • If so, what was the coping-while-running process like for you? What did you think about? How did you feel? Can you translate the experience to words that we can all share?