How do you know when someone’s run a marathon? They tell you. Well at least, they used to. Now they just plaster it all over the back of their cars—42.2, 21.1, 61, 100, 144 (all in kilometres), the numbers run the gamut. Even non-runners paste their protest post—0.0. Those in Israel who wish to show off that they’ve run those 42.2k on American soil stick on a 26.2 sticker, and if they’re humorous, 27.4 (I got lost). I used to pass by a car with a 42.2 sticker and assume that I knew the person. Now if I glance over, I only risk running into the car ahead of me. And I admit, my car has two stickers—the impressive 226 (the k’s in an Ironman triathlon, now who’s showing off) and the more pedestrian 42.2.
So why so many stickers on cars? Why does everyone need to tell the rest of the world how far they ran? No one puts other numbers on cars—how much money they earn, how much their house is worth, how many children they have, the record number of times they had sex in a day/week (might be interesting) or whatever. Or for that matter, why just running? Footballers do not put the number of goals they had last season, nor do basketball players put stickers with their points or rebounds. What’s wrong with runners!?
The answer probably has to do with the sense that every runner has at some point—I’m running a lot, but I never get anywhere. A person runs 20, 30, 40 k a week, and some run a lot more. But rare is the occasion when anyone runs to get somewhere. We usually end up exactly where we started—back at home, or back at the car, sweaty, tired, pumped with endorphins, dehydrated, happy, sore, or all of the above. But we’re usually right back where we started. And so to signify that we have done something, that we have achieved, we need a number, and we need to let everyone know that number. Stickers are a manifestation of the urge to turn an essentially non-achievement oriented activity into an activity whose success can be numerically measured. I may not have gotten anywhere, but I “finished”—you fill in the distance.
But this misses the essential point of running and many of the other most important parts of life. Running is about being. It is about being out on a trail, out on a road (I do not run on treadmills). I have run many races, too many too count. I will not bother you with how many kilometers I have run over the last ten years (if we’re friends on FB I bother you with this triviality once a year). But I do not run week after week all year long in order to put that sticker on my car, or in order to run that race. I run because being out on a run (or on my bike) is where I want to be. It is not the achievement that I desire, it is my search for a state of being.
There are no “prayer stickers.” I have never seen a car with a “3” on the back—as in I pray 3 times a day (or a “5” for Muslims). Prayer is essentially about a state of being, and not about achieving an ulterior desire. While we may ask for something in prayer (health, wisdom, cold hard cash), I think that it is rare for a modern person to directly correlate her fortune in life with prayer. Prayer, like running, is not about “getting somewhere” or “getting something.” It is about “being somewhere,” or “being someone,” in communication with ourselves, with the guiding force of the world (God), with history and with community. When I finish a run right back where I started the question is not “where did my run take me;” it is “how did my run feel?” “What did I experience?” The same is true for prayer.
This is one of the reasons that prayer is so difficult for modern people. We live in a world where we are constantly transforming acts of “being” and into acts of “achieving.” Even friendship, which is certainly about “being” and not “achieving” is quantified by likes, shares and retweets. In such a world, prayer, the Jewish form especially, might seem aimless and useless. We ask—what does prayer do for us? What does it help us achieve? And we struggle to find coherent answers. To restore the meaningfulness of prayer we need to treat prayer moments as a retreat from the world of achievements. Prayer must not be “what we accomplish,” but part of “who we are,” both as Jews and as human beings in communion with ourselves and the world.
I recently took a bunch of stickers off my car, and some of my close running friends have done the same. Running began as essentially an act of being, it moved for a time to being an act of achieving, but as I grow older, it has moved back to the realm of being. I run because being running, sometimes with friends, sometime alone, is where I want to be Running, like prayer, is not something I do, it is something I am. As I run the streets of Jerusalem next week, I will bask in the glory and holiness of this beautiful city, I will chat with friends I have not seen in a while, I will feel my legs warm-up (Rehavia), feel great (going up to Hebrew U.), start to ache (Tayelet) and then scream in agony (Katamon). I will feel the inevitable surge of energy coming into and crossing the finish line, not as an achiever, but as one who simply is.