20 November 2010

Racing Towards What End?

When I focus on the arena of contemporary public discourse and what it says about our society’s apparent trajectory, I am reminded of the endurance races I have participated in. These are longer, 6-48 hour multisport races. The endurance community is relatively small, however these microcosms serve as an allegory for our society and quite frankly, it is not that good.

Longer races follow a pattern that goes something like this. At the start and early in the race, racers help one another out, display courtesy, and are generally a good natured bunch. Any unfriendly, anti-social types are noticeable and isolated. As time and fatigue accrue, the communal displays begin to disappear. Most of the “ugly” incidents that occur between racers happen in between the half way point and the last two hundred yards of the race. This is where the body resorts to survival mode and the mind chooses not to waste any energy on filtering emotions. It is also the place where the competitive gene often kicks in and “crushing all visible opponents” momentarily overrides common sense. Also, physical pain and suffering reach their zenith during this phase of the race. Ms. Manner’s helpful suggestions are drowned out by something much more primordial in nature. With about two hundred yards to go, surviving racers enter the final sprint. The pay-off arrives when massive amounts of endorphins begin to dump into our neural networks and good natured camaraderie is restored at the finish line celebration.

I am left to wonder if our society has entered the latter arc of our race. The troubling part of this analogy suggests that if the race trajectory mimics our larger society, we will not experience any revival in widespread civility until society's end looms like that of a race’s finish. At that point, we will probably adopt the gallows humor of condemned souls, renounce petty differences for what they are, and await the unknown together. Rest assured that this finish line will not involve endorphin dumps, congratulations, happy photographs, and great food. I wonder if we cannot make the shift back towards a civilized and positively engaged society before oblivion becomes the definite outcome. Like a race, it will take a lot of individual effort. But considering the alternative, we should all be motivated to go the distance.

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