I was not unusual in this. Youth rebels, but rebels into other conformities. Moves from Christianity to Communism. From Brooks Brothers suits to T shirts and jeans. From meat and potatoes to macrobiotic diets. From crew cuts to long hair. But no one is going it alone. No one is facing just who he is.
We all know this to a degree. We refuse to accept the true self so painfully evident to the young, a self so tragically concealed from the old. "There is only one complete, unblushing male in America," wrote the sociologist Erving Goffman in Stigma, "a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a decent record in sports."
Anyone who fails to qualify in any one of these ways, says Goffman, is going to view himself from time to time as unworthy, incomplete and inferior.
I spent my first four decades with these feelings, combating my own nature and trying to become someone I was not. I concealed the real me under layer after layer of coping and adjusting and compensating, all the while refusing to believe that the person I had initially rejected was the real me.
Then I discovered running and began the long road back. Running made me free. It rid me of concern for the opinions of others and liberated me from rules and regulations imposed from outside. Running let me start from scratch.
It stripped off those layers of programmed activity and thinking, set new priorities about eating and sleeping and what to do with leisure time. Running changed my attitude about work and play, about whom I really liked and who really liked me. Running let me see my life-style from a different point of view, from the inside instead of out.
Running was discovery, a return to the past, a proof that life can come full cycle and that the child was father to the man. The person I found was the person I was in my youth, the person who was hypersensitive to pain, both physical and psychic, a nominal coward, the person who did not wish his neighbor ill, but did not wish him well either. That person was me and always had been.
I am a lonely figure when I run the roads. People wonder how far I have come, how far I have to go. They see me alone and friendless on a journey that has no visible beginning or end. I appear isolated and vulnerable, a homeless creature. It is all they can do to keep from stopping the car and asking if they can take me wherever I'm going.
I know this because I feel it myself. When I am driving and I see a runner, I have much the same thoughts. No matter how often I run the roads myself, I am struck by how solitary my fellow runner appears. The sight of a runner at dusk or in inclement weather makes me glad to be safe and warm in my car and headed for home. And at those times, I wonder how I can go out there myself, how I can leave comfort and warmth to do this thing.
But when I am finally there, I realize it is not comfort and warmth I am leaving, not intimacy and belonging I am giving up, but the loneliness that pursues me this day and every day. I know that the real loneliness begins long before I put on my running shoes. It begins with my failures as son, husband, father, physician, lover, friend. It begins when those other gods have failed, the loved ones, the career, the triumphs, the victories, the good life.