This is not a particularly insightful observation, nor a recent one, but it was driven home to me this morning as I exercised a small part of my responsibilities at the MLK Memorial in asking several runners to "please walk through the Memorial."
I'll confess to having ignored this responsibility for months because I pretty much knew what was confirmed for me again today: runners are clueless.
Part of volunteering involves what I think of as "hall monitor" duty. I ask kids not to walk along the tops of the low walls surrounding the space. "Young man (or lady), please don't walk on the top of the wall: the granite is slippery and it's really hard. If your head hits it, there's going to be a lot of paperwork involved." That line almost always draws a smile and a "sorry" from either the kid or a nearby adult. Similarly, the "please walk your bike through the Memorial" gets a "I'm sorry" and a dismount -- even when the request is delivered in sign language to tourists who don't speak English. Even the unwelcome, "I'm sorry but you can't eat in the Memorial; there are benches along the Tidal Basin, please take the food there," almost always gets an apologetic compliant response.
But ask a runner to walk through the Memorial and you get a dirty look, an annoyed, "where does it end?" or a blank stare as the runner continues straight on. Knowing this to be true, mostly I just ignore runners because stopping them is not worth the effort.
So why did I ask today? Probably because it was particularly quiet for a while, and when there are only a few visitors the space seems to compel even more reverence than it typically does. At such moments, a passing runner seems as incongruous there as someone running laps around the chancel of the National Cathedral.
As a runner, I can understand cluelessness. All runners know the experience of getting lost in the moment, or, perhaps more accurately, getting lost to the moment. We get lost to the moment because the moment is hard. Running is work, and sometimes it hurts. Running comes with an amount of suffering that is as sure and certain as the multi-hued shoes we wear these days. Some of us plug in to music to get lost to the moment. Others work out problems as they run. Only a few of us actually think about the moment we are in as we run. Thus, most of us are utterly clueless to the rest of the world while we run through it.
That's not terribly surprising, nor is it unusual. While runners' cluelessness is its own particular form of cluelessness, runners are simply being human in finding ways to avoid thinking about suffering.
King, on the other hand, thought a great deal about human suffering. He wrote or spoke regularly about suffering. That none of those quotes made the wall at the Memorial should come as no great surprise. After all, we don't like suffering.
Nevertheless, King understood an inherent power in suffering. In a speech in 1961, he spelled out his understanding:
... both violence and nonviolence agree that suffering can be a very powerful social force. But there is this difference: violence says that suffering can be a powerful social force by inflicting the suffering on somebody else: so this is what we do in war, this is what we do in the whole violent thrust of the violent movement. It believes that you achieve some end by inflicting suffering on another. The nonviolent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, that that self-suffering stands at the center of the nonviolent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.Left unspoken, because there was no need to point it out: King's followers did not create the suffering they willingly endured. The social situation of Jim Crow segregation, economic inequality, and institutional violence created suffering.
Those working to challenge the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism were willing to stand in solidarity and compassion with those suffering the direct effects of institutional violence. They believed being present to pain and to suffering was transformational.
Being present is the essential piece.
You can run along the Tidal Basin all you like. It is beautiful, after all, and running is certainly healthy. But if you want to transform more than your own body, slow down and take note of all around us that stands in desperate need of a deeper transformation.